Does Syria Matter?

By | Nov 09, 2011

Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs under President Bill Clinton, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC

Does Syria matter?
Syria is the conduit for Iranian influence into the Middle East heartland. Iran is able to use Damascus as a way station for providing arms and financing training for Hamas and Hezbollah, which are operating on Israel’s northern and southern borders.

If we could find a way to make peace between Israel and Syria, Syria would be brought into the American-sponsored peace camp. And ultimately, if we can effect a strategic re-alignment, much like Egypt re-aligned from the Soviet Union into the American camp, we could have a profound impact on the region’s overall stability.

Is peace possible?
Syria’s not going to do a deal with Israel unless the United States is part of it. The payment that Syria receives is the relationship with the United States. But will it break with Iran and Hezbollah? I don’t know. It’s worth testing. The effort itself has benefits in terms of creating friction between Syria and Iran, placing pressure on Hamas and Hezbollah, while easing the pressure on the Palestinian Authority and Arab states that want to engage with Israel.

The Syrians have a tendency to prefer process to conclusions, which we saw in the 1990s. But we can benefit from the process, too. The difference is that in the 1990s we based our strategy on getting the Syrian deal first.

I think Barack Obama’s strategy should be to pursue both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks simultaneously and go where we can. I think we’re going to see three parallel diplomatic initiatives: one toward Iran, one toward Israeli-Syrian negotiations, one toward the Palestinians.

People on both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict are exhausted, military options don’t look very good, and there’s a feeling that maybe it’s better to try to resolve this conflict diplomatically. In the next four years, we could potentially end up with Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian deals.

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