Where in the world is Uncle Sam?

THE Bush administration was nowhere to be found in two recent and important Middle East developments; the settlement of the 18-month long Lebanese crisis in Qatar and the announcement just moments later that Syria and Israel were resuming long-dormant peace negotiations.

By Claude Salhani

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Published: Tue 27 May 2008, 8:12 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:33 PM

While there may or may not be any direct link between the two events, the settlement of the Lebanese crisis puts out a dangerous fire that risked spreading beyond Lebanon's borders, and a resumption of talks between the Syrians and the Israelis is considered by many analysts to hold the key to an eventual settlement of the greater Middle East dispute.

While efforts were underway to resolve Lebanon's political crisis, reports of talks between Syria and Israel resuming come as a surprise to observers in Washington seeing that the Bush administration's policy has so far insisted on not talking to its enemies. A policy that is proving to be disastrous for US interests in the Middle East.

After backing and encouraging the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to resist attempts by the Shia group Hezbollah and its allies to impose its diktat on Lebanese political life, the United States seems to have abandoned the pro-democracy March 14 Movement. The five-day Doha conference, hosted by the Amir of Qatar, turned out to be a victory for the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah and another defeat for Bush's Middle East policy.

Similarly, the coincidental announcement by Syria and Israel that they were resuming peace negotiations after an eight-year stoppage came about as a result of Turkey's intervention, with once again Washington appearing to be out of the picture.

Talks between Syria and Israel for the restitution of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the June 1967 war, and intended to put an end to the state of belligerency that still exists between the two countries had been suddenly broken off almost eight years ago by Israel. Since then, both Damascus and Jerusalem have repeatedly signaled their interest to resume negotiations, only to have the Bush administration put a damper on any attempts to bring the two sides to the negotiating table.

The reasoning from the Oval Office was to ignore countries deemed to be unfriendly to the United States; Syria and Iran figured primarily among those countries. This line of thinking has proven disastrous for US foreign policy in the Middle East. The result is that now Washington finds itself on the outside looking in. Washington's policy of giving the cold shoulder to Iran and Syria has backfired. The result of this policy has strengthened both Teheran and Damascus while weakening US allies in the region.

It has given Iran's and Syria's proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip renewed vigor and power and weakened the pro-democracy movements in both countries. Although the outcome of the Doha talks was welcomed with relief by all parties concerned — the rival Lebanese factions, Syria, Saudi Arabia and France — the truth is that Hezbollah, and by default, Iran and Syria have emerged as the winners in this round of military and political arm wrestling.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah has proven to be astute in its policy in fighting the Western-backed Lebanese government biding their time and waiting for the right moment to strike. They combined civil disobedience — the sit-in, sleep-in, camp-in — called for by Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, that saw hundreds of Shias loyal to Hezbollah established a mini tent city around the Lebanese prime minister's office in downtown Beirut, along with strong arm tactics as demonstrated by the violence launched by the Shia group when it deployed its Iranian-trained militia to takeover great swaths of predominantly Sunni areas in Beirut in early May. It is not too late for Washington to jump on the Middle East peace bandwagon and encourage fast track negotiations between Syria and Israel. There are numerous advantages in bringing Syria into the peace camp.

A peace treaty between Syria and Israel would force Hezbollah to demilitarise, and would no longer represent a threat to other Lebanese political parties, or to Israel. Peace between Syria and Israel would remove obstacles for Lebanon to follow suit. And not least, peace between Syria and Israel would serve to distance Damascus from Teheran. However, for much of this to become a reality Washington's involvement is very much needed.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington, DC

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