Is Washington showing new signs of willingness to test out opportunities for increased diplomacy with Syria?
On May 5, the Rendon Group, a government consulting group which worked closely with Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, was asked to organize a "narrow focus discussion group" to examine the case of Badran Turki Hishan Al Mazidih, according to a Washington source with an ear on the Levant. The Syria-based Al Mazidih, also known as Abu Ghadiyah, runs the Al Qaeda in Iraq "facilitation network, which controls the flow of money, weapons, terrorists, and other resources through Syria into Iraq," the Treasury Department said in a February press release announcing his designation as a terrorist. "Former AQI leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi appointed Badran as AQI's Syrian commander for logistics in 2004. After Zarqawi's death, Badran began working for the new AQI leader, Abu Ayyub Al-Masri. As of late-September 2006, Badran took orders directly from Masri, or through a deputy."
The group assembled by Rendon yesterday consisted of Defense, State Department and Intelligence analysts, according to this source. They concluded, he said, "that the US needed to send a message requesting Damascus' assistance on Abu Ghadiyah. But it should not be seen by Damascus as an American message." Ideas were floated to ask the Turks, or the French to play the intermediary. "A request will be made to the Iraqis to ask the Syrians for Abu Ghadiya's extradition," he says.
The alleged Rendon Group meeting comes amid reports that principal deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former US ambassador to Lebanon, recently held a rare meeting with Syria's ambassador to the US Imad Mustafa. After the meeting, the Syrian ambassador flew to Damascus for consultations.
What's going on?
According to the State Department, not much. "Ambassador Feltman met with Ambassador Mustafa on April 24 for approximately 15 minutes, to inform Ambassador Mustafa that the United States was briefing Congress, the IAEA, and the public about Syria's covert nuclear activities," a State Department spokesman said Thursday, downplaying the meeting. "No other issues were raised."
The ambassadorial briefing on the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor struck by Israel last September comes paradoxically as Israel and Syria have been feeling out possible outlines for peace talks, mediated by Turkey. Until recently, Washington has reportedly blocked such talks because it says Syria has not done enough to impede the flow of foreign insurgents and suicide bombers from Syria into Iraq, and has acted to destabilize the Lebanese government.
But Washington now says it has no objection to Israel-Syria peace talks going ahead, while making no commitment to come to the table. "We do not wish to stand in the way of any attempt to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbors including Syria," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was cited by Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in remarks translated into Arabic. "If the two sides wished to exert an effort for peace the United States would give its blessing and back these efforts. The problem is that Syria is yet to show a desire for Middle East peace especially vis-a-vis Lebanon."
"The substance of the US position toward talks is simple: you want to do it, do it," one Washington Middle East hand who did not want to be further identified said Wednesday, characterizing the US position. "But we are not sitting at the table unless we have something tangible on Lebanon. We are not risking our multilateral policy, consensus with Europeans and Arabs, credibility, alliances, geopolitical interests to test the improbable proposition that talking to Syria will lure it from Iran, which is Israel's primary goal."
In the 1990s, Syria would go through the US to get to Israel and Israel would go through the US to get to Syria, he explained. "Today, roles have changed. Syria hopes to bring the US to the table by calling for a resumption of talks. Israel is worried that its options for dealing with Iran are shrinking. The last card is talking to the Syrians. Also the problems on the Palestinian track make the Syrian one more appealing in tactical terms."
"This whole peace negotiations business is a smoke-screen for much different calculations on the Syrian and Israeli sides," he said. And so far as Washington calculates, Syria has demonstrated few signs to date of being willing to take the steps necessary to warrant greater engagement. It will be worth watching to see if Badran Al Mazidih one day finds himself pushed over the Syrian border into Iraq.