Contrary to what many believe, the possibility of US intervention in the Syrian crisis will undoubtedly increase US pressure on Israel to solve the Palestinian conflict.
The decision by the Barack Obama administration on June 13 to inform Congress of its assessment that chemical weapons have been used multiple times by the Syrian regime is the clearest indication yet that Washington will become more deeply involved in the conflict. In a situation so reminiscent of the US intervention in Iraq, American officials most certainly will be calculating the political costs of such a decision.
Obama’s belated decision to arm the rebels and encourage other parties to possibly share in creating a no-fly zone in Syria will be welcomed by the rebels and Sunni Arab leaders. A considerable portion of the Arab population, however, is likely to be angered by Americans once again intervening in the affairs of a sovereign Arab country. As with Iraq, the single most-repeated phrase will be "double standard." Various Arab thinkers and commentators as well as demonstrators will ask this simple question: Why intervene in a civil war while refraining from taking a serious position in the 46-year-old military occupation by a US ally?
In the days and weeks prior to the Iraqi invasion, a number of US allies, including the United Kingdom, insisted that parallel to the war against the regime of Saddam Hussein, the United States would have to engage much more seriously with its ally Israel.
In the months leading up to the invasion, as well as during the first years of the war and occupation, the George W. Bush administration did, indeed, increase pressure on Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made numerous visits to Israel, endorsed the road map and publicly supported the creation of “an independent contiguous and viable Palestinian state.” The pressure resulted among other things in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005, and later, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s serious discussions with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the details of a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The negotiations were close to a resolution when Olmert was forced to resign because of a corruption indictment. Many people, including Olmert, have argued that the scandal was fabricated to derail his efforts. Olmert has since largely been vindicated of most of the accusations that led to his resignation.
The decision this month by Secretary of State John Kerry to delay an unprecedented fifth visit to the Middle East in as many months has given rise to speculation that the Washington peace offensive has hit a roadblock. With Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon boasting that the two-state solution has not been discussed in the Cabinet, and if discussed would be defeated in a vote, it seemed pointless for Kerry to talk about restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks. Even the idea of a symbolic release of some 100 Palestinian prisoners detained before the Oslo Accords seems to have been rejected by Israel, which indicated that only 50 of the 107 might be released if talks were to restart.
President Obama's multilateral approach to any intervention in Syria will mean that US diplomats will have to work hard at patching together a coalition of Western and Arab countries. Such a coalition, like the one Bush assembled in 2002, will not remain united unless the United States takes a much stronger position on the need to end the Israeli occupation. Since the start of Obama's second term, the Obama-Kerry team has relied on a charm offensive to try to convince Israelis and US Jews to take a chance for peace. The idea of using the carrot but no stick has proven to be a failure thus far.
Meanwhile, announcements of settlements and new construction continue. The arrogance of the Israeli attitude illustrates that carrots without sticks are unlikely to work. If the United States wants to create a successful coalition that will eventually produce the fall of the Assad regime, it will have to use some tough love with its closest ally in the region. The failure to produce concrete results on the ground will weaken any European and Arab involvement in the Syrian theater.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab