Posted by MataHarley on 6 June, 2008 at 6:08 pm. 9 comments already!


There is no doubt that the bulk of the Middle East is in the middle of a two-step dance. The region, as a whole, stands on the brink of reforms and – using that massively popular catch word today – change. Whether those changes are for the good, only time will tell. But there is no doubt there are hotbeds of “talk” going on everywhere.

Lebanon finds itself not only sans President, but slowly being devoured by Hezbollah, demanding and receiving legislative veto powers. Meanwhile Hezbollah and Israel came to terms, via a German broker, for a prisoner swap – Israel is to receive the remains of the two Israeli soldiers captured in 2006, plus information on a missing Israeli AF pilot from 1986. In exchange Israel hands over “the longest-serving Lebanese prisoner in Israel, Samir Qontar, four other Hizbullah prisoners, the bodies of Hizbullah fighters and maps of mines planted by the Israeli Army in South Lebanon.”

Pakistan is busy striking deals with the tribal militants, but honoring the terms seems optional for both sides. S. Waziristan militants insist they remain open for business as a “centre for jihad”. Meanwhile the Pak leadership assures the US they will not be pulling the army out of the mountainous regions (violating the agreement), and the militants refuse to exile, or turn over, foreign militants in their midst (also violating the agreement).

Instead some tribal areas are now, effectively, under Taliban rule. A side effect, of course, hits Afghanistan – seeing increased terrorist attacks as Pak militants, temporarily playing nice on their soil, cross the border to wreak jihad havoc in Karzai’s back yard.

On other fronts, Abbas wants to talk to Hamas. And Ahmadinejad is sipping cha in Japan. Not to be left out of all the talking goin’ on, Iraq and US officials wrestle with the base foundation of the two security agreements meant to replace the UN Security Council mandate that expires in Dec 2008. This, of course, has commenter Doug in an apocalyptic tizzy in the “lull in Iraq news” thread, anticipating doom with each leak of yet another 2nd hand, hearsay detail on the undrafted agreements. But despite his personal opines, he’s contributing some good media fodder. Patience is required for the outcome – ala just how much control (or restrictions) the US grants to Iraq over our bases and military personnel in exchange for a continued presence. My guess is the POTUS will stand his ground.

Each of these constantly morphing talk-spots has their own indepth stories unfolding, and short of a great Disney/Pixar flick, is probably the best entertainment around… if you can keep up with it all.

But what’s caught my eye this week offering the best possibilities for “change” is the continued attempts at talks, negotiations, and/or appeasement using Turkish eyes between Syria and Israel. Or should I say sorta “talks”. Or perhaps talks that really aren’t talks, because no one’s talking. And if they are, they aren’t saying the same thing.

Today we find the media still hasn’t got a clue, and the stories vary in this May 30th article from the Jerusalem Post, depending upon the source info. But, by all standards, the two States haven’t thrown in the towel on their unofficial efforts. Reaching an agreement is a major step forward for transforming ME relations. It not only affords Israel an additional buffer in the region – a Syrian policeman, so to speak – but puts a rift between Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. And there would be one more “sorta” western ally in the ME fold.

To add to the confusion, a May 21sth media account from Haaretz says that effort went down in flames “following Israel’s refusal to hold talks on an official level – and a Syrian refusal to restrict the talks to an “academic level”. But an Islam Online account the same day seems to indicate the efforts are still underway.

If we read today’s June 6th Asian Times, it appears that the talks do seem to have some underground life – despite all the media confusion. More than interesting in this account is that Iran is rather miffed with Syria’s steps closer to not only Israel and western allies, but also towards other modern Arab states.

What with chasing our tails on the carousel of conflicting info, it’s almost impossible to confirm exactly what is going on between the two. These vague “secret meetings”, but done with full knowledge of Israel and Syrian officials (huh?), were (and still are?) considered indirect. (underline emphasis added for Obama fans…) They were meant to create a principle of agreement as a “non-document” … or “a document of understandings that is not signed and lacks legal standing”, and is political in nature. And all of this has been going on, in some fashion off and on, since 2004. So to avoid misinformation on specifics that no on can agree on as fact, I’ll speak in generalities.

The historic bone of contention with Israel and Syria has always been the Golan Heights borders (using territory as of June 4th, 1967), water (Sea of Galilee, Jordan River, and Lake Kinneret), and Syria’s promise to end support for Hezbollah and Hamas, plus distance itself from Iran.

Israel’s Olmert is ready to give up the Golan Heights, despite the objects of the Israeli’s (70% per those pesky polls…). Israelis firmly believe this is Olmert’s way of diverting attention from accusations of accepting bribes from a US businessman. 18,000 supporters of the Jewish Golan settlers have promised to bolt the coalition if Olmert gives away the territory.

Israel’s motivation for a tentative peace with Syria… as long as the price is not too high to accept… is self-evident. They remain an island in the Middle East under constant threat and assault. But what is Syria’s motivation in bolting the Hamas/Hezbollah/Iran fold?

Certainly, in the wake of Israel’s bombing of the suspected Syrian nuke site last year, and their only partial cooperation with the IAEA to inspect other sites, they have first hand experience that Israel doesn’t hesitate to exercise preemptive strikes when they feel it’s warranted.

But Syria has other reasons. And it comes down to simply economic survival and oil.

Syria is a non-OPEC oil producer. And the oil output of Syria, and other non-OPEC members (including Bahrain, Oman, Yemen) has been steading dwindling in the past years. Add the fact that al Qaeda strikes in Yemen have hindered their oil exploration, effectively scaring off companies who would willingly come in to increase production. Syria most certainly cannot afford such an explosion of violence in their borders.

Syrian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Sufian Alaw worries that the decline, due to technological problems and depletion of reserves, will lead to Syria soon becoming an oil importer instead of supplier. Tho Syria is not an OPEC member, they are dependent upon the organization for defense of their oil prices. With the rising costs of oil, and the effect of int’l sanctions on Syria, they are taking some economic hits that do not envision such a rosy future.

Thus Syria has been playing both sides… on one hand, they show up at the Annapolis Middle East Peace Conference last year, as if to prove they do not take their marching orders from Tehran. On the other hand, they assure Iran that a working alliance with the west will not cause them to abandon their Iran/Hezbollah and Hamas allies.

Yet it is these half-hearted steps that has the US, which has previously opposed Israeli-Syrian chats, now stand neutral and without major opposition. Bush recognized that Syria had the most to gain by peace with Israel, enabling a lifting of the isolation imposed by the beltway since 2003.

As far as Hezbollah, giving up support for them is not so costly for Syria, per Joshua Landis of Syria Comment. In an interview for CFR discussing the possibilities of such a peace between the two states, Landis points out that if Israel willingly cedes Golan Heights back to Syria, they have no need to arm Lebanese Hezbollah for armed resistance against Israel. A very easy concession to make.

The one sticking point, per Landis, is Hamas in Syria. They cannot turn over Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal. Turning away Palestine would be a “bitter pill” for the Syrians.

Syria faces a cross roads of what is their greater need… a tentative peace with Israel, and the financial relief of being a quasi-western ally, open to foreign investments? Or continued alliance with the enemies of the west, and a paralyzed economy. We already know they will concede… now it’s to see just how much.

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