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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Assad sours on Obama?

The source for this report is DEBKA, so you may want to take it with a grain of salt, but it explains some other events this week, and if it's true, it's a resounding defeat for the Obama administration. According to the report, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cut off all negotiations with the United States this week.
Assad first knocked this plan on the head on July 26 in a long conversation he had with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in Damascus, DEBKAfile's Middle East sources disclose. It was then that the Syrian ruler turned round and rejected an American role in the next stage of his peace talks with Israel in favor of Turkey. He said he preferred to revert to the indirect format he had followed with Binyamin Netanyahu's successor [should be predecessor. CiJ], Ehud Olmert, up until the end of 2008, using the good offices of Turkish prime minister Tayyep Recip Erdogan. The US would be allowed to step in during the final stages.

Mitchell was completely taken aback by Assad's reversal. In Washington it was taken as a death knell for President Obama's plans for Middle East peacemaking and the outright rejection of peace talks with Israel, in view of its poor relations with Ankara. All the same, it was decided to keep the setback quiet and keep going on the path of engagement with the Syrian regime.

But Assad had other plans.
Let me interrupt here for a brief explanation about those negotiations. There's been a lot of discomfort in Israel with Turkey as a mediator since Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of a panel discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres in January. Moreover, unlike Olmert who was desperate for a deal - any deal - to keep himself in power, Prime Minister Netanyahu has a much more reciprocal approach to the 'peace process.' So it wasn't at all surprising here when earlier this week, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon gave an interview to Reuters in which he said that Israel was no longer interested in using Turkey as a go-between for negotiations with Syria. Any negotiations with Syria, said Ayalon, must be direct.
In power since March, Netanyahu has offered direct talks without preconditions -- a reference to the Syrian demand that Israel commit itself in advance to returning the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in a 1967 war.

Israel also insists Syria distance itself from Iran and from Islamist guerrillas arrayed against the Jewish state in Lebanon and Gaza. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been dismissive of that demand and predicted no breakthroughs with Netanyahu.

Asked if the Netanyahu government was ruling out a return to the mediated talks, which both Turkey and Syria have proposed reviving, Ayalon said: "Correct."

"We have just benefited from the experience that shows that proximity talks did not work," he said, speaking in English.

"If they (Syria) are really serious on peace, and not just a peace process which may serve them to extricate them from international isolation, if they are really serious, they will come and sit with us."
Now back to DEBKA:
Wednesday, Aug. 12 [the same day as the Ayalon interview. CiJ], an American military delegation arrived in Damascus led by Frederick Hoff, head of the Syrian desk on the Mitchell team, and Maj. Gen. Michael Moeller of the US Central Command.

Its arrival was intended to symbolize a new high point in US-Syrian rapprochement and a final test of Assad's real intentions.

This time, the government-controlled Syria media which until then had meticulously noted every sign of progress in the relationship, completely ignored the presence of the high-ranking delegation.

It was Hoff's task to lay before the Syrian leaders the rich diplomatic incentives offered Damascus in return for a breakthrough in relations with the United States.

Gen. Moeller was there to apply the stick. DEBKAfile's exclusive sources reveal the three questions he put to the Syrian ruler:


Instead of providing answers, Assad prevaricated and, while the US delegation was still standing by, his office announced that the Syrian ruler would travel to Tehran next week for a two-day trip in the course of which he would congratulate Ahmadinejad on his re-election and discuss the strengthening of ties between the two countries.
Is this plausible? Sure. Did it really happen? Let's see whom President Obumbler sends to Syria over the next few months. Sounds like another open American hand has been met with another clenched fist.


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