TEST
Syria, which only a few weeks ago was the great enemy of the West - a member of the "Axis of Evil," secretly producing atomic weapons, meddling in Lebanon by way of vicious murders, sending weapons and ammunition to Hizbullah and hosting the heads of Hamas - was suddenly invited to the Annapolis conference, and even actually attended. Syria's appearance in Annapolis became a noteworthy event and may become the springboard for renewed peace talks between Israel and Syria, especially if the conference's attempt to bring about real and fundamental negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2008 should eventually fail.

Background

On November 25, 2007, the government of Syria announced its decision to send a delegate to the Annapolis Conference for Peace in the Middle East in accordance with the invitation of United States President George W. Bush. Syria decided to send its deputy foreign minister and former United Nations ambassador, Faisal Miqdad. The Syrian decision concluded a short period of deliberations in Damascus, emerging from Syria's need to be invited directly as a country (and not as a member in the Arab League's Follow-Up Committee), and the even greater need to receive meaningful mention of the Israeli-Syrian conflict during the conference. These were the two conditions put forth by Syria for its appearance at the conference. Syria eventually was formally invited as a country, and Washington found a way to put the Golan Heights on the agenda, namely, by forming a discussion group on regional peace, thus allowing the Syrians to accept the invitation.

American Motives

Inviting Syria to the conference and satisfying, even if partially, its two conditions for appearing at the conference - all this points to a possible change in the U.S. position toward the Syrian regime. One can find countless statements from past years by American officials about Syria as a terrorist state that must be isolated and denounced. Some high-ranking administration officials have made statements including Syria in the "Axis of Evil" because of its strong ties with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. The U.S. media, quietly assisted by the government, also supported the Israeli attack over Syria on September 6, 2007, as the American press often publishes harsh claims against Syria and actually shapes hostile international public opinion toward the Syrian government. The decisive American position against Syria in the last few years, which was in many ways a result of Syria's assistance to the Iraqi insurgents, also greatly affected Europe's negative position toward Assad's regime, as well as Israel's position toward Damascus.

What Caused the Change in the American Position?

Syrian signals since the end of the Second Lebanon War suggesting that it is prepared to renew peace talks with Israel has been met with complete disregard from Washington until now. The invitation of Syria to Annapolis is in many ways a result of Bush's political distress, stemming from his poor Middle Eastern record during the seven years of his administration. Bush needed a big media success in Annapolis in order to prove to the American public that the ongoing occupation of Iraq has not caused him to completely lose his standing in the Arab world. Inviting Syria made it easier for the other members of the Arab League to attend, even the Saudis (despite the tension between Riyadh and Damascus). Moreover, Syria's participation helped create the impression that it would be possible to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran in the near future. Disengaging Syria from its dependency on its alliance with Iran would undoubtedly be a political achievement for Bush, who sees isolating Iran to be a major priority on his agenda.
The fact that the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement does not look possible as long as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) does not control the Gaza Strip (as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been saying recently) has the Americans worried that Annapolis would eventually fail in its ultimate goal: a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the event of such a failure, it is best to prepare a Syrian alternative that will keep the political momentum in the Middle East moving forward, even if on a different front.
It is also possible that the pressures on the American administration from the Democrats, as well as from a long list of former senior diplomats, have helped in softening the resistance to Syria among the hard-core neo-conservatives surrounding Bush. It is difficult, however, to assume that these pressures would be fruitful without the administration coming to an understanding that Syrian participation in the Annapolis conference is beneficial to the U.S. under current conditions.

Syrian Motives

Syria appeared at Annapolis mostly because it was its first opening to the Western states and to the moderates in the Arab world in a while. Syria considers the Western camp to be a more beneficial long-term affiliation than its current identification with the Iranian camp. Syria's attendance at Annapolis sends the message that it does not consider itself to be forever in a single camp with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. Such a message is a meaningful political maneuver, because Syria's participation in Annapolis will most likely be costly for it in its relations with Iran.
Getting the negotiations with Israel going is of less importance for the Syrians than opening the door to the West through Washington. However, the Syrians understand that these matters are interrelated, and that moving forward according to the Arab Peace Initiative for the conclusion of the Israeli-Arab conflict is now important for both the Americans and the Israelis. A possible crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian arena in 2008 might create an interesting opportunity for the Syrians to improve their relationship with the U.S., Europe and Israel. The Syrians understand that achieving sovereignty over the entire Golan Heights has become impossible without a real revolution in Israeli public opinion over the issue. Syria's disengagement from Iran has become a necessary condition for such an Israeli withdrawal and, as a result, for a comprehensive Israeli-Syrian-American peace arrangement.

The Israeli Position

The development that brought about Syria's participation in the Annapolis conference has almost no connection with the Israeli position on the subject. Israeli leaders repeatedly said that the Palestinian issue was the only item on the agenda in Annapolis, and they found America's incorporation of the regional issue against Israel's position to be quite embarrassing.
However, Israel, too, knows how to read the complex Israeli-Palestinian map and diagnose the potential deadlock in 2008. Israel, too, is worried by the possibility of failure of the Annapolis process and its implications for the coming year. This is why the Israeli leadership welcomed Syria's participation, as well as for the blow this dealt to Hamas and the pressure it puts on Abbas to moderate his demands.
The Israeli leadership is aware, of course, of the great difficulty in holding parallel discussions on withdrawing both from the West Bank and from the Golan Heights. Even a government such as the current one, which enjoys a solid majority in the Knesset, could disintegrate quickly if it were to hold serious simultaneous negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians. This is why the Syrian track is being built as an alternative to the Palestinian one, and not as an additional track alongside it. Olmert prefers to move ahead on the negotiations with the Palestinians, to which he is currently deeply committed. It appears that Defense Minister Ehud Barak is less committed than Olmert to the Palestinian track, and may even prefer the Syrian one.

Possible Developments after the Conference

The internal Israeli political arena, as well as the Israel security apparatus, will not allow Olmert, despite his possible wish and firm commitment, to conclude negotiations with Abbas on the core issues (borders, evacuation of settlements and Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank) as long as Abbas does not control the Gaza Strip. On the Syrian issue, by contrast, Olmert will find his defense minister and the entire security establishment on his side once he decides to move ahead.
Whether Israel and Syria will in fact be able to enter into serious negotiations will depend mainly on Washington's willingness to send a special envoy to the Israeli-Syrian talks. Delegating such a formal envoy by the Americans could pave the way to peace along Israel's northern borders.

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