Seymour Hersh hopes for peace in the Middle East…

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, dated 6 April, Seymour Hersh writes:
“Obama’s 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 reëvaluating the extent of Syria’s control over Hezbollah. (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.)

“A 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 talks.”

“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.)

“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 cafés. 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 coördinated 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’.

“The 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”.
This Seymour Hersh article can be read in full in The New Yorker here.

Syria accepts invitation to Annapolis Conference

Haaretz has just reported “Government sources in Damascus said Sunday that the Syrian government will send its deputy foreign minister [Faysal Mekdad] to the Annapolis peace conference this week”. The Haaretz report is here.

The Jerusalem Post reported that “in recent days the Annapolis conference has also turned into a meeting that is to a large degree about Syria”. The JPost article added that “While there is no love lost in Washington for Syrian President Bashar Assad, Syria’s presence at the meeting is something that in a matter of months has gone from something that the US indicated it would tolerate, to something that the US now wants badly. And not only the US. Jordan’s King Abdullah II made a rare trip to Damascus Sunday to try and get Assad on board. As odd as it may sound, Syria is the prize. The US wants to see Syria at Annapolis because its presence there will be proof that it may very well be possible to peel Syria out of Iran’s orbit and into the warm embrace of the ‘normative’ Arab world … Washington is so keen on seeing some kind of Syrian presence at Annapolis that it has apparently given assurances that “Syrian issues” will be addressed there in some fashion. And Syrian issues in this context means only one thing: the Golan Heights. Syria has made it clear that it would not show up in Maryland unless the Golan was on the agenda … Assad has a price for his attendance and for moving away from Iran, a price that – sooner or later – Israel will be asked to pay”.  The JPost commentary on Syria’s just-confirmed participation in the Annapolis event is here.

The Associated Press is reporting that “On the plane carrying [Israeli FM Tzipi] Livni and [Israeli PM Ehud] Olmert to the U.S., Livni suggested that a lack of Arab backing contributed to the failure of the last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which broke down in bloodshed in early 2001. The Arab world, she said, ‘should stop sitting on the fence’. ‘There isn’t a single Palestinian who can reach an agreement without Arab support’, she said. ‘That’s one of the lessons we learned seven years ago’.”  The AP report is here.

But, a commentator in Haaretz said, “Saud al-Faisal and his colleagues should treat Olmert like Sadat treated Begin in 1977 – not like Farouk al-Shara treated Ehud Barak in Shepherdstown in 2000”.  The then-Syrian Foreign Minister refused to shake hands with the then-Israeli Prime Minister. The commentator added that “the Arab guests at the summit must break their psychological barriers. If the stances taken (or orchestrated) at the summit succeed in shaking the lack of confidence the Israeli public has in the intentions of the Palestinians and the Arab states, its opinion may change. In this respect, it is disappointing to hear the announcement of the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia that he is traveling to the U.S., but does not intend to take part “in this theatrical gesture of shaking hands.” The behavior of the Arab foreign ministers toward the Israeli delegation to Annapolis will press a sensitive point among Israelis – their fear that they may be seen as suckers”.  The commentary in Haaretz is published here.

The political crisis in Lebanon is another a very important reason that everyone, in the end, desperately wanted Syria to attend [See our earlier posts, here, and here].

And, the Lebanese acting foreign minister [Tarek Mitri] has also just arrived in the U.S. to attend the Annapolis conference (though Hizbollah has protested this.)

Is Syria going to Annapolis? cont'd (1)

Haaretz newspaper is reporting today that Israel’s air strike on Syria in September has made it possible for the U.S. to invite Syria to Annapolis (!)

Haaretz says that “The Bush administration decided to invite Syria to the Annapolis conference due to Israel’s September air strike on what foreign media have termed a Syrian nuclear facility, American officials said. ‘Syria lost an important card in the air force strike, and that moved even members of the administration’s conservative camp to reconsider the position on Damascus‘, one said. The officials added that inviting Syria would reduce the likelihood of its encouraging Hezbollah and Hamas to undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that Annapolis is supposed to launch.  Israeli and American officials held talks over the weekend on a formula for referring to the Syrian track that would suffice to bring Syria to the conference without undermining Israel’s interests. In the end, Washington decided to change the topic of the third session from ‘the Arab states’ involvement in the process’ to ‘the effort to achieve a comprehensive regional peace’ – language that implies peace deals with Syria and Lebanon as well as the Palestinians“. The Haaretz report on Syria’s presence being encouraged in Annapolis is here.

The Haaretz article also reported that “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak all left for Annapolis Saturday night. Speaking on board his plane as he was about to leave for Washington, Olmert said Israel would ‘view positively’ Syria’s participation in the conference. ‘We have said constantly that we are interested in Syria participating’, Olmert said.

Is Syria going to Annapolis?

Yes/No. Yes/No.

Well, after the Arab League Ministerial Meeting in Cairo on Friday, maybe.

Our guess: Yes/But.

Whatever happens, Syria will not want to be left out.

Here is a fascinating analysis of the possibility that was just published in the Wall Street Journal: “…[T]here are growing signs the White House may be moving to do something it’s uniformly dismissed in the past: facilitate direct negotiations between Israel and Syria over the disputed Golan Heights. In recent days, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior officials have said the U.S. wouldn’t object to Syria’s raising Golan at Annapolis. Meanwhile, Israel has pursued a peace dialogue with Damascus, eager to calm tensions on its northeastern border and quash strong Syrian support for Palestinian extremist groups. Mr. Olmert has used Turkish intermediaries to explore options with the Syrians, according to Israeli officials. Retired Israeli diplomats also have held unofficial talks with a confidante of Mr. Assad’s over the past few years in an effort to find a formula to solve the Golan dispute. Many Israeli officials say Washington and Jerusalem should seek to wean Syria away from its growing alliance with Iran. They see the U.S.’s punitive actions against Damascus as driving President Assad further into the Iranian camp. ‘Maybe it’s time to employ the carrot to remove [Syria] from the axis of evil’, the deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, said in Washington last month. This will ‘prevent the Iranian influence’, he said. [n.b. there was a golden opportunity at the end of the Cold War, when Syria’s former main benefactor, the Soviet Union, collapsed. But no — the U.S. want to continue to indicate its displeasure with Syria. So, enter Iran …]

The Wall Street Journal continues: “A number of U.S. officials, particularly in the White House, have voiced reservations about engaging the Syrians. They particularly worry that any talks with Damascus could hurt Lebanon, which Syria occupied for more then 30 years before withdrawing in 2005 after the Hariri murder. The belief is that Syria will demand renewed political influence inside Lebanon in return for peace with Israel. U.S. officials particularly believe Damascus is playing a central role in the current political standoff in Beirut, where governing and opposition groups have been unable to elect a new president for weeks. Lebanon’s president Friday declared a state of emergency , arguing the additional security was needed to ward off a civil war. ‘We wouldn’t have the problems we see today in Lebanon if Syria were deciding to take a different role. Plain and simple’, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch told a Senate hearing earlier this month. at the same time, U.S. officials, including Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, have been praising Damascus for what they say has been its ‘robust’ effort recently to cut off the flow of foreign fighters crossing into Iraq. Some Syria analysts say there are indications that President Assad has taken steps to limit the movements of militant leaders based in Damascus, such as Hamas’s political head, Khaled Mashal. A Syrian diplomat said his government has significantly increased the policing of its borders into Iraq, including developing more watchtowers and border patrols. The Syrian government also allowed foreign diplomats, including a U.S. representative, to monitor its border operations during a tour earlier this month”. The WSJ piece can be read here.

The AP reported from Cairo on Friday that “The Arab League decision [to attend the Annapolis event], made after intense discussions late Thursday and Friday, meant that the members of a league committee tasked earlier this year with dealing with the peace process will attend Annapolis. Those countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Much of the day’s talks were focused on trying to persuade Syria that the conference would at least in some way address the Golan issue. The league gathering sent a joint letter to Washington demanding that the conference deal with relaunching negotiations between Israel and Syria, which wants the full return of the Golan in return for peace.

At Friday’s Arab League meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the inclusion of the Syrian track at Annapolis.

According to Arab diplomats, while Washington’s invitation did not specifically call for resumption of negotiations on the Golan, it referred to UN resolutions concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which calls for a return for Arab lands seized in 1967 in return for full peace with Israel. [n.b. Israel is adamant that any talks must be based on this UN Resolution 242.]

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there would be room at Annapolis to talk about the Golan.” [n.b., this would apparently be in the context of discussion of “national interests”.] The AP report from Cairo is here.

A U.S. State Department Spokesman, Karl Duckworth, reportedly told journalists Friday that “All attendees are entitled to express their views and national interests as they see them,” Duckworth said, reading a statement…” This AFP report can be seen here.

The dispute between Israel and Syria apparently comes down to a strip of Golan territory that comes down from the heights to the shore of the Sea of Galilee — or, as Israelis call it, Lake Kinneret. The Kinneret is the source of some one-third of Israel’s water, apparently. On a recent trip there with a group of journalists, our Israeli accompaniers and guides — several with a military background — said that Israel’s position is that Syria never had “its foot on the Kinneret” — and never will.

Well, it turns out that during the time of the Syria Mandate, run by France under the vague authority of the League of Nations, “Syria” (the state we know now did not exist then, this was a Mandatory province) did not have have its toes dipping into the Sea of Galilee. But, in the 1948 war that broke out after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the modern state of Syria did indeed get itself to the water. Note to myself: check out the borders mentioned in the UN-negotiated armistice agreement between Israel and Syria.

There was also — very significantly — a swap in 1923 between Britain, which administered (by then, separately) “Palestine” and “Transjordan”, and France, which administered “Lebanon” and “Syria” (both formerly part of Greater Syria, as was part of “Palestine”). Britain gave up the Golan to the French. Keep your eyes on the mandate — Israel’s claims and ambitions seem to be to get everything that was included in the British Mandate of Palestine, possibly as later modified by UN Security Council Resolution 242 … Forget UN General Assembly Resolution 181 in this context, which partitioned British-ruled Palestine into two states — one Jewish and one Arab. Resolution 242 calls for a return to the lines of June 1967 — not to the lines drawn by UNGA Resolution 181. Resolution 181 was adopted in November 1947, but in May 1948 Israel acquired a lot of additional territory in the area of the Palestine Mandate — and Jordan and Egypt occupied the rest. The Green Line — the 1967 cease-fire lines — delineated the Palestinian land since occupied by Israel, and from which the UN asked Israel to withdraw.

When the Palestinians declared their own state in November 1988, they claimed the West Bank and Gaza Strip areas occupied in June 1967. At that moment, international law experts say, the Palestinians relinquished any claim on land that was assigned to the “Arab” state that was to be created on the basis of UNGA Resolution 181.

But, that still leaves the question of the Golan. And the Syrians want it addressed in Annapolis. And, they want it back, every inch — apparently according to the 1949 Armistice Lines [note to myself: check this delineation].

A small part of the area where Israel, Syria, and Lebanon intersect is the Shebaa Farms — which Syria and Lebanon have said is Lebanese, but which the UN has said, until now, is part of the Golan — and thus is occupied by Israel. The UN says that Syria must resolve this problem with Israel. But Syria cannot resolve anything with Israel — including the more important question of a slice of territory along the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret).

Oh, and did I mention that Israel may also want to keep some of the “heights” in the Golan? The military men who accompanied us said that this would be only fair — they now occupy three of the heights, and Syria still has the other three. They pointed them out in the distance. Sometimes, however, Israeli officials say that they are ready to give back “all” of the Golan for a peace deal with Syria. “All” but the strip of land along the water. “All” but the heights…? Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the AP is also reporting from Lebanon that “President Emile Lahoud said Friday that Lebanon is in a ‘state of emergency’ and ordered the army to take over security powers, hours before he was stepping down without a successor and leaving a political vacuum in the divided country. The pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora rejected the move …
The president cannot declare a state of emergency without approval from the government, but Lahoud’s spokesman said Saniora’s government is considered unconstitutional … The army command refused to comment on the developments. The military had already been on alert for several days, deploying hundreds of troops in tanks, armored personnel carriers and jeeps along intersections leading to Beirut and around the downtown area where the parliament building is located. The city was normal throughout the day, but traffic was lighter than usual, and most schools were closed. Lahoud was still expected to step down when his term ends at midnight Friday. Both sides had been counting on the military to ensure calm in the political chaos, and it was unclear if Lahoud’s announcement would give the military any powers beyond security measures. But his talk of a ‘state of emergency’ raised already high tempers as both sides enter a new phase of trying to find a new president for the country. Parliament made a final attempt Friday afternoon to convene to vote on a president before Lahoud leaves office. But the opposition, led by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, boycotted the session, preventing it from reaching the necessary two-thirds quorum. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is aligned with the opposition, scheduled another session for Nov. 30 to give the factions more time to try to find a compromise candidate — which they have failed to do in weeks of talks mediated by France’s foreign minister and other international officials … Much of what happens next in Lebanon … may depend in part on Tuesday’s U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference. Syria has not formally decided whether to go to Annapolis, Md., but it likely will. Government supporters have accused Syria of using its allies in Lebanon to block a deal on the presidency until it sees what it gets in the conference. Damascus wants Annapolis to address its demands for the return of the Israeli-held Golan Heights“. The AP report on the tense situation in Lebanon is

So, the Annapolis meeting may actually have a bigger immediate impact on the crisis in Lebanon than on the situation of the Palestinian people…

Will Syria attend the Annapolis event?

Will Syria attend or not?
Will Syria be invited as part of an Arab League or Arab Committee group, or individually?
Will Syria’s occupied territory (the Golan Heights) be on the agenda?
These are some of the questions still unanswered about the apparently-looming Annapolis event.

Joshua Landis wrote on Thursday on his Syria Comment blog that “Asad is sticking to his negotiating position on the Golan. He does not want his pockets picked going into Maryland. The Arab league is of similar mind. This suggests that Saudi Arabia and Syria have been putting their heads together to some extent – a least by means of Egyptian mediation. This is a good thing. Arab unity has been absent since the invasion of Iraq, leaving the region prostrate at the feet of the West and Iran. Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt must put their heads together going into talks with the Israelis or it will be all process and no peace – that is what the Israelis and some in the Bush administration want. It is the duty of the Arab governments to get a higher price for their participation. Their stock is already low enough as it is. The last thing they need is another round of fruitless negotiations that lead nowhere but to the loss of more land in the West Bank and a lower standard of living for the Palestinians”.
This post can be read in full here.

A temporal "buffer zone" — but no timeline

Haaretz today is reporting more details from the testimony given by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee yesterday.

The Haaretz story says that “Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to a new plan that skips over the first stage of the road map – eliminating terror and dismantling the settlements – according to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Since the unveiling of the road map in 2002, Israel has been opposed to negotiations on a final-status agreement before the first stage of the road map was implemented. However last week the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams agreed that following the Annapolis summit scheduled for the end of the month, negotiations on a final-status arrangement would begin. The agreement states that if a final-status accord is reached, it would be subject to the implementation of the road map by the parties. Israel and the Palestinians entered an intensive stage of the negotiations on Monday in a bid to formulate a declaration to be presented at the Annapolis conference. The negotiating teams, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmad Qureia for the Palestinian Authority, met in Jerusalem and were to meet again Tuesday. U.S. Secretary of State Condolleezza Rice will decide based on the progress of the parties whether to come to the region again next week.
Continue reading A temporal "buffer zone" — but no timeline

UN now has a "provisional" geographical definition of Shebaa Farms

A small corner of land that belongs either to Syria or to Lebanon is a real problem that many grown men have not been able to solve. It is the Shebaa Farms.

The United Nations took the position a few years ago that it belonged to Syria — and it just so happens that that part of Syria is occupied and has been “annexed” by Israel, though this annexation has been declared “null and void” by the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly.

Syria and Lebanon wrote letters to the United Nations saying that the Shebaa Farms belongs to Lebanon — but the UN says that Syria did not provide enough documentation.

Hizballah, formed to resist the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, says that its mission will not be accomplished until the Shebaa Farms is returned to Lebanon.

And, an Israeli reserve Brigadier General told a group of journalists during a very recent tour of the Golan Heights that of course the Shebaa Farms is Lebanese. What, the journalists asked, is the problem then. But, he says, Hizballah is on the case, and the Lebanese Government does not want anything to do with Hizballah. So, the matter will stay as it is.

Israel invaded south Lebanon in 1972 because of Palestinian cross-border attacks. It withdrew unilaterally, after years of fighting Hizballah, in May 2000. Since then, Hizballah has insisted that its resistance will continue, because Israel’s withdrawal was not complete. The UN was asked to physically demarcate the Israeli-Lebanese border on the ground, and it more or less did so, with blue pillars, and painting stones blue — making the Blue Line. The UN relied on documents from the period of the French Mandate that ruled Syria, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire that was defeated during the First World War. The UN did not take Hizballah’s side.

Last summer, Israel went to war with Lebanon after Hizballah attacked a small group of Israeli soldiers near the Shebaa Farms, and seized two of them, who are still being held captive without any contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross. (Lebanese detainees are being held by Israel and Hizballah wants them returned to Lebanon.)

Yesterday, according to Haaretz, UNSG BAN Ki-moon “released the findings of cartographer Miklos Pinter, whose assignment had been to determine the borders of the disputed area. ‘I am pleased to report that, based on the best available information, the senior cartographer has arrived at a provisional definition of the Shaba Farms area’, writes the Secretary General. He also points out that ‘this exercise has not been aimed to delineate international boundaries as regards to the Shaba Farms, but should assist Lebanon and Syria in their efforts to agree upon their common border’. According to Pinter’s findings, the territory in question includes many IDF military positions, and serves as a strategic crossroads between the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel.

Continue reading UN now has a "provisional" geographical definition of Shebaa Farms