The Israeli press published a series of articles over the last few days concerning the departure of two aides to Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman to Istanbul for a new round of Syrian-Israel indirect talks under Turkish auspices. I’ve been holding off commenting on the talks, as I was skeptical if motion would lead to action, especially if the opposition and government in Lebanon remained deadlocked over the formation of a government. But with Condoleezza Rice in Beirut today, French Elysee secretary-general Claude Gueant and chief diplomatic aide Jean-David Levitte in Damascus yesterday and Nicolas Sarkozy traveling to Israel next week , it seems like the diplomatic wheels are indeed turning.
What I found interesting was not that mediators were dispatched to Istanbul before movement in Lebanon, but Israel’s degree of seriousness regarding the talks. Haaretz quoted Turgeman saying that he did not believe the talks would be affected by Olmerts latest corruption scandal. This flies in the face of analysts and businesspeople in Damascus who told me that they didn’t expect the Israel and Syria talks to actually yield a deal, given Olmert’s problems at home and small majority.
Many were also skeptical of progress before the US general elections next November, despite the fact that Syrian officials have stated over the last few weeks that they demand US mediation in direct Syrian-Israeli talks. On top of that, a number of people I have spoken to in Damascus recently believe that McCain is likely to win the US presidential elections in November, meaning the prospects for improved US-Syrian relations seem limited. In solving that conundrum, Syria says it wants talks on the “Grand Horizon” of issues – i.e. the “Grand Bargain” some left of center Democratic Party policy folks advocate who could advise Barak Obama. McCain’s website says that he advocates “real pressure” on both Syria and Iran to get them around to Washington’s way of thinking.
Dealing with the rift between Washington and Damascus is going to be difficult. I just finished working as a consultant with International Crisis Group on their upcoming report on US-Syrian relations. While I'm obliged not to talk about the report's findings prior to the report's launch, I think its no secret that past efforts of rapproachement between the two sides (most notably in 1990) takes a lot of behind the scenes diplomacy that seems to now only be taking place.
The folks to watch on getting the US and Syria to the table are Sarkozy and his staff. Yesterday's meeting between Gueant and Levitte followed France's invitation of Bashar al-Assad to the Bastille Day celebrations in France (which one friend told me the Syrian MFA said were on July 16, but anyway...). Sarkozy was just met Bush in Washington. Sarkozy told reporters afterwards that Syria must "distance itself from Iran and its nuclear ambitions." This seems like the Bush Administration's condition for getting involved with Syrian-Israeli talks. What the incoming American Administration's condition will be is anyone's guess.