U.S. officials ought not to have been surprised by the smiling solidarity between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad in Damascus on Tuesday but they may, nonetheless, have been disappointed. Sure, Iran is Syria's closest ally, and the two countries form the core of what's sometimes called the "Rejectionist Crescent" the arc of countries and groups from Tehran to Gaza that stand against American and Israeli power but the Obama Administration hopes to change that. It has launched a diplomatic outreach to Damascus aimed at weakening its ties to Tehran and its support for militant groups in Lebanon and the Palestinians, but there was no sign of progress on that front in Thursday's Assad-Ahmadinead press conference, where the two leaders beamingly reaffirmed support for one another, and for the likes of Hamas and Hizballah.
Just last year, Syrian officials were engaged in direct peace talks with Israel (through Turkish mediation), and earlier this year, the Obama Administration sent high level envoys to Damascus for the first time since the Bush Administration withdrew its ambassador in 2005. The buzz in Washington was that a peace deal between Syria and Israel could give the U.S. leverage as it challenges Iran on a host of regional controversies, especially its nuclear weapons program. But more recently, Washington appears to have grown pessimistic so much so that President Obama's Middle East envoy, Sen. George Mitchell, didn't even visit Damascus on his otherwise comprehensive tour of the region last month. The old-school rhetoric of the Ahmadinejad visit may be a further sign that expectations of an early breakthrough may have been unrealistic. (See pictures of alleged Syrian nuclear activity)
Previous rounds of negotiations have affirmed that the outlines of a peace deal between Syrian and Israel are straightforward Israel withdraws from the Syrian territory it captured in 1967 on the Golan Heights, which becomes demilitarized, and the Syrians prevent hostilities against Israel. Although Israelis have grown accustomed to owning the Golan Heights for almost 42 years, such a solution doesn't require evacuating densely populated settlements or transferring control of sites deemed spiritually important to constituencies on either side issues that bedevil talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Still, the latest fighting in Gaza reaffirmed a diminishing Israeli appetite for ceding control of land, only to watch as militant groups fill the vacuum. And the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister this spring after a campaign in which he promised, among other things, not to return an inch of the Golan to Syria. Even those in the Israeli establishment more inclined to a land-for-peace deal with Damascus insist that the price must include Syria cutting ties with Iran and with anti-Israel militant groups.
Syrian officials, however, insist that they have no intention of signing a separate peace with Israel that leaves Iran in the cold. Instead, they have been calling for a grand bargain that addresses the key points of contention between Iran and Syria on the one hand, and Israel and America on the other. In that context, a Syrian- Israeli deal would merely be a step in a larger process, a "cold peace" involving demilitarization and recognition but no normalization of relations between the two countries, and certainly no Anwar Sadat-style visits by Assad to Jerusalem. Indeed, Syria's Foreign Minister has suggested that such an interim peace deal wouldn't even require the Syrians to stop sheltering the Hamas leadership in Damascus.
Washington isn't taking the bait. Instead, it is sending perhaps Syria's least favorite U.S. official, State Department Undersecretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffery Feltman, on his second trip to Damascus this week. While serving as ambassador to Lebanon, Feltman had played a key role in nurturing the anti-Syrian coalition that eventually forced Syrian troops to leave the country following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and several anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. U.S. embassy officials in Lebanon suspect that the bomb attack on an embassy vehicle on the day of a departure celebration for Feltman in 2008 was a nasty farewell from the Syrians.
Instead of offering a grand regional bargain, Feltman has approached relations with Syria as a series of separate points of contention support for insurgents in Iraq and for Hamas and Hizballah, attempts to overthrow the Lebanese government, hiding a possible nuclear weapons program. The U.S. demands progress on these issues as the price for easing Syria's isolation by returning a U.S. ambassador to Damascus, ending economic sanctions and sponsoring direct peace talks between Syria and Israel. So far, Syria's record in solving these problems has been mixed. The Syrians have helped seal the border with Iraq to prevent jihadist infiltration, but, according to U.S. officials, have dragged their feet almost everywhere else.
It's way too soon to pronounce the Syrian track dead, because the going was always going to be painstakingly slow. Bashar al Assad, who is essentially president for life, operates a different time-frame from his term-limited American counterparts. The Assad regime will bask in the limelight of international diplomacy, but will also delay as long as possible the day of reckoning on which it has to chose between Iran and the U.S. And with Washington preparing to open talks with Tehran, Damascus may be hoping that day never arrives.