I recently talked about this in the comments section of the Lebanese Bloggers. Here are my thoughts, edited and slightly expanded:
- Syria is not at all desperate to have peace. First of all, Bashar cannot cut a deal on the Golan unless it's maximalist (not an inch less than what his father wanted), and that's not going to happen. Second, Bashar is really not interested in the fruition of a deal (in fact, it would be detrimental to the Alawite Assad security regime). Bashar is interested in the process. That's all. The process buys him legitimacy, aid, breaks his isolation, and resets his foot in Lebanon, the real prize that he's after (and to eliminate the Hariri investigation and the international tribunal). Everything else is fluff. Update: Former French Defense Minister Alain Richard summarized it perfectly: "What I fear, to speak very frankly, is that one of Syria's main assets is its domination over Lebanon. Consequentially, any settlement that would call into question its domination over Lebanon, even if it means regaining Syrian territory (from Israel), does not suit it." L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut), 19 April 2000.
- Peace talks do not preclude terrorism. In fact, in Syria's case, they were simultaneous at all times all throughout the 90s, during the peak of the peace talks. The current Syrian position is to stay on this same path, as evident from Assad's statement that for him, "peace and resistance (i.e. sponsoring terrorist groups) are inseparable." This is the modus operandi of his father as well. It's called eliminationist peace. You can also call it terrorist blackmail. I "talk" peace to you while I have my proxies bleed you through Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. This is not to mention how Syria sabotaged King Abdullah's peace plan by lobbying hard to eliminate the term "normalization" from the plan.
- "Talking" will yield a solution. Nonsense. In fact, in some cases talking can be detrimental to your interests. In this case, talking will signal a green light for Syrian return to Lebanon. It will signal that terrorist blackmail yields results. It will signal -- as was evident in Bashar's speech -- that only when your enemy is hurt will it come to the negotiating table, further encouraging the policy of bleeding through proxy. It would break Syrian isolation without giving you a certain end-product. In other words, you lose leverage but you get nothing in return. Update: To put it briefly, "Syria would gain 90 per cent of what it wants, just by being engaged." (So, pace Richard Haass, but yes, talking to Syria is in itself a reward. That's why a regime flak said on public television "if only President Bush would pick up the phone." It is a reward -- if not the end goal -- and the regime and its flaks know it.)
Assad is interested more in regaining control over Lebanon than the Golan. Furthermore, he wants to impose his own conditions (in fact he needs to, and that is tied to the point about his father that I made earlier), as is clear from his speeches, statements, and those of his apparatchiks and cheerleaders in the US. Assad is basing that on his alliance with Iran (another reason why the notion that you can split him from Iran is ludicrous. If you don't believe me, just listen to Walid Moallem), and on the perception, which he seems to believe, that Israel is now in a weaker position. All this and more means that the proposal is dead on arrival. In fact, anyone who listened to his speech would have known that already. His only conclusion about Israel is that it must be weakened through terrorism, and then it would be pliable to Assad's conditions.
- The proponents don't stop for one second to think about the internal dynamics of the minority Alawite Assad regime and the edifice on which it's built, and the repercussion of losing the Golan card as a populist whip, and of losing the card of the Israeli "enemy," etc. Assad's legitimacy is based on that belligerence. Barry Rubin said it well: "Syria is not a country that can be negotiated with or bought off. It is not taking a militant role because it is aggrieved or bargaining toughly, but because war, unrest, and extremism really do suit the regime's interests."
- Last but not least, where does Iran, Syria's patron (which Syria will not and cannot abandon), stand? Is it going to sit tightly by after signing a defense pact with Syria and floating it all this time? For an example from the past, here's Dennis Ross in TNR: "[D]uring my time as the American negotiator, we were constantly aware of Iranian pressure on Hamas and Islamic Jihad to initiate acts of terrorism in Israel." Now that Bashar and Syria are but a toy, and a weapons cache, for Iran, and now that Syria has come out in full identity with Hamas and Hezbollah (Meshaal prances around in a Damascus hotel, and Nasrallah's photos are everywhere), and given Bashar's explicit endorsement of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the tactic of using them against Israel, and his ideological belief in this strategy, then the Iranian role becomes that much more potent and relevant. The belligerent mood, and ideological fervor, in Syria, both on the official and popular levels, perfectly suit Iran's interests in Syria.
In an interview with Al-Alam TV, a man identifying himself as the leader of the new Front for the Liberation of the Golan Heights (FLGH) said hundreds of fighters were currently being trained at several camps set up throughout Syria."
Where the announcement was made is of course half the story. It's rather amusing to see that Hezbollah is reportedly now in charge of training this force, according to Syrian officials. In fact, according to the IDF Intelligence chief, Syria is now a large weapons cache for the Iranian front against Israel.
A friend jokingly commented on Assad's laughable transparency: "Yes, and Assad wants to use the weapons as leverage to show how serious he is about those negotiations--and perhaps more car bombs, killings, and calls for coups in Lebanon, because, you know, WE REALLY ARE SERIOUS ABOUT NEGOTIATIONS! REALLY!"
In the end, to conclude this post on "talks" with Syria, I'm reminded of an excellent line in a recent op-ed by Henry Kissinger: "the bane of diplomacy is to substitute process for purpose. Diplomacy should not be confused with glibness. It is not an oratorical but a conceptual exercise. When it postures for domestic audiences, radical challenges are encouraged rather than overcome."
From what I'm seeing and hearing from all the "formers" (I won't even bother with the propagandists and cheerleaders), it seems that not one of them has a clue about diplomacy. I'll close with a line by Daniel Pipes, from an article on Hafez Assad in 1991: "Assad now needs US favor more than the reverse. Yet he will try to induce Washington to pay him for allowing himself to be helped; this must not happen."
Back then, it did happen. The result: Syrian occupation and complete control of Lebanon (and all the crimes that brought with it), no peace, and the inflation of Hezbollah, in alliance with Iran, into what it became up until July 12. Repeating this mistake would be utter lunacy.