Syrian talks offer more than hot air
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Observers of the Middle East peace process since 1990 are divided on
what to make of the current stage of indirect talks between Syria and Israel,
carried out through Turkish mediation.
Some claim these talks are sincere, stemming from a mutual desire for peace on
behalf of both President Bashar al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert. The fact that indirect messages were being sent back and forth between
April 2007 and
April 2008 is ample testimony to their seriousness.
Optimists have high hopes that a peace treaty can be signed before the end of
2008. Others argue that regardless of how sincere all parties are, peace is
impossible as long as US President George W Bush is not interested in a
Syrian-Israeli peace treaty. A third group argues that regardless of how
involved the Americans are, neither Assad nor Olmert really wants peace at this
stage, but are killing time, talking indirectly through the Turks, in order to
downplay domestic problems in both Syria and Israel.
Ibrahim Hamidi, a well-informed Damascus correspondent for the Saudi pan-Arab
daily al-Hayat, wrote a feature on May 28 saying that perhaps direct peace
talks are on the horizon without having to wait until Bush leaves the White
House. He claimed the Syrians no longer link direct talks to a new US
administration, adding that the Syrians will engage in direct talks when they
receive guarantees that the entire Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967,
will be restored to Syria.
Many had previously argued that Syria was testing the waters through indirect
talks, knowing perfectly well that the Turks cannot pull through with a peace
treaty. If anything serious were to happen, it would need full American
endorsement, which at this stage does not exist. Bush was loud and clear in
2003, saying that peace will not materialize between Syria and Israel, claiming
that "Syria is a very weak country that just has to wait" until all pending
Middle East issues are solved before it makes peace with Israel.
Then, talks and messages came to a grinding halt. There was no sense talking
peace if Bush was not interested, and nor was then-prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Things have changed, according to Hamidi, who says that during his last visit
to Israel, Olmert talked Bush into accepting (at least not vetoing) a
Syrian-Israeli peace track. He wrote, "Bush changed from red light to orange,
without turning on the green light [for Olmert]."
Olmert, who has been sending signals to the Syrians for over a year, lobbied
for the Syrian track, apparently for a variety of reasons. First and foremost
would be to divert attention from the accusations of corruption he is facing
inside Israel, which might force him to resign in the very near future. Olmert
has been charged with taking campaign contributions while running for mayor of
Jerusalem from a Jewish-American businessman, Morris Talansky.
Second is to free himself from the burden of talking peace with Palestinian
President Mahmud Abbas, a man who clearly can no longer deliver. Abbas is no
Yasser Arafat (former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader) and cannot
pull through with a peace treaty, nor can he control, appease, silence or crush
Hamas. Wasting more time and effort on the Palestinian track (as Bush has been
urging Olmert to do) is a great turn-off for the Israeli premier.
Engaging the Syrians - even if it doesn't work - is a great excuse to
temporarily disengage from the Palestinian track, which is too complicated,
with a bundle of thorny issues still unresolved.
Why did Bush transform from "red light" to "orange" without turning on the
green light for Olmert? One of the reasons why the US changed course is Syria's
participation in the November 2007 Middle East peace conference in Annapolis,
Maryland. Syria's willingness to walk that extra mile to Maryland, despite
objection from its main ally, Iran, was noted by the Americans. So were a
bundle of other Syrian gestures, such as greater security on the Iraqi border,
more concrete steps towards supporting the political process in Baghdad, and
major steps at combating Islamic fundamentalism in the region.
This did not mean, however, that the Americans were going to engage the Syrians
directly. The most they would do is not say "no" to the Israelis. The US made
it loud and clear to Olmert: "Although we will not encourage a peace track, we
also will not stand in its way."
Progress on the Lebanon file and the election of a Lebanese president (Michel
Suleiman) on May 25 has also been noted by the Americans, who realize that the
deal hammered out in Doha over Lebanon had Syria's fingerprints all over it and
that, if anything, the Syrians knew what they were talking about when they came
to Lebanon, more so than the French or the Saudis.
Syria did in fact walk an extra mile to attend Annapolis, while never fully
convinced that the US conference could produce a peace deal with Israel. It
wanted to show good faith to the international community and prove that, unlike
what the West was saying, it was neither a satellite state to Iran nor did it
take orders from Tehran.
To better understand the dynamics of the current Middle East crisis, it is
important to note that although strategically allied on a basket of issues, the
Syrians and Iranians do not have identical agendas for the Arab world. It is
almost like British premier Winston Churchill and French president Charles de
Gaulle during World War II. They had a common enemy indeed in Nazi Germany, but
after that, they had very different visions for the Middle East.
The British wanted to help liberate the Arabs from the hated French Mandate
system and replace the French in terms of political, military and economic
influence in Syria.
And in today's world, the Iranians want to create an Iranian satellite state in
Iraq, which the Syrians do not want. They want to empower the religiously
driven Shi'ite politicians, while the Syrians want to see secular nationalists
in control of Iraq. The Iranians want autonomy for the Shi'ites in southern
Iraq; the Syrians do not. The Iranians want a regional war of liberation
against Israel, refusing to recognize any peace talks with the Jewish state.
Since the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, Syria has been committed to peace
based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 (land-for-peace) and a
return of the occupied Golan Heights to its June 4, 1967 border.
In the mid-1990s, Syria engaged in direct talks with Israel, under the auspices
of the Bill Clinton White House, much to the displeasure of Iran. Then again in
April 2007, it welcomed Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House, to Damascus,
carrying a message from Olmert. One month later in May, Foreign Minister Walid
al-Mouallem met with US Secretary of States Condoleezza Rice in Sharm al-Sheikh
in Egypt, which equally angered the Iranians. Reports of Iranian anger, carried
in the Lebanese and Saudi press, circulated freely in Damascus.
It was almost as if the Syrians were telling the world: "We are allied but we
have never let anyone dictate what we see is in our best national interest. And
returning the Golan, by any means possible, peace talks included, is the
highest priority for Syria, regardless of whether the Iranians or Arabs approve
or disapprove talks with Israel."
Shortly after the Syrian-Israeli talks started this time, indirectly though
through the Turks, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, met with
Khaled Meshaal, the head of the political office of Hamas. Khamenei said, which
some observers claim was a message intended for Syria to hear, "The only way to
liberate Palestine is through brave resistance. Those who choose another path
will be abandoned by God."
Many speculated that if Syrian-Israeli peace ever materializes, left in the
dark would be former allies like Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas. The
Syrians have strongly stressed, however, that they will not abandon their
allies, although logic states that if and when a peace treaty materializes,
Syria will have to cease its support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
It will not severe relations with Tehran, arguing that peace could be used as a
stepping stone towards the Iranians. Syria has already taken symbolic and
concrete gestures over the past few days to assure the Iranians that tension is
not what it seeks in Syrian-Iranian relations. A symbolic one was the warm chat
between Mouallem and his Iranian foreign minister counterpart (Manuchehr
Mottaki) when Suleiman was being sworn in.
More symbolic was the signing of an agreement between Iranian Defense Minister
Mohammad Najjar and his Syrian counterpart, Hasan al-Turkmani. Signed in
Tehran, it calls for technical cooperation and the exchange of higher defense
expertise. Earlier this week, Turkmani met with Major General Yahya Rahim
Safavi, the top advisor to Khamenei, signaling that Syrian-Iranian relations
are as strong as ever.
The Syrians are now walking a tight rope with the Iranians, wanting to prove
that their friendship remains intact but also, stating loud and clear, that all
options are still on the table for the Syrians. Iran is not the only ally for
Damascus and isolation of the Syrian government has failed. There are the
Turks, who are playing a newfound role in the region under Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan. There are the Qataris, who have emerged as Syria's new "best
friend" and who brokered the latest consensus between the Lebanese, through
around-the-clock consultations with the Syrians.
And regardless of how tense things have been under Bush, there remains a door
open to Washington once a new administration comes into power next January.
Many believe that although these latest talks between Syria and Israel will not
lead to anything today, since Bush is not interested, they will nevertheless
give something to whomever succeeds him at the White House to build on in his
(or her) dealings with Damascus.
The peace talks will also help end the isolation imposed on Syria by the Bush
White House since 2003. It would drown the nuclear issue, raised recently by
the US Central Intelligence Agency, claiming that the Syrians are developing a
nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea, prompting the International
Atomic Energy Agency to interfere.
Additionally, the peace talks reduce any kind of tension that has been boiling
on the Syrian-Israeli front, especially in April when the Israeli Defense
Forces carried out its largest maneuver ever on the Golan Heights.
Finally, the talks create a feeling of security both within Syria and in the
Arab investment community, where people will be more encouraged to pump money
into the Syrian market, anticipating a boom once peace is signed. The Syrians
are badly in need of money since the economy is suffering from a shortage of
Syrian domestics, peace, and investment
A brief look at the domestic Syrian scene shows revenue from the oil sector is
now in deficit. Surpluses from state-run agencies and industries are in
decline; they are no longer making money after decades of mismanagement.
Meanwhile, expenditure is increasing by 19%. Syria still has a gigantic civil
service (1.3 million employees) and cannot lay off people by nature of the
socialist system. Their salaries, as well as those of retired workers, means
salaries and pensions account for 50% of the state budget.
Syria seriously needs to consider new resources for the state treasury, which
simply won't come while there are American sanctions, tension with certain Arab
states, and talk of war looming with Israel. It becomes difficult to attract
investment while the Israelis are maneuvering on the Syrian border, where Syria
has to mobilize for war whenever that happens, and where the lion's share of
the treasury goes to military spending.
While many people are talking about regional and international gains from
peace, the decision mainly stems from a domestic need to move forward.