January 16, 2007

"Iraq for Land" - This might work, except...

An edited version of this article appeared on the MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger.

As the United States attempts to create the conditions that will allow it to withdraw its forces from Iraq, Iraq's Arab neighbors are worried about what happens when - and how - American forces depart. With Iranian influence and power on the rise and an escalating civil war in Iraq, the Arab countries are understandably concerned.

Those concerns are particularly acute in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. With the exception of Bahrain, all of these countries have a Sunni majority. They are rightfully concerned with the future of an Iraq ruled by a Shi'a-dominated government with close ties to the Shi'a regime in Tehran. In an effort to ensure that the post-American period in Iraq is not chaotic and detrimental to their own internal stability, several of the Arab governments have committed to help stabilize the situation in Iraq. In return they expect the United States to restart peace talks between Israel on one side and Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians on the other. This plan is expected to be presented to Secretary of State Rice during meeting with her counterparts this week while she is traveling in the region.

The inclusion of Lebanon in this proposal is a red herring. According to the United Nations, Israel has completely withdrawn from Lebanon as far back as 2000. According to Lebanon and Syria, however, Israel still occupies a piece of land (the Shaba' Farms) it claims to be part of Syria, but that Lebanon and Syria say is part of Lebanon. This fiction is the fig leaf that allows Hizballah to maintain its militia in Lebanon, counter to UN Security Council Resolutions 425 (of 1978) and 1559 (of 2004), which called for the disbanding of militias and the withdrawal of foreign forces. (See my earlier,
The Shaba' Farms - Hizballah's Fig Leaf.)

The concerned Arab countries have labeled their proposal "Iraq for Land." The United States has hoped for some time that the "moderate" Arab states (primarily Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) would use their influence among Iraq's Sunnis to lessen the violence and convince them to participate in the unity government. That influence, in conjunction with increased American special operations in the volatile Al-Anbar governorate, is expected to have an impact in defeating the Sunni insurgency and on Al-Qa'idah in Iraq's capabilities. If Syria wants to be a part of this, it will have to close down its porous border and stop its tacit support for insurgent operations in western Iraq once and for all.

In return for their assistance, representatives from these Arab countries expect the United States to broker a restart to the Middle East Peace Process, ultimately leading to an agreement in which the Israelis withdraw from all Arab lands seized in 1967. This means the Golan Heights and Shaba' Farms (Syria), and the Gaza Strip and West Bank (Palestinians). Of course, withdrawal from the Palestinian areas also means the establishment of the Palestinian state. According the King 'Abdullah II of Jordan, the Arab states will recognize Israel as a condition of the withdrawal, based on the "Arab Peace Initiative" put forth in 2002.

There is no question that resolution of the Israel-Palestinian issue is required for stability in the region. The Iraq Study Group included this in their recommendations, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said it, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak has said it, even Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad has said as much.

This might work, except...

There are some major stumbling blocks that always get in the way of these comprehensive proposals. Let's take a look, by issue:

Lebanon: The Shaba' Farms issue is fiction perpetuated by Syria and Hizballah, and at times by the Fu'ad Sinyurah government in Lebanon. The real player here is Syria. Neither Lebanon nor Hizballah has control over their own destinies - final approval for any moves will be granted in Damascus and Tehran.

Syria: Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights. Israel has been reluctant to return what has been for decades considered militarily strategic territory for Israel's security. However, with advances in weapons technology, the Heights have lost their "high ground" importance. Syria does not need the Golan to rain missiles into Israel - they can do that from north of Damascus. Israel does want to retain its intelligence collection sites on the high ground. These sites produce information the Israelis consider critical to monitor and assess Syrian military movements and capabilities. The area is also important to Israel for economic reasons - control of important water resources - the headwaters of the Jordan River.

For the return of any part of the Golan, Israel will demand that Iran and Syria cease their support (especially weapons supplies via Damascus International Airport) for Hizballah, and likely ask for some international guarantees or confidence-building measures. Additionally, Israel has extended civil administration over the Golan and made a huge investment in the infrastructure of the area, so relinquishing it to Syria will require some legal adjustments and compensation to Israeli citizens who would be displaced.

On the Syrian side, there has been disagreement on what actually constitutes the 1967 border, depending on which day in June of that year is used to determine the borders. It is not a simple process - it determines whether or not Syria has access to Lake Tiberias.

Palestine: The ultimate issue, of course, is the future of Jerusalem. Israel cannot legally, and will not politically, withdraw to the 1967 borders and turn the area over to the Palestinians. No matter how close negotiations have come in the past to a resolution of the Palestinian problem, there has never been a solution for Jerusalem acceptable to both sides. The closest resolution was a proposal to address all other issues and leave Jerusalem as "an issue to be resolved in the future."

A major problem in dealing with Palestinian issues is that there is no one group that speaks for all the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority is split into factions and there is almost a civil war developing between the Fatah faction led by President Mahmud 'Abbas and the Hamas faction led by Prime Minister Isma'il Haniyah. Haniyah has stated as recently as December that Hamas will not recognize Israel. It is difficult to imagine fruitful negotiations if one side refuses to recognize the other.

That said, overall, the "Land for Iraq" proposal deserves serious consideration. The Arabs are not asking for a settlement to the issues in return for their assistance with the situation in Iraq - they are asking that the talks be restarted. While this is certainly possible for the Syria/Lebanon track, progress on the Palestinian track will be difficult to achieve, but worth a try.