The notion that the focus of the Middle-East conference is to reach an agreement in principle between Israel and the Palestinians, and so other conflicting parties, such as Syria, are marginal to the deliberation, is fundamentally flawed. The Bush administration must quickly reassess its position regarding Syria if it wishes to achieve even a modicum of success at the conference. There are several reasons that support this argument:
First, any agreement achieved between Fatah and Israel is only half an agreement even pursued fully, which is in itself extremely doubtful. No agreement can be fully implemented without Gaza an area populated by 1.5 million Palestinians over which Hamas is in full control. There is very little that Israel or the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas can do to bring Hamas to heed. Since Syria s direct and indirect support of Hamas is critical to the organization, Damascus can exercise substantial influence over whether Hamas recants or mounts even greater resistance to any agreement between Israel and the Fatah-led government.
Second, although there is no time for Israel and Syria to reach an agreement prior to the conference, the Syrian presence at the conference offers a golden opportunity to reach a mutual declaration of intent with Israel to achieve peace through negotiations. Both Israel and Syria have openly declared their willingness to enter into unconditional negotiations. The Bush administration has, therefore, an obligation to embrace what both nations seek and not allow its obsession with regime change in Damascus to torpedo a momentous opportunity to bring about quantum change in the Middle East. It is ironic that while both Israel and Syria want and need peace, it is the administration that is preventing Israel from entering into any substantive negotiations with Syria.
Third, it is a given that for the conference to achieve even modest success, the participation of other Arab states and mustering the collective Arab will behind any emerging agreement is absolutely essential. Although the administration is fully cognizant of this fact, it has hardly deigned to pay lip service to the Arab initiative, which is the only document that expresses the Arab states collective political will to establish a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, which must include Syria. Only a united Arab position can modify the direction of Hamas and other extremist groups. And only the full-fledged participation of Saudi Arabia (as the original author of the Arab initiative) and Syria (as the most critical conflicting party, besides the Israelis and the Palestinians) will improve dramatically prospects for the conference s success, so necessary to building future progress.
Fourth, Syria, as a major Arab state and a critical antagonist of Israel, cannot be treated as an adjunct to the conference where the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict is being discussed. Although Syria was invited as part of the Arab League delegation, it is not likely to unless it is invited to attend on its own and given the opportunity to express its own grievances. From the Syrian perspective the current invitation is nothing more than a continuation of the administration s efforts to marginalize Damascus by portraying it as inconsequential to the region s future. The administration may wish this to be the case, but it is not. Syria has been, and continues to be, a major player for good or evil, depending on the prevailing geopolitical conditions and Damascus s threat perception to the present regime. There is no doubt that the administration can influence Damascus s future course of action but not to the detriment of the regime itself. America s conflict with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, the turmoil in Lebanon, the level of instability in Iraq, Palestinian extremism, and Hezbollah s fortunes are all affected by what Syria does or does not do.
This brings us to the fundamental question: Since the policy of regime change in Damascus, so vigorously pursued by the administration over the past six years, has by all accounts failed, is it not time to change such a counterproductive policy? All that the administration has been able to achieve is to push the regime in Damascus further and further into Iran s belly and to also force it to tighten control domestically. Syria is hardly foolish enough not to take American threats seriously, and thus has been compelled to take extraordinary measures, however unsavory some of these measures may be, to protect itself.
Regardless of the reality or the merits of American grievances against Syria, none can be settled by public recriminations and accusations. The agreement with North Korea regarding its nuclear weapons program should be a telling lesson to the administration. Only when it conceded to the North Korean demand for face-to-face negotiations was an agreement finally hammered out with Pyongyang, an agreement which could have been achieved five years ago and certainly before North Korea got to the point of conducting an actual nuclear test.
Inviting Syria to the peace conference is not a reward to Damascus for its alleged mischievous behavior; it is a matter of real necessity dictated by the prevailing turmoil in the Middle East to which the Bush administration has contributed so largely. The Middle- East conference offers the Bush administration an opportunity to change course toward Syria without losing face not to speak of preventing a colossal failure.
Alon Ben-Meiris a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.