Edition 45 Volume 2 - December 30, 2024

The Syrian peace initiative

Possibility of resuming talks is remote -   Nicholas Blanford

Both Syria and Israel would have a lot to gain, but the US is unlikely to push very hard.

Syria can wait -   Efraim Inbar

There are compelling moral, strategic and political reasons to refuse to tango with Damascus.

Playing two tracks against each other - an interview with  Ali Jarbawi

With Syria willing to negotiate, Israel can play that track off against the Palestinian track.

Grab the outstretched hand -   Terje Roed-Larsen

Asad is deeply interested not only in restarting negotiations, but also in integrating Syria more deeply into the international community.

Possibility of resuming talks is remote
 Nicholas Blanford

Syria has repeatedly over the past year signaled a willingness to resume unconditional peace negotiations with Israel, four years after the last round collapsed in Geneva.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has dismissed the Syrian overtures as insincere, saying Damascus must renounce its "support for terrorism" before talks can begin. The administration of US President George W. Bush has also shown little indication to get involved, effectively dashing any hopes of an imminent resurrection of Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Syria faces unprecedented US-led pressure over a wide range of issues, including its alleged failure to cooperate sufficiently in stabilizing Iraq, its support for militant anti-Israel groups, including Lebanon's Hizbullah, its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its meddling in the affairs of neighboring Lebanon. In September, Syria's one-time European ally, France, sided with the US in co-sponsoring United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 calling on Syria to withdraw its estimated 14,000 troops from Lebanon, disarm Hizballah and Palestinian groups and cease interfering in Lebanese politics.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad first indicated that he would be willing to resume talks "without conditions" with Israel in December 2024 in an interview with The New York Times. The offer was repeated--always relayed by visitors to the presidential palace in Damascus--in January and twice more in September and November, following the passing of UN Resolution 1559.

But, although Assad is offering unconditional talks, Syrian officials have indicated that the negotiations should pick up from where they left off in March 2024.

"Syria considers resuming peace talks where they left off is not a condition, it's logical," Syrian Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah said recently.

The Syrians calculate that a resumption of talks with Israel will help relieve the pressure from the US and open the way for potential deals on Iraq and Lebanon. That does not mean that Syria is interested in the process rather than the peace--an accusation that was sometimes leveled at the late Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad.

Present and former international diplomats assess that the younger Assad is genuine in wanting to strike a peace deal and recommend that Israel take up the offer. Given the poor state of the Syrian economy and a spiraling birth rate, Syria has much to gain from a peace dividend, which could include substantial economic and financial assistance as well as the lifting of US sanctions and the end of its pariah status. Syrian officials maintain that a comprehensive peace with Israel will resolve its outstanding problems with the US and the United Nations, including the demands of UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

Beyond the relayed offers from Assad, there have been other indications of Syrian goodwill. Most significant is the mending of relations between Damascus and the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and likely successor to the late Yasser Arafat, visited Damascus in early December, formally ending years of mutual distrust between the Syrians and the PA.

On a smaller scale, Damascus is planning to reconstruct the Golan town of Quneitra, which was destroyed by Israeli troops before being returned to Syria as part of the 1974 UN Disengagement Treaty. The town was deliberately left untouched by the Syrian authorities as a symbol of Israeli aggression. Damascus has also agreed to fulfill a request of Syrian Druze farmers on the Israeli-occupied Golan to purchase their apple harvest, a decision Israel has dubbed the "first trade deal" between the two countries.

Israel too has much to gain from concluding peace with Syria. First, it closes the circle of peace that began with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Lebanon can be expected to swiftly follow Syria in reaching a peace deal with Israel. Secondly, the lingering threat posed by Hizballah along Israel's northern border will end. Hizballah will have little choice but to dismantle its military wing and pursue its anti-Israel agenda through peaceful means.

Several Israeli officials, including President Moshe Katsav and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, have recommended that Sharon pursue the Syrian offer. Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli chief of staff, broke a taboo in August when he announced that Israel's military superiority was such that it could defend Israel without the Golan Heights.

Yet the resumption of peace talks appears remote. Without a coercive shove from the Bush administration, Sharon feels little need to accept the Syrian offer, especially while embroiled in a tough political battle over the disengagement from Gaza.

Similarly, Bush is not inclined to ease the pressure on Syria at a time when the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating.

"Assad needs to wait: first peace between Israel and Palestine, and then we'll see what to do with Syria," he told a reporter from the Israeli Yedioth Aharanot newspaper during a White House reception in mid December.- Published 30/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.

Syria can wait
 Efraim Inbar

Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, has made several overtures toward Israel in the attempt to renew peace talks. The primary reason for the Syrian moves is fear. With the reelection of President Bush in the United States, continuity in American policies toward the Middle East is to be expected. This means continuous pressure on Syria to get out of Lebanon, stop helping the insurgency against the Americans in Iraq, rein in Hizballah and desist from rendering assistance to the Palestinian terrorist organizations whose headquarters are in Damascus.

Syria entertains serious fears that the US might unleash Israel to punish Syrian misbehavior. Moreover, Syria takes seriously the democratization rhetoric coming from Washington, which is perceived correctly as inimical to the continuity of the Syrian dictatorship. Syria hopes that, as in the past, peace talks with Israel can be used as a shield against US pressure.

Israel has no reason whatsoever to make it easier for the Syrian dictatorship to extricate itself from a difficult international constellation. It is quite clear that the current American administration is not well disposed toward Syria and is hardly enthusiastic about the prospects of Israeli-Syrian peace talks, precisely because it fully understands the motivation behind the peace overtures coming from Damascus.

Should Israel follow the American line or attempt to reach a deal with Syria? There are compelling moral, strategic and political reasons to refuse to tango with Damascus.

Nowadays, the expectations of the international community for a deal between Israel and an Arab state are based on the formula "land for peace," which links withdrawal from the strategic plateau of the Golan Heights to any peace agreement. This is morally repugnant because it implies that the aggressor of 1967, Syria, will get away without paying any price for its flagrant violation of international norms. Moreover, this formula is morally misguided because it requires not only evacuation of territory, but also removal of Jews from their homes, basically agreeing to the Arabs' demand that their states have to be free of Jews. The Arabs' refusal to accept even a miniscule Jewish minority within their midst in the framework of a peace agreement constitutes blatant racism. The current understanding of the "land for peace" formula is therefore morally bankrupt.

Strategically, the withdrawal from the Golan Heights is extremely problematic. Israeli control of the Golan Heights conveys several important advantages that were crucial in repelling the Syrian military onslaught in October 1973 and in maintaining stability along the Israeli-Syrian border since. The current border along the hills in the eastern part of the plateau is the best defense line against a conventional military attack. Israeli control of the Mt. Hermon peak in the north of the Golan enables Israel to project electronic surveillance deep into Syrian territory, providing Israel with early-warning capacity of an impending attack. The proximity of the Golan to Damascus (about 60 kilometers) has tremendous deterrent value because it puts the capital, the command center of the Syrian regime, within easy reach of Israeli military might.

The simplistic slogans about the decreasing value of territory and topographical assets ignore the fact that in historic terms military technology has continuously fluctuated, occasionally favoring defensive postures or offensive initiatives. Moreover, the stabilizing effect of the demilitarization arrangements in the Sinai (200 kilometers wide) cannot be emulated in the 24 kilometer-wide Golan. The design of Israel's border should not be hostage to the ephemeral status of current technologies. Israeli control over the Golan Heights has provided a quiet border and any change might have destabilizing effects.

Politically, it is unwise for the current Israeli government to enter into negotiations with Damascus. The Syrians can hardly offer more than the "cold peace" delivered by Egypt. Relations with Syria will not serve as an entry card to the rest of the Arab world, which is gradually entering into varying types of peaceful interactions with Jerusalem. Actually Syria, as well as the rest of Arab world, have very little to offer to Israel in economic or cultural terms. Israel has no interest in integrating into a despotic, corrupt and poor region. Therefore, the price Damascus demands of Jerusalem for a peace treaty is too high.

As noted, an additional price for an Israeli positive response to the Syrian feelers might be American displeasure. As the US is Israel's main ally and the sole superpower, the chances of signing an Israeli-Syrian document are not worth the risks of US-Israeli tensions. Moreover domestic politics, which revolve around the Palestinian issue, primarily disengagement from the Gaza Strip, indicate caution on the Syrian track. An Israeli government engaged in withdrawing from Gaza and evacuating Jewish settlers cannot afford to open a new domestic front, particularly since the majority of Israelis oppose full withdrawal from the Golan. The Israeli political system is burdened enough with several challenges and can hardly cope with additional pressures emanating from negotiations with Syria.

Finally, Israeli policies toward Syria should be guided by the Turkish precedent. Despite Syrian demands, Turkey refuses to hand over the Hatay province that was transferred by French-ruled Syria to Turkey in 1938. This territorial dispute has not prevented Damascus from having diplomatic relations with Ankara. Similarly, the territorial dispute between Israel and Syria should not serve as a pretext for refraining from recognizing Israel and having diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.- Published 30/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Efraim Inbar is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.

Playing two tracks against each other
an interview with Ali Jarbawi

BI: There have been certain moves recently by Syria to restart negotiations with Israel. How significant do you think this is?

Jarbawi: I think it's significant on the Syrian side but not on the Israeli side. Syria wants to restart negotiations because Syrians think they are going to be left out, but the Israelis are not interested and the Americans made it clear that the Syrians have to wait until the Palestinian track is over or well advanced. So we are not going to see any moves on the Syrian track just yet. However, the significance is that Syria is now ready to restart negotiations with Israel.

BI: How much do you think this is due to Syria feeling they are in a corner and have no choice?

Jarbawi: They are in a corner. The pressure from the international community, especially from the Americans, is mounting on the Syrians, and they feel the only way to maneuver is through this move. I'm not sure if the Syrians knew from the beginning that the Israelis were going to refuse, and they could play for time this way.

BI: How does this then play in with the Palestinian track?

Jarbawi: Previously the Israelis played the two tracks against each other. And now the Israelis know the Syrians are ready to reopen negotiations, I think they can use this to pressure the Palestinians, because they can claim that if the Palestinians are going to play hardball on negotiations there is a second track available. So they might use it to pressure the Palestinians.

BI: A kind of Barak tactic in reverse?

Jarbawi: Yes.

BI: How significant would it be for the Palestinians if, let's say, the Palestinian track didn't go anywhere and instead negotiations with Syria went ahead?

Jarbawi: It would be alarming to the Palestinians. I think the Palestinians don't want the Syrian track to reopen without them, or at least, if it does, to go hand-in-hand with the Palestinian track. But I think the Palestinians would prefer to go first.

BI: So is this a sign of further Arab disengagement from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

Jarbawi: This disengagement happened a long time ago. From the beginning each wanted to play it on their own and now we have separate tracks. This is a result of what happened from the beginning with Oslo.

BI: In other words, the Palestinian side made their own bed?

Jarbawi: Of course. You can't have your cake and eat it too. Each side is trying to get the best deal available. However, Abu Mazen went to Syria and we had some rapproachment between the Palestinians and the Syrians, so hopefully they can start coordinating their moves together. I am not sure about that though.

BI: How significant was that meeting?

Jarbawi: It was an interesting meeting. I think it was a beginning to reestablishing good relations and coordination. However, I think each party is looking out for its own interest. I think the underdog will call for coordination while the other side is going to go ahead on its own. If the Palestinians go first and the negotiations are progressing well, I don't think the Palestinians will care to coordinate with Syria, and vice versa.

BI: How confident are you that negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel will start after the presidential elections?

Jarbawi: I think both sides are interested and the international community is also interested. However, restarting the negotiations is not what you look for, you look at ending the negotiations. Although reopening the negotiations is possible, getting a result is not going to be easy.

BI: So, it is likely that in perhaps the next year or two, the Israelis will leave the Palestinian track and focus on the Syrian?

Jarbawi: We have to look ahead a year. I think the Israelis have two objectives on the Palestinian track this year. They want disengagement from Gaza to be completed and they want to finish building the wall. After that the Palestinians will be in a very bad position to negotiate. We might then see a shift in focus onto the Syrian track.- Published 30/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Ali Jarbawi is professor of political science at Birzeit University.

Grab the outstretched hand
 Terje Roed-Larsen

In retrospect, historians will undoubtedly view the autumn of 2024 as a crucial juncture in the annals of Middle East peace diplomacy. The question is--will they see this moment as a new beginning in the region, or as a missed opportunity?

A window of potential opportunity has opened up on the Israeli-Syrian track of the Middle East peace process. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has stretched out a hand toward Israel. This outstretched hand should be grabbed, not refused.

During my recent visit to Damascus, President Assad told me very clearly: Syria is willing to go back to peace negotiations with Israel, without any preconditions and within the framework of the relevant Security Council resolutions and the fundamental principle of land for peace.

I am well aware that many in Israel are very skeptical as regards the sincerity of President Assad's overtures. Many kinds of pressure characterize the region at the moment, and some observers have linked Assad's initiative with these changing dynamics. This may not be wrong--but I believe that the motivating factors behind President Assad's outstretched hand are far less important than the fact that Syria is indeed reaching out to Israel. At the very least, I think, the offer should be explored. What does Israel stand to lose? If Assad was bluffing, Israel would not lose anything by exploring the sincerity of his initiative, and by calling the bluff.

My meeting with Assad took place in a very warm, creative and constructive atmosphere, including a lengthy private discussion. I came away convinced that the president is genuinely interested not only in restarting negotiations, but also in seeking to reposition Syria and integrate the country more deeply into the international community. All the indications are that Syria has recognized the signs of the times, and is trying to make some progress, both as regards peace with Israel and in terms of a broader redefinition of its role in the region.

My impression was furthered in the other meetings I had in Damascus, where I also talked with Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah. Two days after my departure, Minister Dakhlallah reiterated the president's offer publicly in a press conference in Damascus: Syria was ready to negotiate with Israel, without any preconditions.

Since my initial public remarks about Assad's offer, a debate has raged in Israel and beyond regarding the potential and interest behind the Syrian peace overtures and the prospects for progress. I have had frank discussions with a number of key Israeli leaders and officials. Both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Jordanian ruler, King Abdullah II, have offered to mediate between the two parties. Israel has so far refrained from taking up either offer, or from exploring the Syrian initiative. And I think this needs to be done before what may be a fleeting moment passes.

There are those in Israel who think that in the present situation, with promising prospects for movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track and with imminent implementation of Prime Minister Sharon's disengagement plan, Israel should not engage in a parallel second track of the peace process. Of course, there are also some who would like to keep the entire Golan Heights, period. However, without the willingness to embrace the principle of land for peace, there are naturally few prospects for lasting peace in the region. As regards the engagement on two parallel tracks of the peace process, I do not see a problem here. On the contrary, I would argue that engagement on two parallel tracks could actually consolidate the momentum toward peace. Progress on one track would fuel the overall momentum, and thus propel the other track forward, too. The recent talks between the Palestinian leadership and the Syrian government, and the agreement reached to coordinate their respective negotiating positions, only serve to illustrate and underline this point.

I am not arguing that the realization of a comprehensive peace deal in the region is imminent, or will be easy. But clearly, movement on the Israeli-Syrian track of the peace process will then also prompt movement on the Israeli-Lebanese track. Perhaps it cannot be done at once--but momentum toward the realization of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East has already been created, also aided by the promising prospects on the Israeli-Palestinian track. And this momentum should be explored and if possible, exploited.

Syria's hand is outstretched toward Israel now. It should be grabbed. The opportunity is now, and may soon pass. And history will judge these days in retrospect for being full of missed opportunities, or for being the first days of a new beginning in the Middle East. I think they can, and should, be remembered as the latter.- Published 30/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org

Terje Roed-Larsen, one of the architects of the Oslo channel, has served as the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process from 1993-1997, and again since 1999. He is leaving his post at the end of the year to become president of the International Peace Academy in New York.

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