Middle East Diplomacy, Shrinking U.S. Involvement Complex diplomatic negotiations are taking place in the volatile region. With the U.S. taking a back seat in the talks, smaller countries such as Egypt and Syria are stepping up and taking leading roles.
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Middle East Diplomacy, Shrinking U.S. Involvement

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Middle East Diplomacy, Shrinking U.S. Involvement

Middle East Diplomacy, Shrinking U.S. Involvement

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we're going to look at the way the Middle East works toward peace even when the United States does not get involved. It's the main ally of Israel and it's close to many Arab governments, but in recent months, Bush administration policies have limited the American role in the Mideast. And, in a limited way, some other countries are stepping into the gap.

NPR's Ivan Watson reports.

IVAN WATSON: Western Israeli and Turkish diplomats agree that as recently as last spring, it looked as though the Middle East was on the verge of another major conflict. 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-old 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.

The U.S. government has long refused to negotiate with either Hezbollah or Hamas, labeling both terrorist organizations. So the Bush administration was not involved in efforts to solve either storm, says Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Mr. PAUL SALEM (Director, Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut): And there's a set of conditions that are very dangerous and very troublesome that the U.S. is proving unable to manage. 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.

WATSON: In the case of Israel and Hamas, it was the government of Egypt that stepped in as a mediator and eventually succeeded in hammering out a cease-fire agreement. Meanwhile, the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Qatar invited Lebanon's warring factions to negotiate a power-sharing agreement in the Qatari capital of Doha. Nayla Mouawad is a Lebanese lawmaker.

Ms. NAYLA MOUAWAD (Lebanese Lawmaker): If the Arab world had not put a strong push to stop this and to call for dialogue in Doha, we were definitely were on the verge of a very violent and somewhat desperate civil war.

WATSON: The Lebanese agreement also had benefits for neighboring Syria. 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 complements from the most unlikely quarters.

Ambassador GABBY LEVY (Israeli Ambassador to Turkey): I must also give some credit to Syria itself and its president.

WATSON: Gabby Levy is Israel's ambassador to Turkey.

Ambassador LEVY: The fact that for the first time in its history, Syria has agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon, which means giving up their dream of a greater Syria, which is, you know, controls both Syria and Lebanon, all this created this new atmosphere, this new attitude in the international community.

WATSON: Ambassador Levy spoke as Israeli and Syrian envoys were holding indirect talks in Istanbul mediated by Turkey, their first attempt to reach peace in more than eight years. Ambassador Levy calls these indirect talks a serious step forward. But an advisor to Syria's Prime Minister says it's still far too early to declare peace is at hand.

Mr. SAMIR AL-TAKI (Advisor to Syria's Prime Minister): In spite of certain hopes growing up now, the situation is very, very, very risky.

WATSON: During a recent visit to Washington, Samir al-Taki argued that the process begun in Istanbul can only succeed with help from the U.S.

Mr. Al-TAKI: This region will need an external help to establish itself a system for peace and security. It cannot do it by its own. And that's why the presence of the Americans is very, very much necessary.

WATSON: But most observers in the region believe the U.S. is unlikely to get involved in the Israeli-Syrian peace talks until a new American president takes office.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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