Invariably, world leaders (including Nancy Pelosi) return from Damascus with the same message from President Bashar al-Assad: Syria is ready, even eager, for peace talks with Israel, without pre-conditions. And the Brussels-based International Crisis Group has a plan, says Patrick Seale.

Spurred on by Bill Clinton, Syria and Israel came very close to a peace agreement in 2000. But Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister at the time, threw away the chance. He didn’t think the Israeli public would swallow the prospect of Syrians swimming and fishing in the northeastern corner of Lake Tiberias. Instead, he wanted to push back the Syrian border several hundred metres from the lake.

The late Syrian President, Hafiz al-Assad, was outraged. He had expected Barak to honour a pledge given by two previous prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, that as part of the peace package Israel would withdraw fully from the Golan Heights to the water’s edge.

But Barak got cold feet and the chance of peace was lost. Can it now be revived?

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is due in Damascus on 24 April, no doubt to make his own assessment of the possibility for renewed talks, as well as for a settlement of the related crisis in Lebanon where pro- and anti-Syrian camps are locked in angry confrontation.

Ban is only the latest of a string of high-level visitors to the Syrian capital, which have included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a clutch of prominent US Congressmen, envoys from several European capitals, and Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, among others.
Invariably, they all return from Damascus with the same message from President Bashar al-Assad: Syria is ready, even eager, for peace talks with Israel, without pre-conditions. Dr. Bashar has even hinted that, since much of the preliminary work has already been done in past years, the talks could be completed within six months, whereupon the two countries could enjoy normal relations, living side-by-side in peace and security. Needless to say, a full Israel withdrawal from the Golan would have to be part of the deal.

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rebuffed the Syrian offer, setting instead stiff preconditions of his own. Before agreeing to talks, he wants Syria to cut its ties to Iran, as well as to Hizbullah and Hamas; to keep its nose out of Lebanese affairs; and stop militant jihadis from crossing the Syrian border to attack American forces in Iraq.

There is no chance whatsoever that Syria could agree to these terms ahead of peace negotiations. They are as improbable as asking Israel to sever its ties with the United States. Syria’s alliances with Iran and Hizbullah are its lifeline: strategic cards to be played during, not before, a negotiation. Moreover, Syria has strategic interests in Lebanon, vital for its national security, which it is not about to give up.

The Tehran-Damascus-Hizbullah axis is seen by its members as their main instrument to contain US-Israeli aggression — as was proved during Israel’s war in Lebanon last summer, waged with American collusion and support.

If, however, a global peace were to take hold, involving the Palestinians as well as Syria and Lebanon, Damascus would have less need of these allies. It is not utopian to imagine that trade, tourism, mutual investment, and the free movements of peoples would replace military deployments, the dangerous arms race, and the ever-present threat of war.

What, therefore, are the main features of the present situation?

Syria’s isolation is clearly at an end. Even its enemies seem agreed that engagement with Damascus is a pre-condition for a regional settlement. A number of prominent Israelis, including Defence Minister Amir Peretz, have called on Olmert to respond positively to Syria’s olive branch.

Something of a stir was caused recently by the news that Ibrahim (‘Abe’) Soleiman, a US-based Syrian, and Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, held periodic meetings between 2004 and 2006 in a private attempt to break the log-jam between their countries.

When Soleiman addressed the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of the Israeli Knesset last week — itself an unprecedented move for a Syrian — he repeated the message that the Syrian leader was ready for peace talks. These back-channel contacts have been officially dismissed by both Syria and Israel, but the Syrian disavowal has been exceptionally mild.

All this would seem promising except that neither the enfeebled Israeli premier, Ehud Olmert, nor his chief patron, US President George Bush, is at all ready for a dialogue with Syria. In Israel, military and security hawks dream of a ‘second round’ in Lebanon to destroy Hizbullah and put an end, once and for all, to Syrian influence, while the general public seems most reluctant to give up the open spaces and wild charms of the Golan – which would be the price of peace with Syria.

In turn, the Bush administration, still under hard-line neo-con influence, continues to view Syria with undisguised hostility. It has entirely espoused the Israeli position that Hizbullah and Hamas are terrorist organisations not legitimate resistance movements; that Iran is the world’s leading “state sponsor of terrorism”; and that Syria should humbly comply with US demands before any dialogue can take place. It is also no secret that Washington has strongly advised Israel not to engage in peace talks with Damascus.

The impasse therefore continues. Still in belligerent mood, still refusing to recognise that their hegemony is contested throughout the region, the United States and Israel have not yet drawn the lessons of the strategic disaster in Iraq or of Israel’s defeat in Lebanon.

In Syria, there is no expectation that the situation will change before Bush leaves office and Olmert is replaced as premier either by Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni – seen as more open minded – or better still, by a chastened Ehud Barak who, if he manages to seize the Labour leadership from Peretz and then win the next election, might mobilise a broad Israeli peace coalition ready for serious negotiations.

In the meantime, the influential Brussels-based International Crisis Group has published a major report on “Restarting Israeli-Syrian negotiations,” in which it not only recommends specific actions by both parties but even spells out the terms of a full-fledged peace agreement.
It declares that its ideas have been discussed with officials in both countries and can, in its view, be accepted by both sides.

In summary, the key points of the Crisis Group’s proposals are:

(a) The boundary between Israel and Syria would be the line of 4 June 1967 — as Syria has always insisted.

(b) Syria would have sovereignty over the Golan up to Lake Tiberias and the Jordan River and have access to the adjoining water; while Israel would have sovereignty over the Lake and the River and have access to the adjoining land — notably to a Jordan Valley Nature Preserve to be created under Syrian administration around the northeastern corner of the Lake.
This would give the Syrians recreational access to the Lake for swimming and fishing, while giving the Israelis the freedom they now enjoy to travel all the way around the Lake, including the Syrian northeastern corner.

(c) The armies of both countries would be separated by demilitarized zones as well as by areas of limited forces and armaments.

(d) The United States would take over the operation of the Mount Hermon early warning station, now in Israeli hands, which allows Israel to look down on the Damascus plain and eavesdrop on Syrian communications; at the same time, a US-led international team would monitor, inspect and verify implementation of the various security arrangements.

(e) Once the peace treaty comes into force, Syria and Israel would rapidly establish diplomatic relations and become good neighbours.

Spelled out in this manner, a peace agreement between Syria and Israel certainly seems within reach, if only the will were there. Suspicion on both sides, however, is deeply ingrained, with each seeing the other as a sort of devil.

The greatest hurdle of all, however, remains the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without real movement on that front, Syria would be unable to conclude what would be seen as a separate peace.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire


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