While the recent peace agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain represent the first major progress toward regional peace in decades, the just-reported trip by two senior U.S. representatives to Syria in August for secret talks could be the start of critical progress on another key front. The efforts by White House counter-terrorism adviser Kash Patel and Ambassador Roger Carstens, an envoy for hostage affairs, was the first direct contact with Syria in a decade and could well pave the way for real progress.
These talks had as their major purpose gaining Syrian assistance in the release of American journalist Austin Tice abducted in Syria in 2012, or at least obtaining solid information about his fate. Such an effort is in keeping with other Trump administration efforts to gain the release of U.S. hostages held by terrorists and regional states, several of which have been highly successful. Interestingly, while in Damascus, Mr. Patel and Mr. Carstens met with Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s intelligence agency. Not much happens in Syria that this agency does not know about, and hopefully can shed some light as to Mr. Tice’s whereabouts and cooperate in getting him freed.
Also on the agenda were the current U.S. sanctions imposed on Syria since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in March 2011 which is finally coming to an end, as well as the continued presence of some U.S. forces in Syria. As is always the case in such negotiations, it is impossible to decouple all of the issues on the table, so it is worth looking at where the U.S., as well as its ally Israel, stand on each of them and where progress can be made.
Dealing with Mr. Tice, the captured journalist, is the easy one as it is believed that he is being held by the Syrians or allied forces. If he is alive, and the Syrians can get their hands on him, turning him over to the U.S. only serves their broader interests. What they would ask in return is an open question, or it may happen as a “goodwill” gesture.
Hopefully, this can be accomplished in short order. If he is yet another casualty of this conflict, possibly the Syrians can at least bring some closure to this horrific episode for the Tice family.
What Syria needs most now is not only relief from the economic sanctions, but assistance in reconstruction following a decade-long civil war as well as the peaceful repatriation of millions of refugees who fled Syria during the conflict. This would not be unusual for the U.S. or inconsistent with prior American policy.
The U.S. Marshall Plan was critical to the rebuilding of Europe following World War II and more recently efforts following the Vietnam War that helped turn that war-torn nation into a vibrant economy. Even though the U.S. was not a party to the Syrian civil war, efforts to solve the very real problems Syria now faces could bring major benefits to the larger regional conflict.
Reducing or eliminating the U.S, military presence in Syria should not be a major sticking point with the Syrians, as the Trump administration has made this a key policy point for some time. This is consistent with President Trump’s policy of getting the U.S. out of foreign wars, and for some time has recognized that the U.S. has no strategic of military interests in Syria, with little reason to put American treasure and lives on the line there at all.
When Mr. Trump decided to remove some 2,000 U.S. troops from Northern Syria, many in the media as well as some supporters in Congress questioned this decision, but it is increasingly clear it was the right thing to do. U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war in Syria was for the purpose of eliminating ISIS — a mission that has largely been accomplished, and it should be remembered that ISIS is fighting the Syrian regime, not supporting it. Also important in the defeat of ISIS have been Kurdish forces and the Syrian army countering ISIS as well — here the U.S. and Syria were operationally on the same side.
For the U.S., as well as Israel, the most serious security concern in Syria remains the continued Iranian involvement and weapons that threaten not only Israel but Saudi Arabia and other states. Iranian missiles in Syria cannot be tolerated, and Israel has repeatedly bombed Iranian weapons depots within Syria, making clear its intention to continue such strikes. For its part, Syria has no great use for the Iranian presence and this was, at best, a marriage of convenience during the Syrian civil war and a divorce is long overdue. Continued Iranian presence in Syria is not in the interest of either Syria or Israel, Saudi Arabia and others.
One model may be the negotiations that took place after the 1973 Middle East war conducted by Henry Kissinger, leading to the 1974 disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria, leading to some 40 years of peace. Now both Israel and Syria are looking to restore this historic framework in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war. What was not widely reported is that Syria and Israel were close to concluding a peace agreement before the failure of the U.S. and others to support such an agreement, and the untimely outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
Now the recent actions of the U.S. envoys show that the door is open to what could be a win-win outcome. A near-term return of the American journalist as well as some early agreement on sanctions relief and a plan for Syrian reconstruction and refugee repatriation could easily lead to a far broader agreement. For its part, Israel would clearly want to come to a final peace accord with Syria, as it did with Egypt and Jordan years ago. This would be widely supported in Israel. For the Trump administration it would be yet another major foreign policy accomplishment and an enormous step forward in the Middle East peace process.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is the author most recently of “Henry Kissinger: Pragmatic Statesman in Hostile Times.”
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