Syria Calling

The Obama Administration’s chance to engage in a Middle East peace.

When the Israelis' controversial twenty-two-day
military campaign in Gaza ended, on January 18th, it also seemed to end
the promising peace talks between Israel and Syria. The two countries
had been engaged for almost a year in negotiations through
intermediaries in Istanbul. Many complicated technical matters had been
resolved, and there were agreements in principle on the normalization
of diplomatic relations. The consensus, as an ambassador now serving in
Tel Aviv put it, was that the two sides had been "a lot closer than you
might think."

At an Arab summit in Qatar in mid-January,
however, Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, angrily declared that
Israel's bombing of Gaza and the resulting civilian deaths showed that
the Israelis spoke only "the language of blood." He called on the Arab
world to boycott Israel, close any Israeli embassies in the region, and
sever all "direct or indirect ties with Israel." Syria, Assad said, had
ended its talks over the Golan Heights.

Nonetheless, a few days
after the Israeli ceasefire in Gaza, Assad said in an e-mail to me that
although Israel was "doing everything possible to undermine the
prospects for peace," he was still very interested in closing the deal.
"We have to wait a little while to see how things will evolve and how
the situation will change," Assad said. "We still believe that we need
to conclude a serious dialogue to lead us to peace."

and foreign government officials, intelligence officers, diplomats, and
politicians said in interviews that renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations
over the Golan Heights are now highly likely, despite Gaza and the
elections in Israel in February, which left the Likud Party leader,
Benjamin Netanyahu, at the head of a coalition that includes both the
far right and Labor. Those talks would depend largely on America's
willingness to act as the mediator, a role that could offer Barack
Obama his first-and perhaps best-chance for engagement in the Middle
East peace process.

A senior Syrian official explained that
Israel's failure to unseat Hamas from power in Gaza, despite the scale
of the war, gave Assad enough political room to continue the
negotiations without losing credibility in the Arab world. Assad also
has the support of Arab leaders who are invested in the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Sheikh

Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani,*
the ruler of Qatar, said last month when I saw him in Doha that Assad
must take any reasonable steps he can to keep the talks going. "Syria
is eager to engage with the West," he said, "an eagerness that was
never perceived by the Bush White House. Anything is possible, as long
as peace is being pursued."

A major change in American policy
toward Syria is clearly under way. "The return of the Golan Heights is
part of a broader strategy for peace in the Middle East that includes
countering Iran's influence," Martin Indyk, a former American
Ambassador to Israel, who is now the director of the Saban Center for
Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution, said. "Syria is a
strategic linchpin for dealing with Iran and the Palestinian issue.
Don't forget, everything in the Middle East is connected, as Obama once

A former American diplomat who has been involved in the
Middle East peace process said, "There are a lot of people going back
and forth to Damascus from Washington saying there is low-hanging fruit
waiting for someone to harvest." A treaty between Syria and Israel
"would be the start of a wide-reaching peace-implementation process
that will unfold over time." He added, "The Syrians have been ready
since the 1993 Oslo Accords to do a separate deal." The new
Administration now has to conduct "due diligence": "Get an ambassador
there, or a Presidential envoy. Talk to Bashar, and speak in specifics
so you'll know whether or not you've actually got what you've asked
for. If you're vague, don't be surprised if it comes back to bite you."

Many Israelis and Americans involved in the process believe that
a deal on the Golan Heights could be a way to isolate Iran, one of
Syria's closest allies, and to moderate Syria's support for Hamas and
for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are
listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. There
is a competing view: that Assad's ultimate goal is not to marginalize
Iran but to bring it, too, into regional talks that involve America-and
perhaps Israel. In either scenario, Iran is a crucial factor motivating
each side.

These diplomatic possibilities were suggested by
Senator John Kerry, of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign
Relations Committee, who met with Assad in Damascus in February-his
third visit since Assad took office, in 2000. "He wants to engage with
the West," Kerry said in an interview in his Senate office. "Our latest
conversation gave me a much greater sense that Assad is willing to do
the things that he needs to do in order to change his relationship with
the United States. He told me he's willing to engage positively with
Iraq, and have direct discussions with Israel over the Golan
Heights-with Americans at the table. I will encourage the
Administration to take him up on it.

"Of course, Syria will not
suddenly move against Iran," Kerry said. "But the Syrians will act in
their best interest, as they did in their indirect negotiations with
Israel with Turkey's assistance-and over the objections of Iran."

Assad was full of confidence and was impatiently anticipating the new
Administration in Washington when I spoke to him late last year in
Damascus. Trained as an ophthalmologist, partly in London, he took over
the Presidency in 2000, after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, who
amassed enormous personal power in thirty years of brutal rule. Bashar
had not expected a life as the Syrian leader-his older brother, Basil,
who was killed in an accident in 1994, had been groomed to replace
their father. Bashar, thirty-four when he became President, was said to
be a lesser figure than either of them. He has since consolidated his
position-both by modernizing the economy and by suppressing domestic
opposition-and, when we spoke, it was clear that he had come to relish
the exercise of power.

Assad said that if America's leaders
"are seeking peace they have to deal with Syria and they have to deal
with our rights, which is the Golan Heights." In the Six-Day War, in
1967, Israel seized the Golan Heights, about four hundred and fifty
square miles of territory that is rich in Biblical history and,
crucially, in water. It includes part of the Jordan River Valley and a
plateau overlooking the river which extends to Mt. Hermon, in the
north. Syria was left with no access to the Sea of Galilee and the
upper Jordan River. Roughly twenty thousand Israeli settlers live
there, and they have built towns, vineyards, and boutique hotels in its
valleys and strategic heights.

Assad said, "The land is not
negotiable, and the Israelis know that we are not going to negotiate
the line of 1967." But he suggested that compromises were possible. "We
only demarcate the line," he said. "We negotiate the relations, the
water, and everything else." Many who are close to the process assume
that an Israeli-Syrian settlement would include reparations for the
Israelis in the Golan Heights, and, for a time, the right of access to
the land. Assad said, "You discuss everything after the peace and
getting your land. Not before."

If Israel wants a settlement
that goes beyond the Golan Heights, Assad said, it will have to "deal
with the core issue"-the situation in the West Bank and Gaza-"and not
waste time talking about who is going to send arms to Hezbollah or
Hamas. Wherever you have resistance in the region, they will have
armaments somehow. It is very simple." He added, "Hezbollah is in
Lebanon and Hamas is in Palestine. . . . If they want to solve the
problem of Hezbollah, they have to deal with Lebanon. For Hamas, they
have to deal with Gaza. For Iran, it is not part of the peace process
anyway." Assad went on, "This peace is about peace between Syria and

In his e-mail after the Gaza war, Assad emphasized that
it was more than ever "essential that the United States play a
prominent and active role in the peace process." What he needed, Assad
said, was direct contact with Obama. A conference would not be enough:
"It is most natural to want a meeting with President Obama."

the Netanyahu government is to trade land for peace, it needs to be
assured of domestic political support-and help from Washington. In
September, 2007, Israel destroyed what it claimed was a potential
Syrian nuclear-weapons reactor during a cross-border raid, an action
that won the approval of the Israeli public. (Syria insisted there was
no reactor on the site.) At the time, the two countries were already
laying the groundwork for the indirect negotiations. In December, 2008,
Ehud Olmert, who was then Prime Minister, flew to Ankara, Turkey, and
conducted more than five hours of intense talks on the return of the
Golan Heights, with the mediation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan, who was often in direct telephone contact with Bashar Assad.
But Olmert's standing was tarnished, both inside Israel, by a series of
criminal investigations that led to his resignation (he has denied any
wrongdoing), and outside Israel, by the Gaza war, which began days
after he left Ankara.

Netanyahu's coalition government will
include, as Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the Israel
Beytenu Party, who has argued for a measure, aimed at Israeli-Arabs,
requiring citizens to take loyalty oaths or forfeit many of their
rights, and has rejected any land-for-peace agreement with Syria
(though he is open to trading other territories); and, as Defense
Minister, Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, who has consistently
supported talks with Syria. Current opinion polls indicate that the
majority of Israelis do not support a full withdrawal from the Golan
Heights. Netanyahu himself-in what was widely seen as a plea for
votes-declared two days before the elections that he would not return
the Golan Heights.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New
America Foundation, who served on Israeli peace delegations in 1995 and
2001 and also as an adviser to Prime Minister Barak, said that
Netanyahu "may have huge coalition problems, not least within his own
Likud Party," and that he "may have to publicly disavow any
land-for-peace agreement, given his political position. Can the Syrians
swallow that? If they can't, it means that the only option left will be
secret talks." Levy added, "Barak's appointment does not change the
fundamental dynamics of the coalition, but it means that Bibi
[Netanyahu] has a Defense Minister who will be on board for dealing
with Syria, who wants to deal with Syria-and who also will be on board
for doing it in secret."

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli
Ambassador to Washington, who was Israel's chief negotiator with Syria
under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and informally advises his
government on Syrian issues, argued that the war in Gaza had not
changed Israel's essential interest in a Golan Heights settlement:
"Gaza is Gaza, and I say that Bashar Assad definitely wants to go ahead
with the talks. And he may find a partner in Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi would
prefer to make a deal with Syria rather than with the Palestinians."

if the talks are to proceed, Rabinovich said, "they will have to be
transformed to direct negotiations." This would require the support and
involvement of the Obama Administration. Rabinovich said that he
thought Obama, like Netanyahu, "after weighing the pros and cons, will
see a Golan Heights settlement as being more feasible" than a deal with
the Palestinians. "The talks are serious, and there is a partner."

former American diplomat, who is an expert on the Golan Heights, said
that it would take between three and five years to evacuate Israelis
living there. "During that time, if there is a party moderating the
agreement-the U.S., perhaps-it would be necessary for that party to
stay engaged, to make sure that the process stays on course," he said.
This factor may explain why Assad wants the U.S. involved. "The key
point is that the signing of an agreement is just the beginning-and
third parties are needed to reinforce the agreement."

Middle East strategy is still under review in the State Department and
the National Security Council. The Administration has been distracted
by the economic crisis, and impeded by the large number of key foreign-
and domestic-policy positions yet to be filled. Obama's appointment of
former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy for Middle East
diplomacy, on January 22nd, won widespread praise, but Mitchell has yet
to visit Syria. Diplomatic contacts with Damascus were expanded in late
February, and informal exchanges with Syria have already taken place.
According to involved diplomats, the Administration's tone was one of
dialogue and respect-and not a series of demands. For negotiations to
begin, the Syrians understood that Washington would no longer insist
that Syria shut down the Hamas liaison office in Damascus and oust its
political leader, Khaled Meshal. Syria, instead, will be asked to play
a moderating role with the Hamas leadership, and urge a peaceful
resolution of Hamas's ongoing disputes with Israel and the Palestinian
Authority. The Syrians were also told that the Obama Administration was
reevaluating the extent of Syria's control over Hezbollah. (The White
House did not respond to requests for comment.)

The United States
has been involved in negotiations over the Golan Heights before,
notably those brokered by Bill Clinton in Shepherdstown, West Virginia,
in 2000. Those talks, despite their last-minute collapse over border
disputes, among other issues, provided the backbone for the recent
indirect negotiations. Martin Indyk, who advised Clinton at
Shepherdstown, said that those talks were about "territory for peace."
Now, he said, "it's about territory for peace and strategic realignment."

the long campaign for the White House, Obama often criticized Syria for
its links to terrorism, its "pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,"
and its interference in Lebanon, where Syria had troops until 2005 and
still plays a political role. (Assad dismissed the criticisms in his
talk with me: "We do not bet on speeches during the campaign.") But
Obama said that he would be willing to sit down with Assad in the first
year of his Presidency without preconditions. He also endorsed the
Syrian peace talks with Israel. "We must never force Israel to the
negotiating table, but neither should we ever block negotiations when
Israel's leaders decide that they may serve Israeli interests," he said
at the annual conference, last June, of the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC). "As President, I will do whatever I can to help Israel succeed in these negotiations."

differences between Obama's Syria policies and those of the
Administration of George W. Bush have attracted relatively little
attention. In December, 2006, the Iraq Study Group called for direct
talks with Syria. In a speech soon afterward, Bush explained why he
disagreed. "I think it would be counterproductive at this point to sit
down with the Syrians, because Syria knows exactly what it takes to get
better relations," he said. The President then provided a list: stop
its support for Hamas and Hezbollah; stop meddling in Lebanon;
cooperate in the investigation of the murder, in 2005, of Rafik Hariri,
Lebanon's former Prime Minister; and stop serving as "a transit way for
suicide bombers heading into Iraq." (The Bush Administration accused
Syria of failing to monitor its long border with Iraq, and, last
October, staged a raid into Syria, killing eight people, one of whom
was said to be a senior Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia operative. A huge
number of Iraqi refugees have also fled to Syria, straining the
economy.) Bush added dismissively, "When people go sit down with Bashar
Assad, the President of Syria, he walks out and holds a press
conference, and says, 'Look how important I am. People are coming to
see me; people think I'm vital.' "

An official who served with
the Bush Administration said that late last year the Administration
thought it was unrealistic to engage Syria on the Golan Heights. "The
Bush view was, if we support the talks, with no preconditions, what are
we going to say to our supporters in Lebanon who are standing up to
Hezbollah? 'You stood up to Hezbollah'-and where are we?"

noted late last year that the Bush White House did not "have to trust
me, because they are not involved in peace anyway. . . .They created a
lot of problems around the world and they exacerbated the situation in
every hot spot [and] made the world more vulnerable to terrorism. This
is the most important thing," he said. "Nobody can say the opposite."

the Bush era wound down, U.S. allies were making their own openings to
Syria. In mid-November, David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary,
distressed the White House by flying to Damascus for a meeting with
Assad. They agreed that Britain and Syria would establish a high-level
exchange of intelligence. Vice-President Dick Cheney viewed the move by
Britain-"perfidious Albion," as he put it-as "a stab in the back,"
according to a former senior intelligence official.

In his
e-mail, Assad praised the diplomatic efforts of former President Jimmy
Carter. "Carter is most knowledgeable about the Middle East and he does
not try to dictate or give sermons," Assad said. "He sincerely is
trying to think creatively and find solutions that are outside the
box." Carter's calls for engagement with Hamas have angered many in
Israel and America. In "We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land," published
in January, Carter described Syria as "a key factor in any overall
regional peace." Last December, Carter visited Syria, and met not only
with President Assad but with Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader.

senior White House official confirmed that the Obama transition team
had been informed in advance of Carter's trip to Syria, and that Carter
met with Obama shortly before the Inauguration. The two men-Obama was
accompanied only by David Axelrod, the President's senior adviser, who
helped arrange the meeting; and Carter by his wife, Rosalynn-discussed
the Middle East for an hour. Carter declined to discuss his meeting
with Obama, but he did write in an e-mail that he hoped the new
President "would pursue a wide-ranging dialogue as soon as possible
with the Assad government." An understanding between Washington and
Damascus, he said, "could set the stage for successful Israeli-Syrian

The Obama transition team also helped persuade Israel
to end the bombing of Gaza and to withdraw its ground troops before the
Inauguration. According to the former senior intelligence official, who
has access to sensitive information, "Cheney began getting messages
from the Israelis about pressure from Obama" when he was
President-elect. Cheney, who worked closely with the Israeli leadership
in the lead-up to the Gaza war, portrayed Obama to the Israelis as a
"pro-Palestinian," who would not support their efforts (and, in
private, disparaged Obama, referring to him at one point as someone who
would "never make it in the major leagues"). But the Obama team let it
be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of "smart
bombs" and other high-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel.
"It was Jones"-retired Marine General James Jones, at the time
designated to be the President's national-security adviser-"who came up
with the solution and told Obama, 'You just can't tell the Israelis to
get out.' " (General Jones said that he could not verify this account;
Cheney's office declined to comment.)

relationship with Iran will emerge as the crucial issue in the
diplomatic reviews now under way in Washington. A settlement, the
Israelis believe, would reduce Iran's regional standing and influence.
"I'd love to be a fly on the wall when Bashar goes to Tehran and
explains to the Supreme Leader that he wants to mediate a bilateral
relationship with the United States," the former American diplomat
said, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

An Israeli official
acknowledged that his government had learned of "tensions between Syria
and Iran in recent months." Before Gaza, he said, there had been a
noticeable change in the Syrian tone during informal contacts-"an
element of openness, candor, and civility." He cautioned, however, "You
can move diplomatically with the Syrians, but you cannot ignore Syria's
major role in arming Hamas and Hezbollah, or the fact that it has
intimate relations with Iran, whose nuclear program is still going
forward." He added, with a smile, "No one in Israel is running out to
buy a new suit for the peace ceremony on the White House lawn."

Indyk said, "If the White House engages with Syria, it immediately puts
pressure on Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah." He said that he had repeatedly
sought, without success, to convince the Bush Administration that it
was possible to draw Syria away from Iran. In his recent memoir,
"Innocent Abroad," Indyk wrote, "There is a deep divergence between
Iran and Syria, captured in the fact that at the same time as Iran's
president threatens to wipe Israel off the map, his Syrian ally is
attempting to make peace with Israel. . . . Should negotiations yield a
peace agreement, it would likely cause the breakup of the
Iranian-Syrian axis." When we spoke, he added, referring to Assad, "It
will not be easy for him to break with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, but
he cannot get a peace deal unless he does. But, if he feels that things
are moving in the Middle East, he will not want to be left behind."

Thomas Dine, who served as the executive director of AIPAC
in Washington for thirteen years, said, "You don't have to be
Kissingerian to realize that this is the way to peel the onion from
Iran." Dine went on, "Get what you can get and take one step at a time.
The agenda is to get Syria to begin thinking about its relationships
with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah." A Pentagon consultant said, "If we
ever really took yes for an answer from Syria, the Iranians would go

The official Syrian position toward Iran, which Assad
repeated to me, is that Iran did not object to the Golan Heights talks,
on the principle that any return of sovereign land was to be applauded:
"They announced this publicly . . . and I went to Iran and I heard the
same." But there is some evidence that the Syrians may be, in Dine's
terms, reassessing the relationship. The senior Syrian official said
that an opening to the West would bring the country increased tourism,
trade, and investment, and a higher standard of living-progress that
would eventually make it less reliant on Iran. If Israel then attacked
Iran, he asked, "what will Syria do?" His answer was that Syria
wouldn't do more than condemn the attack. "What else could we do?"

an interview in Berlin, Joschka Fischer, the former German Foreign
Minister, who has continued to closely monitor Middle Eastern affairs,
argued that the Iranians would "have to make a public move" after a
settlement. "Yes, they will react to an Israeli-Syria deal, because
they do not want to be isolated, and do not want to lose their last
ally to the West." In other words, serious regional diplomacy could be

However, Alastair Crooke, a former British
intelligence officer who operated in the Middle East and later served
as an adviser to the European Union and a staff member for a
fact-finding committee on the Middle East headed by Mitchell, said that
the new Administration should not assume that Bashar Assad could be
separated easily from Iran, or persuaded to give up support for Hamas
and Hezbollah. "Bashar now has enormous standing in the Arab world, and
it comes from these pillars-he was among the first to oppose the
American war in Iraq and his continued support for Iran, Hezbollah, and
Hamas," Crooke said. "He cannot trade the Golan Heights for peace with
Israel, and cut off his allies. What Syria can do is offer its good
standing and credentials to lead a comprehensive regional settlement."
But, he said, "the Obama Administration is going to make it really
painful for Syria. There will be no bouquets for Syria."

He went
on, "The real goal of Assad is not necessarily an agreement on the
Golan but to begin to engage America and slice away the American
demonization of his state." The changed political landscape in Israel
would complicate this process for the Syrians. He said, "They're
starting all these processes to break their isolation and change their
strategy. It's going to be bloody difficult for them to manage this."

Pastor, a former National Security Council official who has visited
Damascus with former President Carter, similarly said that he believed
the Syrians had no intention of ending their relationship with Iran.
"The Syrians want bilateral talks with Washington and they also want
America to be involved in their talks with Israel on the Golan
Heights," Pastor said. "They also believe their relationship with Iran
could be of help to the Obama Administration. They believe they could
be a bridge between Washington and Tehran."

Meshal, the leader of Hamas, works in an office in a well-protected,
tranquil residential area of Damascus. In recent years, he has met
privately with Jewish leaders and Americans. Meshal is seen by Israel
as a sponsor of suicide bombers and other terrorist activity. In 1997,
he survived a botched assassination-by-poisoning attempt by Israeli
intelligence which Netanyahu, then the Prime Minister, had ordered.
Under pressure from Jordan and the U.S., the Israelis handed over the
poison's antidote, saving Meshal's life.

Speaking through a
translator, Meshal said that he believed that the Iranians would not
interfere with negotiations between Israel and Syria, although they
were not enthusiastic about them. Meshal also said he doubted that
Israel intended to return the Golan Heights to Syrian control. But, he
said, "If we suppose that Israel is serious, we support the right of
Syria to negotiate with Israel to attain its legitimate rights."

presence in Damascus had, he knew, been a contentious issue in Syria's
relations with both the United States and Israel. "Bashar would never
ask us to leave," he said. "There are some who believe that Hamas would
react defensively to an agreement, because of our presence in Syria.
But it does not make a difference where our offices are. We are a
street movement and our real power is inside Palestine, and nothing can
affect that. We are confident about Bashar Assad, and we would never
risk being a burden to him. . . . We can move at any time, and move
lightly. The Hamas movement will not work against the interests of any
other country, and any agreement can be concluded, whether we like it
or not. But, also, we don't want anyone to interfere in our affairs."

al-Shara, the Vice-President of Syria, was, as Foreign Minister, his
nation's chief negotiator at Shepherdstown. When he was asked whether
Syria's relationship with Iran would change if the Golan Heights issue
was resolved, he said, "Do you think a man only goes to bed with a
woman he deeply loves?" Shara laughed, and added, "That's my answer to
your question about Iran."

There are other
impediments to a new relationship between the United States and Syria,
including the still unresolved question of who killed Rafik Hariri, the
former Lebanese Prime Minister, who was assassinated in February, 2005.
Years of investigation have produced no criminal charges. The Bush
Administration suggested that the Syrians were at least indirectly
responsible for Hariri's death-he had been a sharp critic of Syria's
involvement in Lebanon-and it wasn't alone; Hariri's murder exacerbated
tensions between Syria and France and Saudi Arabia. But the case is
clearly less important to French President Nicolas Sarkozy than it was
to his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who was close to Hariri. ("This was
personal for Chirac, and not political," Joschka Fischer said.) An
adviser to the Saudi government said that King Abdullah did not accept
Assad's assurances that he had nothing to do with the murder. But there
has recently been a flurry of renewed diplomatic contacts between
Damascus and Riyadh.

One issue that may be a casualty of an
Obama rapprochement with Syria is human rights. Syrians are still being
jailed for speaking out against the policies of their government. Sarah
Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said
that Assad "has been offering fig leafs to the Americans for a long
time and thinks if he makes nice in Lebanon and with Hamas and
Hezbollah he will no longer be an outcast. We believe that no amount of
diplomatic success will solve his internal problems." The authorities,
Whitson said, are "going after ordinary Syrians-like people chatting in
cafes. Everyone is looking over their shoulder."

Assad, in his
interview with me, acknowledged, "We do not say that we are a
democratic country. We do not say that we are perfect, but we are
moving forward." And he focussed on what he had to offer. He said that
he had a message for Obama: Syria, as a secular state, and the United
States faced a common enemy in Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism. The Bush
White House, he said, had viewed the fundamentalists as groups "that
you should go and chase, and then you will accomplish your mission, as
Bush says. It is not that simple. How do you deal with a state of mind?
You can deal with it in many different ways-except for the army."
Speaking of Obama, he said in his e-mail, "We are happy that he has
said that diplomacy-and not war-is the means of conducting
international policy."

Assad's goal in seeking to engage with
America and Israel is clearly more far-reaching than merely to regain
the Golan Heights. His ultimate aim appears to be to persuade Obama to
abandon the Bush Administration's strategy of aligning America with the
so-called "moderate" Arab Sunni states-Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and
Jordan-in a coordinated front against Shiite Iran, Shiite Hezbollah,
and Hamas.

"Of course, the Iranians are nervous about the talks,
because they don't fully trust the Syrians," Itamar Rabinovich said.
"But the Assad family does not believe in taking chances-they're very
hard bargainers. They will try to get what they want without breaking
fully from Iran, and they will tell us and Washington, 'It's to your
advantage not to isolate Iran.' " Rabinovich added, "Both Israel and
the United States will insist on a change in Syria's relationship with
Iran. This can only be worked out-or not-in head-to-head talks."

White House has tough diplomatic choices to make in the next few
months. Assad has told the Obama Administration that his nation can
ease the American withdrawal in Iraq. Syria also can help the U.S.
engage with Iran, and the Iranians, in turn, could become an ally in
neighboring Afghanistan, as the Obama Administration struggles to deal
with the Taliban threat and its deepening involvement in that
country-and to maintain its long-standing commitment to the well-being
of Israel. Each of these scenarios has potential downsides. Resolving
all of them will be formidable, and will involve sophisticated and
intelligent diplomacy-the kind of diplomacy that disappeared during the
past eight years, and that the Obama team has to prove it possesses.

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