Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Syria - ous Discussions

Per the Los Angeles Times, CIA tomorrow officials will brief tomorrow several congressional committees on the Syrian installation which Israel bombed last September. They will confirm what has been suspected since the bombing -- that Syria with North Korean aid was building a nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. This disclosure will also confirm the extremely close cooperation and convergence of interests between the United States and Israel in planning and conducting the raid.

The closed briefings are sure to raise lawmakers' and pundits' questions about the Bush administration's current willingness to ease sanctions against North Korea in return for further accounting by the latter of its nuclear program and evidence of its dismantling. There will also be more questions about the effectiveness of current efforts to stop Iran's nuclear development program, especially since many observers saw the raid on Syria as a rehearsal for raids of suspected Iranian nuclearinstallations. On that issue, Iranian President Ahmadinejad reiterated today that Iran would continue its nuclear program, while the International Atomic Economic Agency (IAEA) announced it had received a note from Iran promising cooperation in clarifying whether the nuclear program was involved in the development of weapons. Iran has maintained the program is for only peaceful purposes and the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, issued earlier this year, partly supported that assertion.

Another question about the CIA briefing: Why is it coming now, after months of intense secrecy and stonewalling. One answer would link the timing to possibly serious developments in the Syria-Israel relationship. A Syrian official disclosed on Monday that President Bashir al-Asad and Israel PM Ehud Olmert have been discussing through Turkish intermediaries the resumption of peace negotiations. A semi-official Syrian source yesterday said that Olmert had stated Israel's willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for a full-peace with Syria, including security measure like demilitarization. Al-Asad has said he wants open negotiations with Israel, but since his and the ruling Baath Party's prime interest is the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, there are not huge obstacles on the Syrian side in getting to "Yes." Except, maybe, reluctance in selling out its Hezbollah and Hamas clients and breaking with its ally Iran.

The disclosure now of Syria's febrile nuclear efforts might prod Syria to make nice in public by seeking peace negotiations with Israel. Lacking Iran's energy resources and vast population, Syria is more vulnerable to international pressure and more likely to get it. However tying the CIA briefings tomorrow to a shift in US policy, currently that of shunning Syria, probably attributes too much agility to the Bush administration.

Indeed if the administration and its neo-con coteries are still intent on attacking Iranian nuclear installations before W. leaves office, it would not want to be distracted by peace negotiations between Syria and Israel or have such confuse its Manichean vision of the Middle East. The probability that the administration will push for such an attack increased today, with the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus to head the US Middle East Command. In contrast to his predecessor, who was fired for considering Iran an essential player in the Middle East and urging diplomatic engagement with it, Petraeus has a one dimensional view of Iran. In his recent testimony to Congress, he assigned it major responsibility for the instability in Iraq and appeared to favor confrontation in dealing with its clients and operatives there. He is unlikely to be less hawkish when dealing with Iran in a wider context, especially knowing what moderation cost his predecessor.

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