Three senior US officials are the Middle East in a bid to kick-start peace talks  [GALLO/GETTY]

It is hard not to feel like it is déjà vu all over again.

A US Middle East peace envoy travels to Damascus and then to Israel in an effort to jump start Israel-Syrian negotiations over a land for peace deal involving the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1967.

At the same time progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front seems stymied and the US remains reluctant to impose a final solution on the two parties.

The push towards Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations fits a familiar pattern in the larger Middle East peace process, one that returns to the first years of the Oslo peace process in the mid-1990s.

The logic is simple: while Israel could never achieve peace without an historic compromise with Palestinians, it could never achieve security without reaching a peace agreement with its last remaining front line confrontation state since it signed peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

Indeed, while ideologically committed to an anti-Zionist, Baathist foreign policy, and despite its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria has been reliable in upholding the ceasefire along the de facto border with Israel since the disengagement agreement between the two countries brokered by Henry Kissinger, the then US secretary of state, in 1974.

Carrot and stick

In the context of the heady early days of Oslo, it is not surprising that Bill Clinton, the then US president, was able to convince Yitzhak Rabin, the then Israeli prime minister, to agree in principle (but not in writing) to withdraw to the 1967 borders with Syria in return for a formal peace treaty. This even though Israel had effectively annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, 15 years after their conquest.

George Mitchell, left, met with the Syrian president before going on to Israel [EPA]
The Israel-Syrian negotiations early in the Oslo process faltered because Israel was not ready publicly to agree to a withdrawal, while Hafez al-Assad, the then Syrian president, was unwilling to accept various Israeli demands for a continued security and economic presence in the territory.

But that tangibly close brush with peace remained a "deposit in the pocket" of Clinton, ready to be taken out and unfolded at the opportune moment.

While it might have been imagined that such a moment would occur as Israelis and Palestinians arrived at a final peace agreement, in fact just the opposite happened: Israeli-Syrian negotiations seemed to pick up steam again whenever Israeli-Palestinian negotiations hit a major impasse.

Moving towards a separate Israeli-Syrian peace became both a threat to wield against Palestinians when they refused to accept demands for compromise, and a carrot to entice Israel into making politically unpalatable concessions on the Palestinian track.

This dynamic was in fact fully in play during the final year of Clinton's second term, when Ehud Barak, the then Israeli prime minister, pressed for direct negotiations with Syria, precisely because he was unsure he could bridge the remaining differences with the Palestinians.

It was only when Barak apparently got cold feet about bringing an agreement for a
full withdrawal to an increasingly right-wing Israeli public and the negotiations collapsed that he focused full attention on the Palestinian track.

'Axis of evil'

After the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, followed by the election of George Bush as US president and the "war on terror" that emerged with full force in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Israeli-Syrian negotiations became moribund.

Syria's close relationship with an increasingly belligerent Iran (especially after Ahmadinejad's election in 2005), and its inclusion in the enlarged group of "Axis of Evil" in 2002, made it impossible for the US to meaningfully play the "honest broker's" role between Israel and Syria.

Syria was never shut completely out of the negotiating loop, however.

Despite the belligerent public tone in US-Syrian relations under the Bush administration, the government of Bashir al-Assad, the Syrian president, quietly provided the US with occasional intelligence and help along its hundreds of miles of shared border with Iraq after the US invasion and occupation.

And in the absence of American leadership, Turkey brokered several rounds of talks between Israel and Syria during the last year of the Bush administration.

Blow to Iran

With the election of Barack Obama as US president and the resumption of a more "pragmatic" and "respectful" US attitude toward dealing with regimes across the Middle East, it is not surprising that the US would once again seek to engage Syria with an eye to restarting negotiations with Israel.

Besides the direct benefits of achieving a comprehensive Israeli-Syrian peace, the Obama administration likely see several other potential positive outcomes to a sustained engagement with Damascus.

First, the US would clearly like to lure Syria away from its alliance with Iran. Both the US and Israel consider a nuclear Iran the primary strategic threat in the region,
and if Syria could be enticed away from Iran and towards the US-axis it would be a major blow to Ahmadinejad's prestige and strategic position.

At the moment it is hard to see why Syria would abandon its traditional ally in favor of an untested relationship with a superpower that is committed to ensuring the superiority of Syria's primary adversary.

But al-Assad's ultimate goal, like his father before him, is to pursue a path of gradual development for Syria that maintains rather than threatens his regime's hold on power.

Hamas

Although improbable, the right combination of carrots and sticks by the US could put Syria in a position to reconsider its strategic positioning in the same way that Libya has done in the last few years, especially if Washington's relationship with Tehran becomes increasingly belligerent and the Syrian government fears being caught in the perilous cross-fire of a major US/Israeli-Iranian confrontation.

Syria also remains a critical power-broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process - far more so than during the Oslo/Clinton years, when Israel and the locally based Arafat/Fatah-led Palestinian Authority were the primary negotiating partners.

Today it is the Syrian-supported Hamas, specifically its political leader Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Damascus, that holds the key to any serious resumption of negotiations between the two peoples towards a final status agreement.

The Syrian government can either encourage or frustrate "moderation" by the Hamas leadership depending on what it feels it stands to gain from such a development, and such a calculus will be impossible to undertake before detailed conversations take place between the Obama administration and the Syrian government.

Warning to Palestinians

This is precisely why George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, visited Damascus on his way to Israel last week, where he declared both that the president was "adamant" about reviving the peace process - not just between Israel and the Palestinians, but towards a "comprehensive peace" between Israel and all its Arab neighbours.

Will the Obama administration learn from Bill Clinton's mistakes? [GALLO/GETTY]
Mitchell stated before leaving Damascus that his talks with al-Assad were "very candid and positive".

Given the distrust of the right-wing government of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, for the religiously oriented government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, it is not surprising that despite Turkey's announcement that it was ready to resume its mediation Israel would prefer that the US take over that role.

Finally, the US reactivation of the Syrian-Israeli negotiating track could, as it has in the past, serve as a warning to Palestinians that if they do not make more painful compromises in order to achieve a final status agreement, they could find themselves left in the cold as Israel moves towards peace with its one time nemesis.

The logic of such a move is clear. On the most crucial remaining areas of contention - Israeli settlements, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem - the Obama administration has shown little willingness to pressure Israel to make meaningful concessions, such as agreeing to a major territorial withdrawal from the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

If this dynamic persists, the only chance for achieving a peace agreement would be if Palestinians compromise on these issues, something there is little chance Hamas will agree to in the current balance of forces.

A change in tune by its Syrian patron, however unlikely, could force it to adopt a more flexible position, which is no doubt what Mitchell is hoping al-Assad might do, if he was offered the right incentives.

It is an unlikely scenario, but unless it is willing to pressure the Netanyahu government to be more forthcoming in negotiations, the US has few other options.

Balance of power

Ultimately, the most likely scenario whereby a more (from a US perspective) productive relationship with Syria could help bring about an Israeli-Palestinian, and through it, regional, peace agreement, would be if a serious improvement in US-Syrian relations convinced Israelis and Palestinians that the balance of power between them was at a tipping point, with Israel in an unprecedented position of strength and Palestinians too weak to hold out for better terms, thus bringing both sides to make compromises to close a final status agreement.

Of course, this was the same logic behind Oslo, which ultimately failed to produce peace or security for either Israelis or Palestinians.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will repeat, or instead learn from, the mistakes of the last Democratic administration to shepherd the peace process.

It is impossible to know precisely what Mitchell offered to al-Assad during his recent visit.

What can be said with a high degree of confidence, however, is that the solutions to the myriad impasses between the Israelis and Palestinians lie not in Damascus, but in the painfully entangled landscape of Jerusalem and the West Bank, precisely where the administration has yet to be willing to tread.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Mark Levine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

Source: Al Jazeera