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Middle East

Nina Donaghy

Mid East

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Peace talks – Syria’s Strategic Choice

September 29, 2010 - 8:27 AM | by: Nina Donaghy

US – Mid East diplomacy is being fast tracked – momentum is crucial – and Syria is now the focus.

The US is pressing Syria to rejoin stalled indirect talks with Israel – contingent on its reigning in the spoiler activities of its allies Hamas and Hezbollah.

This presents Damascus with a highly complex strategic choice: to come even further in from the cold or to further complicate its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The US priority is to keep the talks moving – and Syria is the only regional power with enough influence over those most likely to derail the crucial early stages of the Israeli – Palestinian track.

This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a rare meeting with her Syrian counterpart Walid Mouallem on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley’s read out of the meeting described how the foreign minister had expressed an interest in “exploring” the US push for a comprehensive Mid East strategy that would include peace agreements between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon.

 Special envoy George Mitchell’s met with Syrian President Bashar al Assad two weeks ago in Damascus and, in a clear sign that a dialogue is underway, Clinton’s deputy, Jim Steinberg receives Syria’s vice foreign minister Miqdad at the State Department Thursday morning.

However, Mouallem struck a different tone in an interview with the Wall Street Journal the day after the Clinton meeting – casting doubt on any immediate renewal of the Syria – Israel talks, a track last brokered by Turkey between 2007 – 8. At that time, Israel sought reassurances on Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah, and Syria sought clarification on the ‘67 borders. The talks collapsed following Israel’s military operation in the Gaza strip in 2008.

Does Damascus have any sincere interest in re entering indirect talks and will Israel calculate that opening a second track will be beneficial?

Syria faces a looming IAEA investigation into its alleged covert nuclear activites and is bracing for official indictments on the Hariri assassination in Lebanon.

Damascus’s intentions are typically hard to read, but publicly cooperating with a US – led peace process may be the more pragmatic path.

Who will step into the mediator vaccum? Israel is unlikely to entrust Turkey with the role at this time – following a deterioration in relations over the past two years, stemming from the Gaza incursion, to the more recent flotilla controversy.

France seems to be asserting itself in this key role. President Sarkozy despatched a special envoy to Damascus last month and is clearly seeking a leading role in the new peace initiative – inviting Netanyahu and Abbas to the Elysee Palace later this month. Or will the US, as leader of the initiative, simply play the same bridging role for both tracks?

US relations with Syria have significantly warmed over the past two years, and the US has re appointed its ambassador to Damascus (the yet to be confirmed Robert Ford). However Israel cooled to a return to talks after recent reports that Syria had transferred long range missiles including scuds, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The climate for Syria – Israel talks is far from ideal, but with heightened tensions across the region and an ambitious peace process underway, Netanyahu may see the resumption of  talks as a tactical advantage – Syria is the only regional player who can curtail Hamas and Hezbollah from sabotaging or distracting the talks – and a Syria track may pressure the Palestinians to stay firmly in the process.

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