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Aug 26, 2008 | 19:11 GMT

4 mins read

Syria, Israel: Peace Talks and Entanglements With Russia

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Aug. 25 that the Turkish-brokered indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel have not progressed enough for direct talks to take place. Although Syria did not receive any major reassurances from Russia after the outbreak of the Russo-Georgian war, Syria wants to gain leverage against Israel and is trying to create the perception that Moscow has given Damascus options. Israel, however, appears to be calling Syria's bluff.
During an Aug. 25 press conference with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared that the Turkish-mediated peace talks Syria has been holding with Israel have "regrettably" not progressed enough for the long-time adversaries to hold direct talks. Al-Moallem's comments come shortly after Syrian President Bashar al Assad told the Arabic-language broadcast of Russia Today TV that while he was willing to give peace with Israel a chance, the talks had failed and he has "no confidence in Israel's peace intentions." This is a definite shift in tone coming from the Syrians. Previous official statements from Damascus on its indirect peace negotiations with Israel have all been marked by cautious optimism, with both the Israeli and Syrian sides regularly remarking on the progress made thus far in their meetings. Thanks to the Russians, however, the Syrians are now giving the impression that the glass is suddenly half empty and their talks with the Israelis are going nowhere. There is a good reason for this apparent Syrian about-face. Shortly after Russia made its military incursion into Georgia, the Syrian president booked a flight to Moscow. The logic was simple: Russia had kick-started a campaign to confront the West in a major show of force. Naturally, the Russians would be looking for additional levers to use against the Americans. Syria is one such lever. If Syria could get its hands on some key weapons systems or get the Russian navy to park itself off the Syrian Mediterranean coast, the Syrians could get the security guarantees they need to gain influence in their own neighborhood, especially regarding Israel. But while the Syrians are looking for an opportunity in the Russian resurgence, there is no guarantee that they will get the great power alliance that they are seeking from Moscow. Al Assad's recent visit to Moscow failed to yield any concrete defense deals, and the Russians took care to downplay any major boost in military assistance that they might offer to the Syrians. In the Russian view, Syria is a few notches below Iran on the Middle Eastern totem pole, and it does not appear that Moscow is too keen on using the Syria option to meddle seriously with the West just yet. Syrian foreign policy, however, runs roughly on 90 percent bluff and 10 percent hope. If the Syrians can, at the very, least create the perception that the Russians have given them options, and that they no longer see it in their vital interest to make peace with the Israelis, they can still hope to gain some leverage in negotiations with the Jewish state and capture Washington's attention. This is likely why STRATFOR sources in Syria are giving information on an alleged Russian sale of the S-300 air defense system to Syria — a sale the Russians themselves have publicly discounted. So far, the Israelis do not appear to be buying this latest Syrian drama. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that even though the date for the next round of talks between Israel and Syria has not yet been announced, Syria's quest for Russian weapons and support from Moscow has not altered Israel's stance on the importance of peace negotiations with Damascus. In other words, Israel is calling Syria's bluff and is maintaining that the peace talks are well on track. And the Israelis have a reason to be confident. As soon as the Russo-Georgian war broke out, Israel wasted no time in calling up the Russian leadership and reaffirming a prior understanding that would involve Israeli restraint in arming the Georgians, likely in return for Russia keeping its hands off Syria and Iran. Unfortunately for the Syrians, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be traveling to Moscow soon to make sure this deal stays intact.
Syria, Israel: Peace Talks and Entanglements With Russia

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