February 12, 2009

Syrian Air and the Israeli elections

Syrian Air Boeing 747SP Syrian Air Boeing 747SP

What do Syrian Air*, the national airline of Syria, and Tuesday's elections in Israel have in common? More than you might think.

The U.S. government has given clearance to the Boeing corporation to overhaul Syrian Air's two Boeing 747SP aircraft, a reversal of the previous administration policy to isolate Syria. The Bush administration re-added Syria to the state sponsors of terrorism list in 2004 in response to Syria's complicity in allowing al-Qa'idah fighters to cross its borders into Syria. The two aircraft have been grounded for airworthiness issues for a year.

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad hopes the Obama administration will be more open to better relations with Damascus. The Syrian Air deal might be a small gesture on the part of the new American administration to signal its intention to improve relations and re-engage on the Syria track of the moribund Middle East peace process.

The deal comes at a good time for Syria. Not only are the two 747's inoperable, but a multibillion dollar deal with Airbus to acquire (a combination of purchase and lease) over 50 new aircraft had been held up by the previous administration - Airbus aircraft contain American components.

The approval of the Boeing contract coincides with an upcoming trip to Syria by two senior American politicians. Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Congressman Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will travel to Damascus to meet with President Asad. Unlike House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's misguided trip to Syria two years ago, this visit has the support of the White House. One must assume (and hope) that Kerry and Berman have been provided talking points by the administration.

A change of policy toward Syria is a good idea. The previous administration's efforts to isolate Syria failed. After Syria was forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in 2005 after being accused of complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Damascus has been successful in recovering its influence in the region, mostly via continued support for Hizballah. AS an aside, I don't think the Syrians were "complicit," I think they outright did it.

Without Syrian support for Hizballah during its war with Israel in 2006, the group would have been destroyed. Now Hizbllah is arguably the key power broker in Lebanon - and it does the dabkah (national dance of Lebanon) to the sounds of a Syrian 'ud (lute).

It has also been reported that Fred Hof will be appointed as the new ambassador to Syria - and he will actually man hs post. Although we have had an ambassador to Syria since 1952 (except 1967-1974), the current ambassador has been in a "recalled to Washington" status since the Hariri assassination in 2005. Fred is a retired U.S. Army colonel with extensive experience in the region and is the right man to re-engage the Syrians.

So what does all this have to do with Israeli elections?

The results, with almost all the votes counted, point to a slight Kadima win, getting 28 seats. (See my article, Israeli Elections - And they're off....) Kadima is led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Likud, under former Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, garnered just one less seat. Many observers - me included - believe that Mrs. Livni will find it difficult to forge a coalition. She needs 61 seats to form a government.

Benjamin Netanyahu and the author Benjamin Netanyahu and the author

Mr. Netanyahu may have a better chance of forming a coalition. If he does, he will emerge as the new prime minister of Israel. That would be a potential problem - to put it mildly - for President Obama's efforts to advance the Syrian track of the peace process.

Why? During one of his campaign appearances just prior to last Tuesday's election, the Likud leader said that if he became prime minister, he would oppose returning the occupied Golan Heights to Syria.

Return of the Golan Heights is the absolute minimum Syrian requirement for a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. An Israeli position that the return of the Heights is off the table effectively ends the Syrian track of the peace process. No matter what the Obama administration does, no matter how much better U.S.-Syrian relations become, it will never lead to success in ending the state of war between Syria and Israel.

In fact, the ascension of Netanyahu may push Syria to continue to seek advanced weaponry, conventional and other. Syria already has chemical weapons and the means to delivery them - both aircraft and missiles - virtually anywhere in Israel. Although their clandestine nuclear reactor in northeast Syria was destroyed by Israel in September 2007, Damascus may still seek a nuclear capability.

Most Israelis realize that the Heights are not, and have never been, part of Israel. The area has been occupied by Israel since it was seized by Israeli troops in the 1967 Six Day war. The area has been under Israeli administration - not annexation - for years. The arguments that the Golan Heights has strategic defense value no longer hold water. Syria does not need the plateau overlooking Lake Tiberias/Sea of Galilee (photo left)to strike those areas.

Israel does have a valid concern about the loss of its huge signals intelligence site (photo right) on the Golan Heights at Tal Abu Nada/Har Avital (depending on whose map and language you use). More importantly, the Golan Heights are the headwaters of the Jordan River, one of Israel's primary sources of water.

The juxtaposition and confluence of interests is astounding. The United States, or more correctly the Obama administration, wants to improve its relationship with Syria. It also has a commitment to its ally in the region, Israel, which has taken a stance that basically kills the peace process.