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Entries in Daniel Shapiro (2)


Damascus Matters: Syria, the US, and the New Middle East

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Much has changed in US foreign policy since the Bush Administration pulled its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected involvement in the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Since the advent of the Obama Administration, not only the hopes of change in US-Syrian relations but the quest to unblock the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has brought the prospect of dialogue.

The latest signal came on Thursday when two Democratic Congressmen, Senator Edward E. Kaufman of Delaware and Representative Tim Waltz of Minnesota visited Syrian President Assad. According to Syria's official Arab News Agency, talks focused on "the necessity to remove obstacles that hinder relations and to promote stability in the Middle East". Specifically, the exchange points to a visit to Damascus by President Obama's envoy George Mitchell in June.

The Kaufman-Waltz visit is the fourth by US officials or legislators since January. Three days after the hard-line statement of the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, “Peace will only be in exchange for peace.”, Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts and Republican Bob Inglis of South Carolina, met Assad.

Assad's comment after this meeting that he wanted to meet Obama personally was matched by the US Embassy's statement that the talks were constructive on Syrian-Lebanese relations, security on the Syria-Iraq border, and the situation in Gaza. On 5 May, two senior US officials, Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, made their second journey to Damascus in two months and found some “common ground” with the Syrians.

The 2nd Feltman-Shapiro visit was particularly significant as it came on the
same day that Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met to re-confirm their ‘strategic alliance.’ Contrary to the claim of many that this was a declaration of Syria's "strategic needs" being met by Tehran; Assad's manoevure was more a temporary alignment with no advance on the "road map" of the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli peace processes. In the absence of tangible steps, Damascus is covering itself against any unilateral concessions.

Hence, the second visit of Feltman and Shapiro was needed to maintain close contact between Washington and Damascus until the peace process could be restarted. Other regional leaders have also contributed. On May 11, the Jordanian King Abdullah visited Damascus, as he and Assad affirmed the need for a comprehensive solution on the basis of Israeli and Palestinian states in a regional context. The newly-appointed Syrian ambassador to Ankara said on 12 May that Damascus was ready to resume Turkish-mediated indirect talks with Israel, despite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement that he would not cede the Golan Heights.

In contrast to the Bush Administration's attempt to get the "right" Middle East through exclusion of those whom it did not like or trust, the Obama Administration in four months has rebuilt relationships with key leaders. Still, the outcome of those initial breakthroughs awaits an even bigger signal: the US President's speech in Cairo next Thursday.

An Israeli-Syrian Peace? Biden, US Give Conflicting Signals

Related Post: Benjamin Netanyahu to AIPAC Policy Conference – The Threat is Iran

Israeli Occupied Golan Heights Israeli Occupied Golan Heights

At  the annual meeting of the powerful pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, DC, Vice President Joe Biden was on hand to deliver the concluding address to an estimated 6,500 people in attendance. His speech was filled with the same set of platitudes given by every high-ranking American official: the US would support Israel, protect Israel, and fight for Israel at all cost. Biden even reprised Obama’s 2008 AIPAC narrative of the “Zionist idea,” a homeland for all people (like the United States) or, more appropriate to Israel, a homeland for a tiny sectarian movement.

No surprises there, but Biden also used the speech to drop hints about, though he did not directly address, future US policy towards Israel and Syria.

The big hint came via an anecdote about Biden’s trip to the Golan Heights in 1973. He explained, “I stood on the Golan Heights and realized if you had a really good arm you could literally throw a grenade down in the territory that could do damage to Israelis.” Since Biden has a tendency toward the absurd in his comments, we’ll ignore the fact that said phantom terrorist with gargantuan biceps would have first to make it past miles of razor wire and illegal (according to the United Nations) land mines, Israel Defense Forces and paramilitary settler snipers. There are also the legions of Israeli attack helicopters and battle tanks which, apparently unbeknownst to Biden, are in fact capable of shooting farther than a man can throw a grenade.

But beyond that, Biden's signal was that the US is willing to accept Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position that Israel would not negotiate with Syria over the return of the Golan Heights, since this would come at the expense of “Israeli security.” Bloomberg reported the statement of Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, “We would like to have assurances that at the end of the day the Syrians will stop supporting terror and also, no less importantly, the very radical regime in Tehran.” Ayalon added that any negotiations with Syria would be “ill-advised”.

Most analysts had predicted a nuanced battle between the US and Israel over peace talks with Syria. However, in the span of 24 hours, the Obama Administration went from demanding dual peace tracks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and between Israel and Syria to a simple acceptance of the Israeli line on Syrian control of the Golan Heights as a security threat.

Or maybe not.

Just as Biden’s speech was hitting the Internet, the Associated Press reported that two US envoys, the State Department’s Jeffrey Feltman and NSC’s Daniel Shapiro, had left Washington bound for Damascus. It’s no secret that Washington has been establishing diplomatic contacts in Syria, perhaps even opening a US Embassy in Damascus, but there is some circumstantial evidence that these particular envoys might have more on their agenda than selecting wallpaper palettes for the new embassy.

Both men have ample experience with Middle East policy. Feltman was previously US Ambassador to Lebanon, a hefty credential in dealing with Syria, and Shapiro was brought onto the Obama for America campaign in 2007 specifically to strengthen the candidate’s standing with Jewish and pro-Israeli voters.  Previously Shapiro had been an adviser to Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), a member of several Senate Select Committees including Intelligence, Armed Services, and Foreign Relations.

Could these men be in Damascus to “work backwards” on the Golan Heights, working out the finer details of the deal in order to force Israel to come to the table? It’s possible. On the other hand, elite Syria analyst Josh Landis writes, “The Golan issue is simple and most problems have already been worked out.”

While I was initially convinced Biden was completely eschewing a peace agreement between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights, I’m now much less certain. I’m anxious to see the Syrian response to Biden’s speech, as well as to the entire AIPAC conference, as they will likely shed light on the precise intentions of the US in Syria, or at least, the Syrian perception of those intentions.

So, at the moment, we're still trying to read Biden's comments on Syria.  We'd be grateful for any help you could give us in your comments below.