Middle East Diplomacy, Shrinking U.S. Involvement

As recently as last spring, it looked as though the Middle East was on the verge of another major conflict, Western, Israeli and Turkish diplomats agree. But they say a major crisis was averted, thanks in large part to several diplomatic initiatives that were launched by countries in the region, without American involvement.

"In April, there was high concern regarding tensions. Some were scared of clashes in the region," says a senior Turkish diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Now there is less fear due to all these efforts."

In April, tensions were high between Israel and the Palestinian faction Hamas, with the Israeli military threatening an incursion into the Gaza Strip in response to daily Hamas rocket salvos on nearby Israeli towns.

Meanwhile, an 18-month stalemate between rival political factions in Lebanon exploded in early May, when militants of the Shiite movement Hezbollah stormed through parts of Beirut and nearby hills, attacking their rivals in a display of power that shocked many in the country.

Lack Of U.S. Involvement

The U.S. government has long refused to negotiate with either Hezbollah or Hamas, labeling both as terrorist organizations.

So the Bush administration was not involved in efforts to solve either storm, says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

"There is a set of conditions that [is] very dangerous and very troublesome that the U.S. is proving unable to manage," Salem says. "And because the U.S. was unable or unwilling to do that, it created a space and an opportunity for other smaller players to take a crack at it. I think this is healthy, because it pushed a number of smaller states in the region to take responsibility."

In the case of Israel and Hamas, it was the government of Egypt that stepped in as a mediator. In June, it succeeded in hammering out a cease-fire agreement.

Meanwhile, the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Qatar invited Lebanon's warring factions to the Qatari capital Doha to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. The stakes were high, say Lebanese politicians.

"If the Arab world had not put a strong push to stop this and to call for dialogue in Doha, we were definitely on the verge of a very violent and somewhat desperate civil war," says Nayla Mouawad, a Lebanese parliament member.

Giving Credit To Syria

The Lebanese agreement in Doha also had benefits for neighboring Syria.

Soon after the accord was signed, French President Nicolas Sarkozy phoned Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and personally thanked him for helping to broker the settlement.

Syria had been internationally isolated since 2005, after it was accused of orchestrating a series of high-profile assassinations in Lebanon, including that of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

These days, however, Syria is getting compliments from the most unlikely quarters.

"I must also give some credit to Syria itself and its president," says Gabby Levy, Israel's ambassador to Turkey. He pointed to Assad's visit to Paris earlier this month, when he and the newly installed Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, agreed to open embassies in each other's countries.

"For the first time in history, Syria has agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon, which means giving up [its] dreams of a greater Syria, which controls both Syria and Lebanon," Levy says. "All of this created the new atmosphere — the new attitude from the international community."

The Israeli ambassador was speaking in an interview in the Turkish capital, just days before Israeli and Syrian envoys traveled to Istanbul to hold a fourth round of indirect talks there. This is the first attempt to reach peace between the two rivals in more then eight years.

The indirect talks have been sponsored by Turkey. Turkish diplomats are reported to shuttle between the Israeli and Syrian delegations, which operate in separate, secret Istanbul locations.

"It's a very serious step on the part of both parties," Levy says.

American Presence Necessary

But an adviser to Syria's prime minister says it's still far too early to declare peace is at hand.

"In spite of certain hopes growing up now, the situation is very, very, very risky," says Samir al-Taki, during a recent visit to Washington. Taki argued that the process begun in Istanbul can only succeed with help from the U.S., a view shared by Israeli diplomats.

"Because of too many contradictions in ethnicities, geography, history and resources," Taki says, this region "will need external help to establish itself a system for peace and security. It cannot do it by its own. That's why the presence of the Americans is very necessary."

A peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians has been the main focus of Washington's Middle East diplomacy since the U.S. hosted a peace conference in Annapolis last November.

But political analysts and diplomats in the region argue that in its final months, the Bush administration is too preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to deal with the Middle East's more recent diplomatic initiatives. These will probably have to wait until the election of the next American president.

"The most important thing coming down the pike is the U.S. election," says Salem, of the Carnegie center. "The U.S. remains the largest player in the Middle East, and the latest flurry of diplomacy and some breakthroughs have made it painfully clear that there are big opportunities here — and there's a lot that can be done through diplomacy."

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