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How Important is it for Syria to be at Annapolis?

How Important is it for Syria to be at Annapolis?


by Shlomo Brom

Ever since the Geneva Conference in December 1973, Middle Easterners have become used to the suspense surrounding the question of whether the “bad boy” of Arab politics, Syria, will or will not take part in any meeting connected with the peace process. In recent years, as Syria has become more closely integrated into the political axis led by Iran, the question has become less interesting. Still, it has arisen again in advance of the Annapolis meeting. Will Syria take part and, if so, at how senior a level?

The available information is ambiguous. According to some reports, Syria has already agreed to participate and the only remaining uncertainty is about the level of representation. Other information suggests that Syria is still conditioning its participation on inclusion of the Golan Heights issue and a Syrian-Israeli agreement in the agenda of the conference and refuses to content itself simply with permission for its representatives to mention these issues during the proceedings.

The central question remains: “How important is Syria's participation at Annapolis for the parties involved?” At first, it seemed that the United States was not really interested in Syrian participation and just went through the motions of announcing that Syria could come as part of the Arab League delegation. However, interest in Syrian participation has subsequently grown.

The first reason for this change has been the desire to neutralize Syria’s capacity to disrupt. The Palestinian organizations opposed to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas intend/intended to hold a parallel meeting in Damascus with the participation of all elements critical of Annapolis, and there was concern among Palestinian leaders that such a meeting might even attract oppositionists with Fatah itself, such a Farouq Qaddumi, the Chairman of Fatah and Head of the PLO Political Department. There was also some apprehension that such a meeting could herald the formation of an alternative PLO. It is assumed that a Syrian decision to come to Annapolis will preclude the convening in Damascus of such a meeting, and indeed when Syria did begin seriously weighing the possibility of attending, the regime directed the local media to lower the profile of coverage given to the alternate conference.

The second reason is connected to the broader context of the debate in Israel and the United States about the best way to deal with Syria. It appears that a shift in attitudes toward the question of Syrian participation reflects the growing influence of elements in both countries who are interested in renewing the dialogue with Syria. Those elements do not believe that it is possible to secure the required changes in Syria policy only through brute pressure. In Israel, those calling for revived negotiations with Syria have become more vocal, and even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is reported to be considering whether to give priority to the Syrian track over the Palestinian track, where the chances for real progress appear slim. In the U.S., a change in approach is less palpable, but there, too, the impression exists that the recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton Report to open a dialogue with Syria has recently gained currency. The more the U.S. focuses on its unfolding confrontation with Iran, the more it is argued that weaning Syria away from the axis with Iran can be a very effective tool in waging that confrontation.

A third reason is the desire to use the Annapolis meeting as a stage to manifest the broad Arab support for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and their objectives. Syrian participation and expression of that support are important, just as was Syrian participation in the Arab League summit in March 2002 and adherence to the Arab consensus in adopting the Arab peace initiative, and Syrian presence at the March 2007 Summit in Riyadh that again endorsed the peace initiative. Without Syria’s presence, it will be harder to argue persuasively that there is a consensus in the Arab collective on this issue. From that point of view, the more it becomes clear that the two sides alone are unable to formulate a joint statement of principles to be presented to the meeting and adopted by its participants and that the meeting is turning into an event that essentially only signals the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the more important it is for the parties to receive the imprimatur of the Arab world.

There is one additional factor that bears mention. Syria’s participation in endorsing the Arab peace initiative and its willingness to consider attending Annapolis are additional indications that Syria, notwithstanding its close ties with Iran, feels uncomfortable with a situation in which it is completely locked into the Iranian camp and is truly interested in a dialogue with the U.S. and renewed negotiations with Israel. Bashar Assad’s words to that effect would be shown to be more than political maneuvering and lip service.

Of course, none of the main protagonists – the United States, Israel and the Palestinians – is interested in seeing the Annapolis meeting lose focus on the Palestinian issue, and they are therefore unlikely to agree to give the Syrian-Israeli issue equal status at the conference. A possible compromise solution might be to include the Syrian question but make clear the meeting is primarily intended to deal with Israeli-Palestinians negotiations. Without some such solution, the Syrians may well decide to stay away or at most to send a very junior delegation.

In any event, the mere fact of Syria’s attendance at Annapolis – if it happens – will not bring about some dramatic breakthrough like the renewal of Syrian-Israeli negotiations or a renewed Syrian-American dialogue. Instead, it would be important because it would reflect deeper currents in Syria, Israel and the United States that, if fortified, could lead to a shift in attitudes toward Syria and more serious engagement later on.

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