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 revenue.
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.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.
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