Presidential Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell has noted the “integral role” Syria plays in reaching comprehensive peace. Recently, al-Farabi met with Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha, several embassy officials, and the American chargé d’affaires to Syria with the goal of getting some indication on Syrian calculations in respect to a peace agreement with Israel.
The more provocative comments came from officials speaking as “observers” rather than their official positions. As has been covered in many accounts, the officials noted that negotiations between the late Hafiz al-Assad and Ehud Barak solved “90 %” of the issues between Israel and Syria. The Syrian official concluded that an agreement returning the Golan can be achieved in the near future precisely because much of the positions are known and solvable. How will this be done? The Syrians believe the best approach is for both parties to submit proposals with Turkey (resuming the process started by Bashar al-Assad and Ehud Olmert which broke down during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza last winter.) Nevertheless, the official warned that passage of the Golan referendum bill in the Knesset could present a significant obstacle to an agreement. The bill stipulates a 2/3rds majority approval before Israel returns the Golan to Syrian hands. Al-Farabi agrees that the law will constrain Israeli leadership and slow-down the process, allowing opposition groups to affect any proposal disengaging from the Golan.
The Syrian official later emphasized the necessity of delivering an agreement if negotiations resumed. ‘If an agreement cannot be reached a significant political toll will be taken.’ Therefore, he reasoned, Syria will only enter the process if it feels it has a realistic chance. Frankly, Al-Farabi did his best not to roll his eyes as the Syrian official expressed concern over losing political capital. Don’t bet on a measure of accountability taking shape in Syria anytime soon.
If Syria believes most of the issues have been ironed out and it fears the passage of the Golan referendum bill, then why aren’t negotiations currently taking place? Al-Farabi’s guess is that Syria and Israel were close back when Turkey mediated their proposals. Since then, Olmert has left the scene. Netanyahu has signaled a willingness to negotiate, but only if the two sides start from scratch. By that formulation, progress previously made would be subject to change. Instead of erasing the supposed agreement on 90% of the issues, Syria will likely wait out Bibi, facing unfavorable Israeli positions. Presumably, Tzipi Livni, Bibi’s main opponent, was privy to negotiations (as Omert’s Foreign Minister) and would bring Israel and Syria back where they left off. But, as any observer of the Middle East will tell you, waiting is a dangerous game.
On a side note there was a consensus (among the American chargé d’affaires, Ambassador Moustapha, and lower level Syrian officials) that the U.S. will appoint an Ambassador in September. It will be interesting to see if that timeline holds up.