Trying To Break The Syria-Iran Link


The summit in Annapolis is being seen by some observers as a success — not just because it set the stage for a promised 13 months of serious Israeli-Palestinian peace talks but because of what some believe is a new Middle East dynamic on the horizon. Others, though, insist this is nothing more than a mirage.

“It’s not every day you see an Israeli prime minister speak and the Saudi foreign minister applaud,” said Asaf Shariv, Israel’s consul general in New York.

The presence of Saudi Arabia, Syria and 14 other Arab nations around a peace table with Israel signals that the “Arabs have reversed Khartoum,” said Steven Spiegel, a political science professor at UCLA.

He was referring to a resolution adopted Sept. 1, 1967, at a summit meeting with the heads of eight Arab countries in Khartoum, Sudan, that called for a continued struggle against Israel. It is best remembered for the adoption of the dictum of the “three nos” — no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.

“Now we have a new ballgame partly because of the Saudi peace proposal [that calls for a normalization of Arab relations with Israel if, among other things, it returns to its pre-1967 borders] and the Iranian threat,” Spiegel said.

He noted that Arab states “are just as worried as Israel is about Iranian nuclear weapons,” adding that the Annapolis meeting marked “a defeat for Iran. It’s potentially a new dynamic, but not a new coalition.”

But Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state on Arab-Israel negotiations, said he saw no evidence at Annapolis of changes afoot in the Middle East.

“Before we go overboard and speak of a new Middle East and a new dynamic, look at the reality now,” he said. “The balance of power lies not with the peacemakers but with the troublemakers. I don’t see the Arabs — and certainly not the Saudis — having an interest without America playing a more substantive role. The Saudis are making post-Bush calculations. … They are not going to confront Iran if the next [American] administration is going to have a more accommodating approach.”

Miller insisted that talk of a “new Middle East is one filled with illusions. There was nothing in the meetings to signify that the Arabs have fundamentally changed their view on the Israelis or that they will become seriously involved in this [peace process].”

Asked about possible Israeli-Syrian negotiations as the Saudis called for at Annapolis, Miller said they are possible but that the Bush administration’s focus is “not on Syria but on the Palestinians and Israelis.”

Time will tell whether a new coalition against Iran does emerge, according to David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

In a phone interview from Amman, Jordan, Makovsky said he could “attest that [Jordan] King Abdullah’s [recent] trip to Damascus was part of a broader effort — with support from Saudi Arabia and the United States — to coax Syria out of the Iranian orbit and return it to the Arab fold.”

“There is a big debate raging in all sorts of capitals in the world whether it is possible to peel Syria away — to extricate it — from the Iranians,” he continued. “This debate centers around whether the Iranian-Syrian relationship is a marriage of convenience — and therefore Syria would be open to returning to the Arab fold — or if it is something more deep seated.”

Makovsky said many of the participants at Annapolis “hope that a byproduct of bringing Israelis and Palestinians together is that it will isolate both Iran and Hamas and suggest a new constellation of forces in the Middle East that can be galvanized towards this end. It should be very clear that it would be premature to say the Syrians have left the Iranian orbit. The question is whether Damascus is signaling that it is open to the highest bidder.”

Michael Widlanski, an expert in Arab politics who teaches comparative politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said breaking Syria out of Iran’s orbit “would be an important development because the Syrian route is the way Iran gets weapons out. But Syria, Egypt and the Saudis have never done anything serious to try to stop Iran, and Syria has been the number one ally of Iran for 20 years.”

It is clear, Widlanski said, that Syrian President Bashar Assad “is trying to make a deal to get the Golan Heights and a lot of American aid and tickets to Europe. The Syrian economy is a disaster and he has reason to make a deal. But his main supply of oil and his strategic backing is from Iran.”

Although there were reports of back room discussions among the Syrians and Israelis and Saudis at Annapolis, Widlanski expressed doubt that Assad would leave it to a “low level functionary” to conduct such sensitive talks.

Even if Syria signaled it was serious about talks with Israel now, Speigel, the UCLA professor, said it “defies logic” that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would conduct peace talks with Syria while the talks with the Palestinians are underway. On the other hand, he said, “once you involve all the Arab states in a regional context, it may be the only way to make this new process work — to have both talks simultaneously.”

But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said it is “hard enough to do one-track” negotiations, let alone two. He noted that other Israeli prime ministers who were stronger politically than Olmert had ruled out two-track negotiations and he said the Bush administration “is too weak to provide the extra support that would be needed” to make them a success.

“In many ways,” Steinberg noted, the future of the Golan Heights “is much more difficult” than the Palestinian-Israeli divide.

“It is not a religious or an ideological issue,” he said. “What do the Syrians need it for? If they have it, will they begin bombarding us again [with rockets]? It’s a much more contentious issue.”

Steinberg disagreed that Annapolis created a momentum for Syrian-Israeli talks.“The Syrians got no air time at Annapolis,” he insisted. “The whole purpose of having them there was to pull them away from Iran. If that happened, then it is possible negotiations would start, but we are far away from that. … The Saudis were not happy to be there but they knew their own survival depends on an alliance against Iran and therefore they had to be at Annapolis. If you are serious about stopping Iran, you had to show it by being at Annapolis.”

Steinberg said Syria is “up to its ears with the Lebanon crisis,” adding: “They have sent their senior people to Teheran and are now dancing at both weddings.”