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.