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U.S. Diplomatic Overture to Syria Unlikely to Narrow Gulf of Differences

Interviewee: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 6, 2009

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Elliott Abrams, who served as the National Security Council's chief Middle East adviser in the recent Bush White House, says the new administration's decision to send diplomats to Damascus marks a sharp policy change. But Abrams says he doubts "much will come of it," mainly because of Syria's unwillingness to break ties with Iran and end its interventions in Lebanon. He also expressed strong doubts that a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine will come about, no matter who is running the new Israeli government. "The underlying conditions are just not there for† progress," he says.

Hillary Clinton has just concluded her first trip to the Middle East as secretary of state. She also announced that Jeffrey Feltman, acting secretary of state for the Near East, and Daniel Shapiro, the National Security Council staff director for the Middle East, would be going to Syria for talks. The Bush administration had not done much business with Syria in the last several years. What do you think will come of this new initiative?

This is a real policy change. The Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, was also received by Feltman at the State Department after being frozen out for a couple of years. The U.S. government hadn't had anybody visit Damascus in a long time, so this is new. I don't think, however, that much will come of it. Fundamentally, what the United States wants is for Syria to stop supporting terrorism, to stop intervening in Lebanon, to stop serving as a land bridge between Iran and Hezbollah, and to reorient itself towards the West, away from Iran. I don't think we're going to be able to achieve those goals, so in the end, if you look at visits, travels, talks that take place [in] the next six or twelve months, my view is that at the end of that period when you look back and ask, 'Well, what have we achieved?,' you will find that we have not achieved much.

"What the United States wants is for Syria to stop supporting terrorism, to stop intervening in Lebanon, to stop serving as a land bridge between Iran and Hezbollah, and to reorient itself towards the West, away from Iran. I donít think weíre going to be able to achieve those goals."

Before the Israeli attacks on Gaza, there were indirect Israel-Syria peace talks being mediated by the Turks. What is your sense of Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks increasingly like the next prime minister of Israel?† Is he interested in continuing a Syrian peace effort rather than, say, seeking a two-state solution?

There will be talks between Israel and Syria. Neither Netanyahu nor any Israeli prime minister, however, is going to be able to negotiate much on the Golan Heights [seized by Israel in the 1967 War] until there's a break between Syria and Iran. The lesson drawn for most Israelis, left-wing, right-wing, and center, from the unilateral withdrawals from Gaza [in 2005] and from southern Lebanon [in 2000], is that you can't simply withdraw from territory until you're absolutely sure that the territory will not become a base for attacks on Israel. Right now, Syria is in a significant military and political relationship with Iran, and unless that relationship comes to an end, there's not going to be a Golan deal. [Eds note: Syria wants a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace] So you will probably find Netanyahu interested in continuing those discussions, but I'm not that optimistic about the ability to conclude such a negotiation because I don't think Syria is today ready to break with Iran.

Let's look at it from Syrian President Bashar Assad's point of view. He's been virtually isolated from the West almost from the time he took office in 2000. Do you think he's tempted to try to make some big concessions to the West, to the United States and to Israel--breaking ties with Iran to get into the Western world?

He would like to achieve that with the West without paying a very heavy price. That's just to suggest that he'd like to get the best possible deal. And while it's true that there was a period of isolation from Europe as well as the United States during the last several years, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri [an anti-Syrian former Lebanese prime minister] in 2005, that period of isolation is pretty much over. It is over mostly because the Israelis under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a decision to engage with Syria. So it was really not possible to maintain isolation from Europe if the Israelis themselves were engaging with Syria. Bashar would, of course, rather achieve whatever economic integration with Europe he can, again without paying much of a price. The question is whether Europe is going to demand the price, either in respect to Syrian foreign policy or with respect to human rights inside Syria.

When it was announced last year that the Turks were acting as mediators in diplomacy between Israel and Syria, did the United States know about this? Was the White House surprised? Was it opposed?

I wouldn't say we were surprised. We knew there was consideration of this by the Israelis, and we were always very suspicious of it. Why? First, because we knew that it would end the isolation of Syria, and we wondered if any good would come of that. In fact, what we've seen is that the Syrians have made no concessions about anything anywhere, yet the isolation of Syria has ended. So thus far, at least, Bashar has paid nothing and gotten something. We were fearful that would happen. Secondly, Syria was continuing to be a bad actor in Iraq. We thought that this Israeli negotiation would relieve pressure on Syria without their having to prevent foreign fighters from using Syria as their path into Iraq. We were not keen on this. President Bush made that very clear to Prime Minister Olmert on several occasions.

And they went ahead with it anyway?

Yes, they did. And you know, Israelis theorize as to what combination of reasons led Prime Minister Olmert to do that. They knew of our view, but they had a different one.

Let's go back to Mrs. Clinton's trip. She acknowledged that she was critical of Israel for not letting enough humanitarian goods into Gaza. She said at a press conference with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority that she felt that it was wrong for the Jerusalem government to demolish some Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. What was her goal? Was she trying to be tough on the Israelis?

Most of [Clinton's] comments were made in response to questions. These were not matters that she officially raised publicly, but she did make the comments. The question is not really whether they are put on the record, but what she says privately to Israeli officials about them. On some of these issues, she'll find a considerable pushback. The example I would give is the open passages to Gaza. The Israelis feel pretty strongly that the passages have to be well guarded so that only humanitarian goods go through. Secondly, there is a question of Corporal Gilad Shalit, who remains in captivity in Gaza. The Israelis are not going to open those passages fully while he's in captivity. There's a pretty good consensus in Israel about this, and they will push back.

"I donít think thereís going to be any kind of progress on a two-state solution whether there is a right-wing government or a broader coalition."

In a CFR media conference call last week you made clear that you felt the best government for Israel would be a national unity government. Yet now it seems fairly clear that Tzipi Livni, the head of Kadima, is not going to go into this government. So it looks like it's going to be a right-wing government and it raises the question of whether the idea of negotiations for a two-state solution is just a dream. Mrs. Clinton kept pushing the two-state idea in her public statements.

She mentioned the two-state solution time after time during this trip. I would have to say that I don't think there's going to be any kind of progress on a two-state solution whether there is a right-wing government or a broader coalition. When we say coalition, we mean, 'Will Kadima be in the government?' Over the last several years, you had a government that didn't have Likud in it. It was just Kadima and Labor, and yet, it was not possible for them to make the progress that a lot of people expected in their negotiations with the Palestinians. It isn't going to be any easier now just because we have a new government in Washington and a new government in Jerusalem. I would argue that the underlying conditions are just not there for progress. Palestinians are split, with Hamas in control of Gaza and 40 percent of the population. And on the key issues of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, Olmert and Abbas did not actually reach an agreement. I don't think they're going to reach an agreement under a new Israeli government.

Everyone is expecting some kind of movement from the Obama administration towards direct talks with Iran, whether it be on nuclear issues or Afghanistan. How do you think a Netanyahu government is going to look at Iran?

I don't think this is much of a partisan issue in Israel. I suspect you'll find his rhetoric to mirror that of Prime Minister Olmert or [former] Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israelis across the spectrum see Iran as their greatest national security issue, and they are all going to press very hard for the United States and the European Union and the P5 plus 1 [United States, Britain, Russia, France, China and Germany] to take a tougher stance, particularly with respect to sanctions against Iran.

The Olmert government was very hostile to Iran as well, and there were recurring talks of military action against Iran. But I would guess the new Netanyahu government would want to see what the Obama team comes up with first, right?

You had comments just the other day by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, calling Israel a 'cancerous tumor.' What's striking about that is it isn't President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who may be elected out of office in a few months. It's the supreme leader, who is still going to be there, who is really calling the shots in Iran. He is now using the same rhetoric.

What Israelis want to know is, 'What is the administration's policy on Iran?' And there is a policy review under way. So we don't know the answer to that yet, but how tough of a stance is the United States going to take? The first thing the Israelis will do will be to urge the Europeans and the United States to toughen up sanctions and see if it's possible for Iran to step back from a nuclear weapons program through financial economic pressures and through negotiations.

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