American foreign policy Bush Administration Dick Cheney Israel Middle East peace process

Whom should we trust on Syria? The Bushies…or the experts?

Ameinu’s web site has some informative pieces on Syria that stand in stark contrast to the don’t-trust-Assad-under-any-circumstances pablum that is available from most American Jewish groups.

What follows is a tidbit from Gershon Baskin, a very wise Israeli Jew who for decades has carried out “Track 2” dialogue on the toughest issues with Arab counterparts, including Syrian politicians, diplomats and academics. He wrote this in mid-September, before Sec. of State Rice extended an invitation to Syria to attend the peace conference in November, a decision that reportedly made Dick Cheney furious. At the end of this excerpt is a quote from a Bush Administration official, almost certainly someone from the Cheney wing. I wonder whose information and insights deserve to be taken more seriously, Baskin and Track 2 diplomats who’ve been dealing with Syria for years, or the very same people whose information and insights got us into Iraq?? Hmmm…. I really can’t decide, can you?:

From all indications that I have from talks with Syrian officials and from people who have met with the highest officials in Syria in the most recent past, Syria is quite anxious to be invited to the Washington meeting. Senior Syrian officials and people close to the regime have told me and others that Syria is also ready to meet US demands as part and parcel of the peace deal with Israel and a promise of open and positive relations with the United States…

…Even Israeli intelligence reports assert that Syria is prepared to pick up formal direct negotiations with Israel. Everyone involved knows the contours of the potential agreement – the return of the Golan Heights in exchange for full and genuine peace with Israel.

Some Israelis and Americans who have been involved in Track II meetings that have been held with the agreement of senior officials in Damascus have noted more flexibility on Syria’s positions concerning meeting Israel’s security needs and on other strategic issues such as water.

According to people who speak regularly with Syrian officials, Syria is not only willing, but is in fact keen to be drawn away from their alliance with Iran. From the information that we have, Syria would be sincerely willing to take real steps to limit the power of Hizbullah and Hamas. But all of that can only be possible as part of a deal with Israel and with the inclusion and involvement of the United States.

Syria would be ready to replace its Iranian alliance with a new alliance with the United States, as long as it also includes a renewal of the Israeli-Syrian track and progress toward an agreement on the return of the Golan.

It is clear that if the US and Israel do not engage Syria, Damascus has the power to sabotage any Israeli-Palestinian progress, and is very likely to if its isolation is continued. From its point of view, there is almost no reason why it shouldn’t. The continued isolation of Syria by the US and Israel puts the entire potential success of the renewed Israeli-Palestinian track in question….

…I believe the Syrians would be responsive to quiet US diplomacy in the way of creating the mechanism for them to participate in November. I am sure that if the Syrians had an indication from the administration that a positive change in US-Syrian relations was on the way, they could also be quite helpful on the issue of the Israeli hostages in Lebanon and Gaza. There is so much more to be gained from Syrian engagement than from their isolation. Regrettably, in a recent communication with a very senior policy-maker in the White House, I received the following response to the above ideas:

I appreciate having your views, but you are right: I am not persuaded. This (Syria) is a vicious brutal regime allied to Iran strategically, not tactically, engaged in helping kill Americans in Iraq, helping the worst Palestinian terrorist forces, desperate to reassert its rule over Lebanon, and sponsoring not simply anti-Zionist but the most barbaric anti-Semitic views.”

Similarly, contrast the quote from that Cheney acolyte with information imparted by David Lesch, a Syria scholar who spoke at a recent Century Foundation lunch in NYC (an event I missed because I have to work for a living. Anyone have any ideas on how to solve that problem???). Lesch is well-connected to the Syrian intelligencia. His talk was summarized by Gidon Remba, Ameinu’s Executive Director:

Syrian President Bashar Assad has been telling visiting scholars and diplomats that Syria’s alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas is essentially tactical, and largely expendable in exchange for the right incentives from the U.S. and Israel. Syria is a weak country, economically distressed and running out of oil; it is always seeking leverage, bargaining chips, and in need of Western and Sunni Arab aid. It will trade away its strategic assets with the Islamists in exchange for dividends of greater value from the West. But it won’t surrender its booty in advance of a negotiation, as the Bush Administration has demanded, before confirming that American and Israeli benefits will truly be forthcoming.

Bashar told Lesch in May 2007: “Whoever works more for our [Syria’s] interests, I will be their friend. It is about interests, not ideology, and if the United States works for my interests, I will be their friend.” When one has few friends, Bashar intimated, one cannot be choosy, implying that “Damascus has had no choice but to draw closer to Iran.” But if “given a legitimate option in another direction, it might loosen its ties to Teheran.”

Bashar has also told Lesch that he would be a “hero” if he could bring about the return of the Golan to Syria through negotiations. If the U.S. continues down the path of isolation and confrontation with Syria, a largely Sunni state, we will push it even more into the arms of Shia Iran and Hezbollah. The U.S. and Israel must now work towards an American-backed Israeli-Syrian peace treaty and arms control pact enabling Syria to join the U.S.-allied coalition of Sunni Arab states and Israel against Shia extremists—before the next, far more devastating war.

For decades, I thought this country was run by the kinds of people who used to try to beat me up in junior high. Now, I have come to realize that this country is being run by the kinds of people I used to pity in junior high, because they were a bit slow, they could not quite keep up…

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