Yesterday, Laura Rozen’s blog reported that the Obama Administration has decided to return a US envoy to Syria after a 4 year absence. According to a State Department spokesman, the move demonstrates the Obama “administration’s recognition of the important role Syria plays in the region and of course we hope that they will continue to play such a constructive role to promote peace and stability in the region.” In other words, the decision was not part of a quid pro quo or particular “deal”. Instead, the move reflects the Obama Administration’s policy of diplomatic engagement with Syria.
While watching South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s rather bizarre and rambling press conference on FOXNews this afternoon, a news item about Syria crossed the ticker and caught my eye. FOXNews reports that a more immediate reason for returning an ambassador to Syria is connected to Obama’s larger vision for the Middle East Peace Process:
Privately, sources told FOX News the Obama administration is not asking the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to evict Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader who resides in Damascus, or the group itself, which maintains offices there — a marked change from the Bush administration.
Rather, the Obama administration is said to be asking Syria to use “its good offices” to advance prospects for a unity government pact between Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, the rival Palestinian group that controls the West Bank.
“(The Obama administration is) trying to bring Hamas into the process in a sense,” said a foreign diplomat, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the sensitive negotiations publicly.
Syrian officials point to a series of recent statements by Meshal that they believe represent a significant evolution in the Hamas leader’s negotiating posture. The statements include interviews Meshal has given to The New York Times and Time magazine, as well as statements he made after his meeting this month with former President Jimmy Carter. In his own public comments, Carter said Meshal told him that Hamas would accept a peace agreement if Palestinians approve it in a referendum.
While I don’t normally turn to FOXNews for the latest scoop on Syria, if accurate, this certainly is an interesting revelation. Hitherto, the Obama Administration has unambiguously refused to deal with Hamas so long as it refuses to abide by past agreements, renounce violence, and recognize Israel, as did the Bush administration. Moreover, the Cairo talks aimed at forging a unity government have been unsuccessful and Hania himself seems pessimistic about the likelihood for success.
Moreover there also is a looming elephant in the room if Obama wishes to encourage both reconciliation talks between the Palestinians and the Israeli-Syrian track of the peace process. If, as the FOXNews article suggests, the Obama Administration will no longer demand that Syria cut its support for Hamas, then it is difficult to foresee much progress on the Syrian-Israeli track. Israel, under any government, is unlikely to make peace with Syria so long as it harbors and supports Hamas. Thus, the only viable solution becomes a “grand bargain” between all parties whereby Hamas is somehow legitimized. However, such a grand bargain approach is problematic in that it allows one actor to upset the whole process if his demands are not met.