An unusual meeting took place in Damascus two weeks ago, albeit not an earth-shaking one and not one, it seems, affecting Israel directly, but it certainly reflects the modus operandi of U.S. President Barack Obama. Major General Michael Moeller of the U.S. Central Command, George Mitchell's deputy Frederic Hof, and a delegation of U.S. officers met in Damascus with senior Syrian officers to formulate operational steps for sealing the country's border with Iraq against terrorists.
This week, after Syrian President Bashar Assad returned from a visit to Tehran, the White House officially announced that a joint committee would be set up, comprising U.S., Syrian and Iraqi officials, to coordinate border security. The U.S. paid the price for this in advance by declaring it planned to return an ambassador to Damascus and ease U.S. sanctions on Syria. Aircraft spare parts and electronic communications systems, including sensitive computer programs, could now be sold to Syria. Iran, by the way, is well aware of the U.S.-Syrian romance and is keeping silent. After all, it too may find itself in an embrace with Obama.
These talks are not unrelated to the slap in the face Obama suffered from the Saudis, and not only about his request for advancing normalization between the Arab world and Israel. Washington wants Iraq accepted as part of the Arab world so it will not become completely dependent on Iran. And like the case of Israel, normalization of ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia is an essential step in granting Arab legitimacy to Iraq. Alas, it is Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, that is trying to place an obstacle in front of the spread of Iran's influence in the region and opposes dispatching an ambassador to Iraq, arguing that its government is pro-Iran. Even worse, members of the Iraqi government and parliament accuse Saudi Arabia of funding Sunni terrorism in a bid to undermine stability in Iraq.
Thus, while Syria is becoming a friend of the United States, arresting close to 2,000 Saddam loyalists in its territory, Saudi Arabia, a traditional ally, is becoming a bitter rival.
In the Middle Eastern supermarket, it turns out, there is no escaping the need for a boutique policy - a micro-policy designed on the basis of the needs of two to three clients, and is not appropriate for the entire region. This is necessary though it sometimes seems a micro-policy contradicts the overall vision. The approach, which, for example, argues that the United Staes must not engage in a dialog with Syria as long as it does not cease to support terrorism and retains close ties with Iran, is breaking down because Washington has vital interests in Iraq.
Will the new relationship between Washington and Damascus serve as a means of leveraging peace between Israel and Syria? Not necessarily. Did Washington condition dialog with Syria on a disengagement from its close ties with Tehran? On the contrary, Iran, too, is essential to the stability of Iraq. Therefore the Americans, in their boutique, are building two shelves for Iran, one is Iraq and the other is nuclear capability; and they are being offered independently. The fact that Iran has no problem in discussing Iraq with Washington does not mean it will be willing to compromise on the nuclear issue.
The behavior of the Obama administration so far suggests that U.S. policy seeks to achieve everything: regional and world peace, local peace, a balance that will link the freezing of settlement construction and the dismantling of the nuclear facilities at Natanz. This is an exciting vision, but it is not a strategy.
This is also the necessary lesson for anyone waving the banner of regional peace. As a vision, a dream or a song theme, it is flawless; however, when it becomes a precondition, yet another stage in the road map, demanding first normalization with the Arabs and then negotiations with the Palestinians, it is revealed as a booby trap, just waiting to destroy any initiative. As for boutique policy and Israel, it suits us much more and may well be too much for us, as we are not showing a readiness to compromise with Syria or to withdraw from outposts. Perhaps we should just start with a resumption of negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, or maybe only Assad. He, too, seems to have forgotten his father's precondition for a comprehensive and viable peace. Syria first is good enough for him. Boutique, not supermarket.
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