Sunday, November 25, 2007

International: When Syria comes to dinner

Syria announced this week that, contrary to expectations, it would attend the meeting on Arab-Israeli conflict hosted by the US in Annapolis at the end of November. This could be a chance for a step forward in the peace process, if it were seized correctly.

It is not clear that Syria has ever actually been interested in peace with Israel. Having a foreign enemy serves a useful purpose for the Ba'athist regime: it gives them a scapegoat on which to blame any and all troubles faced by the Syrian people.

But one crucial thing has changed in Syria: its oil is running out. In 2007, for the first time in recent history, Syria became a net oil importer. This has significant consequences: income from oil exports have long been a crucial source of revenue for the Syrian government, and rather suddenly they have lost it -- just as oil prices are skyrocketing.

So why is this an opportunity? The loss of oil revenues means that the Syrian government is desparately looking for a way to balance its books. The first time the US was able to create peace between Israel and one of its neighbors, Egypt, it did so by offering massive side payments to an Arab state in need of revenues. Now Syria falls in the same camp: maybe, just maybe, it could be tempted to offer a lasting peace in exchange for a new source of funding for its cash-strapped government.

This is not to argue that the Syrian regime is either pleasant or trustworthy. Granted, there is a certain stench associated with American payments to a Ba'athist dictatorship. Maybe the best thing to do is to hope that the Ba'athist regime runs into so much trouble that it gets overthrown by its own people, and replaced by a regime more interested in peace. But opportunities to create peace in the Middle East do not come everyday, and the US should think twice before throwing it away.


Mark said...

Interesting thoughts, Jeff. Hadn't actually considered the bit about their oil money running out, but that's interesting.

There was actually an article in either the Washington Post or the New York Times (can't remember which) earlier this week suggesting that Syria's attendance was intended to create a little space between Lebanon and the U.S. Anti-Syrian Lebanese officials are/were apparently concerned that Syria would agree to some sort of progress in relations with Israel and, as a result, the U.S. would ease the pressure on Syria with regard to Damascus interfering in Lebanese politics. That seems unlikely to me--at least I'd like to think it's unlikely that the US could be so easily convinced to abandon Lebanon. However, especially when you consider the administration's recent obsession with Iran, Bush and co. might see anything that drives Syria and Iran apart--even just slightly--as being worth the sacrifice.

Anyway--good stuff on here. Keep it up.

DennisMark said...

Thanks for sharing, Jeff,
I think record prices for oil and coal are fundamentally changing the power structures of world politics. There are opportunities when a state recognizes that oil's production future has constraints, and I hope some side payments can be the provision of energy efficient technologies and renewables that are developed in the US - so when we are progressing toward near-term conflict resolution, we are also addressing potential sources of long-term conflicts such as zero-sum scarcity of energy resources (while also moving forward on climate change mitigation). Two major related meetings this coming week are the Bali post-Kyoto negotiations and the Dec 5 OPEC mtg. It will be interesting to see if OPEC can or will raise their production further this winter to prevent us from passing $100/barrel oil...