Edition 8 Volume 5 - February 22, 2024

A Syria-Israel peace process?

America's veto on Syrian-Israeli talks is counter-productive -   Rime Allaf

The long-awaited return of the Golan Heights to Syria should not be marketed as a reward offered to Syria for "good behavior" in other arenas.

Include Lebanon -   Riad Kahwaji

First Israel must convince the Americans, who in turn must ease Lebanese fears and recognize the benefits of engaging with Syria.

Washington is obstructing progress on Syria -   Ghassan Khatib

Washington seems to be saying to Damascus that "you are invited to negotiate but only after you give up the bargaining chips you have."

Syria can switch camps -   Alon Liel

Israel withdraws from the Golan Heights in exchange for a total reorientation of Syria's regional and global policies.

America's veto on Syrian-Israeli talks is counter-productive
 Rime Allaf

For years, unlike the other thorny issues that form the Arab-Israel conflict, the status of the Golan Heights hasn't triggered a sense of urgency in any party. Strangely, this apparent nonchalance also applies to Syria.

Apart from a brief joint Syrian-Egyptian effort in 1973 to retrieve territories invaded by Israel in 1967, the important battles in the Syrian-Israeli conflict have not been fought on the Golan Heights, but in other arenas and even through proxies. This doesn't mean that its importance has not been recognized or that resolving the issue has not been attempted; numerous interventions by successive American administrations have come and gone, but breakthroughs were always prevented by the changing agendas of the people who could make them happen.

Forty years on, and 15 years after an unprecedented peace process was launched with the Madrid Peace Conference, we seem to have reached an inexplicable impasse again. While Syria has repeatedly indicated it was willing to restart negotiations unconditionally (implying the progress made with the so-called Rabin deposit and the near-agreement with Barak at Wye River could be scratched), Israel has time and again rejected these advances, fully supported by the US, in an erratic and ambiguous attitude serving no long-term purpose.

More recently, any chance of Israeli dedication to the matter has been completely put to rest by the intransigence of the Bush administration, which instructed all its allies to turn a cold shoulder toward Syria, hoping to impose a new isolation. The present administration, in fact, has engineered the most significant change in American policy toward Syria since the 1980s, a change that predates both the Lebanon file beginning with UNSC Resolution 1559 and the invasion of Iraq, the two main current points of contention between the US and Syria. After 9/11, and after having accepted Syrian intelligence cooperation, Washington was transformed from a sponsor of the Syrian-Israeli peace track into a promoter of the Syria Accountability Act.

America's unjustified indifference to the issue of the Golan Heights and its shameless selectiveness in applying international law are neither new nor surprising, given its life-long blind support of Israel. In the circumstances surrounding the Middle East today, however, such behavior is foolish and counter-productive, for a peace settlement with Syria is a prerequisite to comprehensive calm.

The Bush administration has accused the Syrian regime of every possible crime and misdemeanor in the region, blaming Damascus for problems in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, to mention only the most pressing issues. If Washington is simply looking for a scapegoat, one can only wonder about the benefits of such conduct. But if it really believes that Syrian actions are that powerful, then that is all the more reason to "force" Syria to behave according to American parameters. This could be done in one of two ways: threats, pressure and sanctions (the current modus operandi of the Bush administration), or engagement and promises of mutual benefits. In other words, for the US, Syria can either be beaten into submission, which hasn't been effective until now, or it can be enticed somewhat into the American sphere of influence.

It has been suggested that "offering" negotiations on the Golan Heights in return for Syrian assistance on other problematic fronts could help achieve several American goals in the region, including a divorce between Syria and Iran, a distancing from Palestinian radical factions, a relaxation of open interference in Lebanon and, most importantly, a pro-active role in the pacification of Iraq. But simultaneously, there are allegations that the Syrian regime is not serious about peace and only wants to escape isolation by negotiating, which is the line that Washington has chosen as its premise.

Such reasoning, such polarization into "us or them", only serves to perpetuate the deadlock. Syria is being accused of wanting to negotiate for negotiations' sake, but Israel and the US themselves are only talking peace to achieve other goals.

Furthermore, the long-awaited return of the Golan Heights to Syria should not be marketed as a reward offered to Syria for "good behavior" in other arenas. Unless this conflict is resolved to the letter of the international law that clearly defines its ownership and its borders, the US will only be playing with fire. Turning a national right into a potential fringe benefit is bad politics, especially when the peddler has repeatedly proven its bias in the case.

There never was a bad time to rekindle a peace process, especially in a region where lack of peace doesn't merely entail frosty relations, but rather ongoing hostilities. Every possible scenario has already passed: active war, quiet non-belligerence and non-peace, rightist and leftist governments in Israel, on and off American involvement, bilateral and multilateral negotiations, resolutions and peace initiatives. The only thing that hasn't been tried yet is compelling Israel to commit to international law and United Nations resolutions; in the case of Syria, this means UNSC Resolutions 242, 338 and 497, among others.

Sooner or later, Israel must give back the land it has illegally invaded and annexed, an inevitability that the Israeli political class understands full well. Creative solutions to circumvent the obligatory full return of the Golan Heights (such as the dubious non-paper revealed recently by Haaretz) cannot work, and yet Washington seems to object even to that. By needlessly perpetuating the status quo, and by rejecting the sound advice offered by the Iraq Study Group to engage with Syria, isn't Washington foolishly shooting itself in the foot?- Published 22/2/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.

Include Lebanon
 Riad Kahwaji

To talk or not to talk to Syria, that is the question on the minds of many officials in Israel and the United States. Syrian leaders have spared no opportunity in the past few months to reiterate their call for the unconditional resumption of peace talks with Israel. In return, Israeli officials have either bluntly rejected the offers or have played deaf. Israelis who welcome the invitation have blamed the United States for their government's negative position. Officials in the administration of President George W. Bush have said that as long as Damascus is aiding radical groups branded by the West as terrorists, such as Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and is not doing enough to stop the flow of weapons and terrorists into Iraq, the international community should continue to isolate Syria.

However, the growing influence of Tehran in Damascus and Beirut is a new and important factor that ought to be considered. Recent events in the region, especially the war in Lebanon, have revealed Iran's strength and how deeply it has entrenched itself in Lebanon and Syria. Hence those in the Israeli-American camp who favor engaging Syria are saying that talks would help drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran and would subsequently weaken Iran's influence. Skeptics respond that Tehran has taken advantage of the weak Syrian leadership following the death of Hafez Assad and has now got Syria under its thumb, hence talking to Damascus would only buy the Syrian-Iranian axis some precious time to improve its regional position.

Many Lebanese officials have discreetly joined US and Israeli leaders in opposing resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks before first resolving the current conflict between Damascus and Beirut. The main fear in Beirut is that Syria could use the peace talks as an opportunity to strike a deal with Israel that would help Damascus reestablish its dwindling influence in Lebanon. Also, Lebanese government officials are worried that Damascus could take advantage of the peace negotiations to improve relations with Washington and subsequently talk the Americans into halting proceedings for an international tribunal to probe the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri. Many observers believe that strong personal relations between Bush and some Lebanese leaders like Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri have influenced Washington's position on Syria and peace talks with Israel.

In fact, isolating Syria and not engaging it has not achieved the desired objectives. Rather, it has only pushed Damascus closer to Iran and further complicated the situation in Lebanon and Iraq. Israel has gained nothing; on the contrary, this policy has brought Iran closer to its northern borders via Syria and Hizballah in South Lebanon. This situation, perceived by Israel now as a serious security threat, will become a strategic threat once Iran possesses nuclear weapons.

With the isolation policy failing to achieve its objectives, Israel must seriously consider engaging Syria. Besides, peace talks are the best and only way to test Syria's true intentions. But first the Israelis must convince the Americans--who in turn must ease the fears of the Lebanese government and at the same time recognize the benefits of engaging Syria.

One good way to do this would be for Israel to restart talks with both Syria and Lebanon simultaneously. Israeli leaders must accept Syria's invitation to the talks provided that Damascus allows a Lebanese delegation to sit in on the first few meetings to discuss a major shared issue: the disputed Shebaa Farms. Afterwards, Lebanese and Syrian tracks would proceed separately with a pledge from Damascus that it would not use its allies in Lebanon to undermine the Lebanese government. Lebanon, in return, would assure Syria it would not sign a treaty with Israel before Damascus does.

This approach would achieve several major objectives:

  • The Lebanese would not be concerned about a Syrian-Israeli deal at their expense, and subsequently there would be no pressure from their side on Washington to block the talks.
  • Iran would not be able to use Hizballah to undermine the peace talks because of Syria's stance and due to the presence of a much stronger UN force in South Lebanon.
  • Under successful peace talks that would include the return of the Golan Heights, Syria would not perceive a need to be so close to Iran, hence would distance itself from Tehran and cut off military support to Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
  • Hizballah and other opposition forces in Lebanon would not be able to complain significantly about their government talking to Israel at a time Damascus is doing so.
  • Successful Syrian-Israeli talks would reflect positively on relations between Damascus and Washington and subsequently lead to better Syrian cooperation in ending the insurgency in parts of Iraq, especially Anbar province.
  • The potential Iranian strategic threat to Israel would not be on Israel's borders but rather thousands of miles away.
  • The Palestinian Authority would become more unified and in better control and thus capable of negotiating a lasting settlement with Israel.
  • Most important, al-Qaeda would lose ground in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories.

This approach would only work if Israel were willing to give up the Golan Heights. It is far less costly and dangerous than the current policy that leads to more wars, death and destruction and further complicates the Middle East conflict, especially the Arab-Israel rapprochement that ended after a very good start in 1991. With a growing Shi'ite-Sunni rift, the regional conflict is taking on an ethno-sectarian dimension, and if nothing is done to restart the peace process future wars will be on religious grounds rather than based on national interests. It would be only a matter of time before wars reach the borders of Israel and Europe from many directions. Nuclear weapons might deter people pursuing their national interests but would do very little against holy warriors seeking a place in paradise.- Published 22/2/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Riad Kahwaji is CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis - INEGMA, in Dubai.

Washington is obstructing progress on Syria
 Ghassan Khatib

The issue of Syria is a uniquely good example of the complexities of Middle East peace making.

On the one hand, Syria is an unavoidable party to the Arab-Israel conflict because of Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights. Hence, Syria was rightly part of the failed Middle East peace conference in Madrid in 1991.

At the same time the country is located, geographically as well as politically, between Iraq and Lebanon. Damascus is accused, particularly by the US, of playing an unacceptable role in Iraq and in supporting Hizballah in Lebanon.

In addition, the current US administration has placed Damascus in the Iran-Shi'ite Iraq-Hizballah-Hamas axis that has openly challenged Washington's Middle East policy and some Arab governments.

Hence, while the Syrians and Israelis by themselves seem readier than ever for serious negotiations over the Golan Heights and direct Syrian-Israeli relations, the US is advising Israel against such a move because of the Syrian role in Iraq and Lebanon.

The paradox here is that the Syrian involvement in both Iraq and Lebanon is motivated, at least partly, by the need to maintain a strong negotiating position vis-a-vis Israel. Israel has proven time and again that in negotiations with Arab countries it respects the balance of power more than anything. Thus, Syria is quite rationally equipping itself with the bargaining chips to ensure a fair deal when the time comes.

Yet it is these same bargaining chips that are used by the US, with Israeli acquiescence, to prevent negotiations from starting. In other words, Washington seems to be saying to Damascus that "you are invited to negotiate but only after you give up the bargaining chips you have."

The US is also placing Damascus in an impossible situation. Iranian-Syrian relations are a source of strength to Syria on all levels, whether military, financial or strategic. Indeed, they are important to Tehran, giving Iran an important regional presence and strengthening ties with Lebanon and the exiled Hamas leadership in Damascus, thereby extending Iranian influence to Hamas in Gaza.

To lessen the importance to Damascus of these relations requires Saudi Arabia to step in and compensate the country financially and assure Damascus of a leading role in the Arab world. Syria also needs assurances that this route creates a real possibility of ending the Israeli occupation of Arab territories, including its Golan Heights.

Syria has always played the Palestinian card. Historically, Damascus has been keen to exercise its influence through one or more of the Palestinian factions. In the 1970s and '80s this was evident with the Palestinian Baathist faction in the PLO, as well as others, including elements within Fateh. Recently this influence has been leveraged through the exiled Hamas leadership.

At times that Syrian influence was seen as a burden. Palestinians have often perceived Syria to be using its influence for its own ends, to place itself in an Arab leadership role and strengthen its hand vis-a-vis Israel. At the moment, Palestinians are divided regarding their understanding of the Syrian role.

At all times, however, the absolute Syrian insistence on a complete end to the Israeli occupation is supported by all Palestinians. Most Palestinians also oppose US attempts to prevent the inclusion of Syria in any future political process.

This American insistence on excluding Syria because of its role in Iraq and Lebanon is also precluding the possibility of taking advantage of the Arab peace initiative, which is based on comprehensive Arab-Israel peace in return for a comprehensive Israeli withdrawal from all Arab land, including Syrian land.

Washington seems to believe that the Arab initiative gives Damascus an unacceptable veto power and further strengthens its regional position. But in order to solve crises in the region, one needs to adopt a comprehensive approach that takes into consideration their linkages. That is one of the strengths of the Arab initiative.- Published 22/2/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Syria can switch camps
 Alon Liel

Almost everything has changed since Israel and Syria were last involved in peace negotiations seven years ago. The Israeli-Syrian conflict still exists, but it has become only one of many hot fronts in the global war of cultures and religions. Israel clearly sides with the western/democratic world in this global confrontation, and Syria is an active member of the "axis of evil" coalition, overtly siding with Iran, Hizballah, Hamas and the other Islamic fundamentalist forces.

Seven years ago, Israel and Syria could not work out a bilateral "territories for peace" deal. Even US President Bill Clinton's personal effort did not help. Today such a deal is no longer on the agenda; a much broader one has to be worked out to fit contemporary circumstances. It can be described as "withdrawal for reorientation"--Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a total reorientation of Syria's regional and global policies. Such a deal might drastically change or even put an end to the ongoing global conflict of cultures.

Here is a possible scenario for how things might develop:

  • Israel announces that sovereignty on the Golan Heights will be Syrian. Syria simultaneously announces that it is severing its military contacts with Iran and Hizballah, expelling Khaled Meshaal from Syria and ceasing in any way to assist the insurgents in Iraq. Actual withdrawal from the Golan does not start before these changes in Syria's policy are fully introduced. A trilateral American-Israeli-Syrian committee is established to monitor Syria's regional activities and set the withdrawal timetable accordingly.
  • Once the trilateral committee acknowledges that Syria has changed its regional orientation, Israel and Syria launch peace negotiations aimed at a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights within five to ten years.
  • The sides agree that most of the Golan becomes a nature reserve. Israelis and Syrians are not allowed to reside there but are able to visit for tourist purposes and to work in those tourism, agriculture or industrial projects that both sides agree upon.
  • The entire area of the Golan Heights is fully demilitarized.
  • Syria may not alter the flow of water in the region; Israel is not deprived of the quantities of water it draws upon today from sources on the Golan Heights.
  • Israel and Syria sign a peace treaty and establish full diplomatic ties aiming at complete normalization of relations between the two countries and peoples.
  • Once Israel and Syria have signed their bilateral agreement the United States removes its embargo on Syria and reverses all relevant anti-Syrian congressional and administration decisions.
  • Syria agrees to look into the possibility of granting citizenship to its Palestinian refugees; the international community takes upon itself full responsibility for their rehabilitation.

The Syrian window of opportunity is wide open. No less important is the fact that the Palestinian window looks tightly closed. The newly beautified Hamas government still does not show any sign of readiness to recognize the existence of the state of Israel. It looks unlikely that Israel will negotiate peace with a Meshaal-Haniyeh-led government. The capacity of President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to march alone into negotiations with Israel looks even more restricted than before the recent Saudi-sponsored arrangement.

The Syrian-Iranian alliance is not a natural one for Damascus. A "territories for reorientation" agreement with Syria seems possible. It might not be a very popular deal with the relevant publics in Syria, Israel and the US, but it is the task of leaders to lead their peoples toward a better future and a better world. The popular majority in all three countries will end up supporting the agreement once it is a done deal.- Published 22/2/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Alon Liel was director general of the Israel Foreign Ministry under the Barak government. He now lectures at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzlia.

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