Syria: Businessman's Backdoor Peacemaking

In the living room of his home in suburban Maryland, Ibrahim Soliman unfolds a topographical map of the Golan Heights, the territory Israel captured from Syria in 1967 that remains at the heart of their dispute. Covered on both sides with thick plastic sheeting and marked up with lines that divide the plateau into seven zones, the map was a prop in one of Soliman's first secret contacts with Israelis in the early 1990s. Soliman, 70, is a Syrian-American businessman with close ties to the Assads, the ruling family in Damascus. Though he is not an official of any government, Soliman has been quietly conducting a kind of backdoor mediation between the two warring countries for more than 15 years, relaying messages and discussing peace initiatives with private Israelis. His recent talks with the former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry even produced a draft accord, which Soliman showed leaders in Damascus and which others presented to U.S. officials. Washington's response? A resounding silence

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Damascus marked the latest challenge to the Bush administration's policy of isolating Syria for its alleged support of terrorism. It also raised new questions about the U.S. approach to peace talks between Israel and its neighbors. President Bush has chosen to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian track, sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Jerusalem and Ramallah four times since January. But a growing number of Middle East experts, in and outside of government, now believe progress is more likely on the Syrian track. "There's certainly more potential there and fewer complications," says Dennis Ross, Washington's main Middle East troubleshooter for a decade under Republican and Democratic presidents.

The complications in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are bound up mainly with Hamas, the Islamic group that dominates the Palestinian government and refuses to recognize Israel, much less forge a peace agreement. In contrast, Syrian President Bashar Assad has offered face-to-face talks without preconditions, a formula Israel had long sought. But officials versed in Mideast diplomacy say Washington has pressured Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to continue spurning Damascus. Rice made the case to Israeli leaders just last month, say knowledgeable Israeli and American sources who didn't want to be named revealing details of closed-door meetings. She argued that talks would amount to a reward for Assad's backing of Hizbullah in Lebanon and his ties with Iran, the sources say. (Asked about the exchange, a State Department spokesman says the U.S. position is to "not encourage" Israel to engage with Syria.)

Soliman believes Americans are misreading Assad. A member of the same Allawite sect as the Assads, Soliman first met Bashar's father in 1957. Hafez Assad was an Air Force lieutenant at the time, serving under the command of Soliman's older brother in the city of Hama. "There was a casino along the river in Hama where he and I would drink coffee and play backgammon," Soliman tells NEWSWEEK in a rare print interview. Hafez impressed Soliman as "very smart and very ambitious" but also bitter about events in the Middle East—the creation of Israel and the partition of Lebanon from Syria. Soliman left Syria to study in America the following year, but kept in contact with Assad, who grabbed power in 1970 and led Syria for three decades. Soliman says Assad came to terms late in life with Israel's existence and focused mainly on retrieving the Golan, an objective he bequeathed to his son. "Bashar wants to see the Golan returned to Syria, and he's genuinely prepared to make peace with Israel to get it back."

Israel has its own qualms about negotiating with Syria. Olmert told Pelosi last week that talks could begin only after Assad expels leaders of Hamas and the more-radical Islamic Jihad, and stops the flow of weapons to Hizbullah, the group Israel waged war against last summer. With a plummeting approval rating, Olmert must be worried that bargaining over the Golan would alienate hawkish voters. Adhering to Washington's veto might be his way of avoiding the issue altogether. But Olmert also faces pressure from some key cabinet members who are agitating for the government to at least test Assad's sincerity. So are a few top military officials, who believe a potential war with Syria over the rearming of Hizbullah might be averted through negotiations.

Soliman hopes that kind of Israeli sentiment will eventually win out. To encourage it, he's accepted an invitation to address the Israeli Parliament's influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week. His appearance there will mark the first time a Syrian national speaks at the Israeli Assembly. Among the arguments he anticipates having to counter: that Assad's gambit is aimed at deflecting pressure over the assassination two years ago of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri (an independent investigation is still underway). "If I thought that was true, I would not be making all this effort," he says. ("Soliman was acting of his own convictions," says Ahmed Salkini, press secretary of the Syrian Embassy in Washington.) Soliman believes an Israeli-Syrian accord will also have a wider impact, weakening radicals in the region including Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran. "I want to convince the skeptics," he says. His chances might just be a shade better in Jerusalem than in Washington.