It had been hoped that a new push for peace in the Middle East could be salvaged from the debris of Lebanon. Those hopes have been all but terminated, however, following the rejection by Israel and the United States of a series of highly public peace offers from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The refusal to even speak to Syria ensures that the festering conflict engulfing Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine will continue to blight the region. More than this, however, it brings the prospect of further bloodshed dangerously closer.
The normally media-shy Assad has conducted two high profile interviews in the past month, during which he articulated his desire to reach a peace settlement with his southern neighbour. ‘We want to make peace peace with Israel,’ Assad told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel on September 24. Investigating the veracity of this offer, the BBC’s John Simpson asked : ‘So, would you accept that, at some future stage, no matter how long it takes, Syria and Israel could live side by side in peace and harmony accepting each other’s existence?’ Assad replied: ‘Yes, the answer is yes.’
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s response was quick and brutal: the Golan Heights, a rocky outcrop that Israel has illegally occupied since 1967, ‘will remain in Israeli hands forever.’ He then suggested any Cabinet member who supported calls for the Jewish State to take up Assad’s offer resign from his Government. It has since been reported that the US fully backs Israel’s recalcitrance; not surprising given its own twisted thinking that peace in the Levant will be achieved by ignoring its most important actor, outside of Israel.
The Golan Heights lies at the heart of dispute between Israel and Syria. A plateau wedged between Lebanon in the north, Jordan in the south and overlooking the plain of Damascus on the east and Israel on the west, it was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Patrick Seales’s book Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East estimates that, in the process, 90,000 Syrians and Lebanese were stripped of their possessions and driven from their land.
The Golan was then turned over to Israeli settlers; 20,000 illegally squat there today. Syria briefly recaptured the Golan at the start of the 1973 October War, but it was back under Israeli control by the war’s conclusion.
Israeli’s occupation is in breech of UN Security Council Resolution 242 which calls on the Jewish State to return to her 1967 pre-war borders in return for peace with her neighbours a resolution Israeli has breeched with full US backing for the past 39 years.
Israel has long smeared its neighbours as being incapable of negotiating for peace, decrying the lack of a ‘partner’ with which to build a stable future. Yet it is Israel and the US who once again refuse to even consider ending the tortuous conflict. The latest Israeli-US justification for refusing peace that this was simply another Syrian ploy does not explain why Israel so vehemently rejected the latest offer. After all, if Assad was bluffing, what harm could come to Israel by calling it?
The United States has further ensured negotiations are all but impossible by imposing a new set of preconditions upon Syria before agreeing to sponsor talks. ‘There is no reason to talk to the Syrians right now,’ US President George W Bush was quoted as telling European Union leaders in the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth . ‘President Assad knows very well what he needs to do to fulfil a positive role.’ This involves reining in hardline HAMAS leaders living in Damascus and halting any support for Hezbollah Israel and America consider these terrorist organisations but Syria views them as legitimate national resistance movements.
Thanks to Scratch
There is no doubt Syria can exert tremendous influence on these organisations both politically (due to Syria’s historic ties to Lebanon and Palestine) and practically (by pressuring leaders who shelter in Damascus or closing any routes which the groups may use to arm themselves). But to ask Syria to do so before she sits at the negotiating table will not work denying Israel secure borders is the only trump card Syria can use against Israel. To ask Assad to forswear using that card before he regains the Golan is unrealistic in the extreme.
As Syria-expert and author Professor Joshua Landis said:
Should Syria stop pressuring Israel, it has no guarantee that Israel will give back the Golan In fact, all recent Israeli Prime Ministers Sharon and Olmert have said that Israel will never give back the Golan. Because of this stand, Assad would be foolish indeed to stop arming Hezbollah and HAMAS.
What makes the present rejection of peace all the more tragic is that there is fertile ground to sow with Syria at the moment. While the question of Palestine hangs over all Syrians, it is the poor shape of their own economy that bruises the population on a daily basis. Oil exports account for 40 per cent of Syrian fiscal revenue. However, the International Monetary Fund predicts that the last remaining Ba’ath-ruled State will become a net oil importer by 2010.
On top of this, the IMF notes that Syria’s labour force is growing by 4 per cent, which translates to 480,000 new job entrants each year. Assad is eager to improve economic relations with the West, primarily by having the USA’s Syrian Accountability Act rescinded and by being granted entrance to the World Trade Organisation.
Nor can we expect a change in the present policy while the Bush Administration remains in power. Despite the rush of media coverage which currently surrounds the Iraq Study Group led by former US Secretary of State James Baker, any recommendation calling for the US to engage with Syria is unlikely to have much impact. Baker’s world view is not shared by Bush, evidenced by the fact that Baker’s intellectual allies have been all but sidelined under the 43rd President.
Furthermore, according to Landis, it is the National Security Council and the Vice-President’s office which are driving the Administration’s Syrian policy groups which remain anti-Syrian:
Steven Hadley, Bush’s National Security advisor , is against talks with Syria and so are many of his staff, especially Elliott Abrams (deputy National Security advisor) who is the leading pro-Israel hawk. The Vice-President’s office also have a number of very anti-Syrian members who have been pushing for regime change for over a decade, so I see very little prospect that the United States will welcome a dialogue with Syria during the next two years.
Assad’s latest string of public offers echoes a tragic past when war could have been averted. In 1972, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat conveyed a similar message to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. In an interview with an Austrian paper, Sadat said: ‘We are prepared for peace with Israel. If Israel rejects us, I will mobilise a million soldiers and go to war.’ Meir dismissed Sadat as not being able to ‘cross the [Suez] canal.’
The Israeli Defence Minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, threw light on Israel’s p
olitical thinking a mindset which remains today when he said: ‘Better Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh.’ One year later, war between Israel, Egypt and Syria broke out.
Assad also warned that his overtures could eventually evaporate: ‘Even my personal opinion, my hope for peace, could change one day. And when that hope disappears, then maybe war really is the only solution.’ If diplomacy is once again overruled by the gun, it will most likely be the Lebanese who feel its brunt as their two more powerful neighbours wrestle in their backyard.
The gulf between Israel and Syria may seem unbridgeable. But Egypt and Jordan were once committed to the destruction of the Jewish State. Not any more. Indeed, the treaties signed with these countries have done more to secure the survival of Israel than any sliver of rocky high ground.
If Israel continues to refuse Syrian offers of peace, then war be it direct or via proxies is inevitable. If Syria cannot have the Golan, Israel will never have peace. Such are the cruel political calculations of the region, and perhaps another opportunity to bury them has passed.
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