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Movement in Middle East Peace Talks

Interviewee: Mona Yacoubian, Special Adviser, Muslim World Initiative, Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, United States Institute of Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 18, 2008

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Mona Yacoubian, the coauthor of a new Council Special Report on diplomatic relations with Syria, says a spate of diplomatic moves in the Middle East indicate that various parties are “growing increasingly alarmed and concerned by the volatility that had come to characterize the Middle East. I believe that they have decided for a variety of reasons to take matters into their own hands and to seek to resolve the region's conflicts via diplomacy rather than violence.” She says that the Israeli decision to hold secret peace talks via Turkey with the Syrians and the new Israeli offer to negotiate peace with Lebanon are part of this effort.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is returning from a trip to the region that included a surprise stop in Lebanon where she tried to bolster the new government there. The Israelis announced not only a cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza, but also offered to negotiate a peace treaty with Lebanon. At the same time, Syria and Israel have apparently been moving ahead in their peace talks, through Turkish intermediaries. What do you make of all this?

It’s my sense that actors in the region were growing increasingly alarmed and concerned by the volatility that has come to characterize the Middle East. I believe that they have decided for a variety of reasons to take matters into their own hands and to seek to resolve the region's conflicts via diplomacy rather than violence.

Are you surprised that the Israelis have gone ahead on dealing with the Syrians and offering to negotiate with the Lebanese while Washington hasn't said much about this?

It’s been very interesting. The Israelis have been very interested in initiating talks with the Syrians for some time, and it's my understanding that these indirect talks that have been mediated by Turkey since February 2007 come much to the chagrin of the Bush administration, which had been pursuing a policy of isolating Syria. So in a sense, the Israelis went against the wishes of the Bush administration in pursuing these talks. But they felt this was an important opportunity that needed to be pursued. In a funny way, their recent announcement of a desire also to open direct talks with Lebanon is a logical follow-on because all of these conflicts are interconnected. It's very difficult to solve one without addressing and beginning to resolve the others.

When Secretary Rice was in Lebanon she said she hopes there could be a UN resolution of the Shebaa Farms question. That's a small piece of territory that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 War and Lebanon claims is their territory. The United Nations earlier said it's Syrian. I suppose as part of any peace negotiations with Syria and with Lebanon, the Shebaa Farms would come up.

Yes, it would. As of now, the United Nations has stated that it's Syrian territory, although the Syrians have not protested claims that it's Lebanese territory. For a long time, certainly since the withdrawal of Israel from south Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has used the fact that Israel continues to occupy this very small strip of land—it's maybe fifteen square miles—as one of its pretexts for maintaining its arms. At this point, the fact that Secretary Rice would push for a resolution to the Shebaa Farms dispute makes a lot of sense. It begins to put greater pressure on Hezbollah to disarm by removing a key pretext for why it holds its arms. It also begins to strengthen and bolster this nascent Lebanese government that has come about as a result of last month's Doha agreement [a deal brokered by Qatar, attempting to resolve eighteen months of political deadlock in Lebanon]. And finally again it's one of the important issues outstanding between Lebanon and Israel that would be essential in moving toward a broader sort of regional reconciliation.

Several Israelis have said that they don't envisage a Syria-Israel peace agreement coming into effect until the United States gets involved. Do you sense any movement within the Bush administration to getting more involved in these negotiations? Have they been briefed by the Israelis and the Syrians?

I'm sure they are being briefed by the Israelis. Of course, contacts between the Bush administration and the Syrians remain very, very limited. It is my sense though that the talks cannot move to a more serious stage without U.S. involvement. In fact, President Bashar Assad of Syria has said that he requires U.S. involvement as a condition in order to engage in direct talks with the Israelis. At this very time, the Israelis are militating for a face-to-face meeting between President Assad and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in July when both leaders will be invited to a French-sponsored Euro-Mediterranean summit in Paris.

That would be truly historic. I don't think there's ever been a head-to-head meeting of the leaders of the two states, even when Hafez Assad was president, has there?

Certainly not that I'm aware of. Of course what would be really interesting, maybe ironic on some level, is if it comes about by the virtue of French offices as opposed to U.S.

Well, all this is a prelude to your new special report, which urges the United States to get more involved with Syria. You offered two broad possibilities: one a kind of step-by-step diplomacy, the other a sort of grand picture approach, putting all issues on the table at once. Where do you stand right now on that?

We recommend what we call "conditional engagement," which essentially seeks to put issues out, link certain issues, but not put all the issues out on table in a grand bargain fashion. We feel that a "grand bargain" might result in system overload. The possibility for the entire process breaking down would be much greater. We recommend that the place to start would be to take advantage of low-hanging fruit, if you will. Certainly we believe that the United States should become more involved in the existing indirect talks between Israel and Syria, and we also believe that talking to the Syrians about Iraq is another place that might offer interesting possibilities for reaching agreements.

With the security situation in Iraq seemingly much calmer these days, you don't hear as much concern about foreign terrorists coming over the Syria border. Is that issue more or less disappearing?

It's certainly not as acute as it once was. But we believe it's important to take advantage of and consolidate the gains that have been made. There are certainly measures that the Syrians can take that they have not, such as issuing stricter visa requirements at the Damascus airport, and cracking down even further on jihadist networks that might be operating across the border. These are very important measures still to be taken, and we also think that perhaps in exchange for those measures, the United States could provide greater financial assistance for the Iraqi refugees that are currently being hosted by Damascus—that number is somewhere around 1.5 million and it's a tremendous financial burden.

The United States pulled its ambassador out of Damascus after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. There's been a UN investigation going on now for three years into this assassination. What's the status of that?

The proceedings for the tribunal are moving ahead. There's actually been a court established in The Hague, which is where the actual trial will take place. It is believed that indictments could be issued as soon as this fall. I believe there's another report scheduled, perhaps also toward the end of the summer or in the early fall.

Is it still expected that this will implicate high-ranking Syrian officials?

No, it's not clear. That was certainly the expectation in the early days of the investigation when an early version of the report listed names which were then edited out for the official version. But since that time, the investigators have held the report very closely.

Let me go back to Syria-Israel relations, because it's rather strange in a way. Here you have Israel bombing a North Korea-supported nuclear reactor being built in an obscure part of Syria last September, and the Syrian government claiming that it wasn't a nuclear reactor, just a military building. In the old days this would have touched off a whole firestorm, but instead, a few months thereafter, you find out there's been these indirect peace talks going on. What is Syria after right now? Why did they ignore this bombing?

Syria is seeking to break out of isolation from the West and from the United States.  Syria also has a very clear understanding that it is vastly outgunned by the Israeli armed forces and so there's probably an astute calculation on the part of the Syrian government not to respond militarily. At this point, their chief priority again is to integrate more fully into the global economy and also to break out of the isolation imposed by the West.

In the Clinton administration, the Syrians and the Israelis were very close to a peace agreement in which Israel would have returned the Golan Heights. Dennis Ross, who was the chief negotiator, claims in his memoir that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak backed down because of political concerns at home. Are they really that close on what would constitute a peace agreement?

They are. I really think that so much of the hard work has already been done in terms of what a final peace agreement between the two countries would look like. I'm not sure even how helpful it is to pin responsibility on what party or the other was responsible for the earlier breakdown. But the fact remains that peace between Israel and Syria was certainly within range before those talks broke down, and one would have to believe that it's certainly a possibility today—with the right amount of diplomacy and involvement from outside parties, namely the United States.

The big breakthrough in Mideast diplomacy occurred when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Israel in the end of 1977, which surprised everybody at the time. Some Israelis have said that they really need a sort of similar grandstanding by young Assad to make the Israeli public a little more comfortable with Syria. That doesn't seem to be in the cards for Syria, does it?

I don't think at this point that's in the cards, but one never knows what might happen down the road. Developments can take on a life of their own and at this point the fact even that Israelis and Syrians are back in contact in a significant way for the first time in nearly a decade is, of itself, important. Hopefully that will help to build greater trust and confidence between the two parties. A historic meeting of President Assad à la Sadat to the Israeli Knesset, I'm not so sure of, certainly not at this point. But it's important that the parties are back in contact in a substantial way.

It would be interesting if indeed Olmert and Assad have a private meeting at this conference that the French are holding.

From the Syrian standpoint, the fact of Bashar Assad even being invited and included in this summit in Paris in July is huge. From their perspective, it's a very important success. Remember it wasn't too long ago that the Sarkozy government had essentially suspended diplomatic contacts with the Syrians over their displeasure with regard to Syrian behavior in Lebanon and elsewhere. So from the Syrian perspective they're already a step ahead in the game by having Assad invited.

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