- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tours the Middle East she is likely to find the region facing greater tension than it has in many years.

She is also likely to find that the key to many of the doors to open - or shut - avenues toward peaceful negotiations or toward continued stagnation and the dangers that it involves, lies with Syria. Indeed, once again Syria holds many of the keys to the Middle East dilemma.

How is it that Damascus is in such a position of influence? And how can that influence be used to the advantage of peacemaking in the region?

Much of Syria’s influence today lies in its alliance with Tehran. But as her advisers will no doubt tell Mrs. Clinton, the Syrian-Iranian marriage is one purely of convenience not of love. It was an alliance brought about as a result of the former U.S. administration’s policy of isolating Damascus, which gave Syrian President Bashar Assad little choice. Remain isolated with Israel on one side and the Americans on the other, or form an alliance with Iran and thereby outflank the United States.

By playing his cards close to his chest, as he has been, Mr. Assad has positioned Syria as the only Arab country with enough clout with Iran and the opposition groups (read here what the United States and Israel call terrorist groups) to sway the peace process toward what it should be - a peace process, or toward the unthinkable - a new conflict in the region.

Mrs. Clinton will find as she visits the Middle East mounting Iranian influence in the region through its alliance with Syria and the Islamic Republic’s support of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as support of takfiri groups in Lebanon. All this has placed Tehran firmly on the Middle East political map much to the detriment of some Arab leaders who have recently voiced their displeasure to see “other countries” interfere in Arab affairs.

And recent statements from Iranian officials that Bahrain is “the 14th province of Iran” has done little to appease old fears among the Gulf states of Iran’s old claims to the oil-rich sheikdoms and kingdoms.

Meanwhile in Israel and the Palestinian Territories where Mrs. Clinton is visiting, the situation remains precarious. Israel, two weeks after its elections, remains without a new government as the country - and its immediate neighbors - continue to hold their breath to see who will ultimately emerge to lead in this difficult time. A centrist government, open to peace talks with the Palestinians, or a right-wing coalition taking a much firmer - and more dangerous - approach to the issue of how to resolve the problem?

Mrs. Clinton arrived in Israel amid a new report by Peace Now that Israel could double the number of settlers in the occupied West Bank. Such an eventuality would greatly impede the peace process that the Obama administration is trying to revive. Mrs. Clinton just arrived from a donor’s conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, held to raise money to reconstruct Gaza after the devastating war with Israel that began around Christmas. And as if to remind her, Hamas launched a few rockets at Israel.

What can be done to begin defusing the situation? Start by pushing for an agreement between Israel and Syria where Damascus can reclaim the Golan Heights.

Two things about the Golan: First, given today’s technology and advanced electronics and sophisticated gadgetry in defense techniques, holding the high ground is not a prerequisite to military superiority. Second, once Syria reclaims the Golan and signs a peace treaty it is highly unlikely that Bashar Assad would risk going to war and losing it again all in exchange for the “satisfaction” of firing a few rounds of artillery shells on Israeli localities. That would be more than idiotic.

Any peace deal between Israel and Syria should also include a peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon. The importance of the latter cannot be stressed enough. Here are the reasons.

(1) Leaving Lebanon out of the peace process will leave the conflict unresolved and leave the door open to a distinct possibility of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel. Resolving the outstanding dispute over the Shebaa Farms and the village of Ghajar in southern Lebanon should - at least officially - remove the license from Hezbollah to retain its armed wing, which it calls a resistance movement.

(2) It should be made clear to Syria that there is a price associated with bringing it out of the cold. In exchange for normalized relations with the United States and for the return of the Golan Heights, Syria is to use its clout with Tehran to rein in and put a stop to military activities by Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups.

(3) It is imperative that the U.S. secretary of state and the Obama administration understand and recognize that Lebanon must not be made the scapegoat of a separate peace deal. That would simply shift the cards around. Lebanon must be part and parcel of any peace deal in the Middle East. Anything short of that would invest in a future conflict.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.


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