The Brussels based International Crisis Group (hereafter ICG), today released another one of their informative bulletins, in which they strongly urged that the Israel and the United States, both re-assess their negative stance on re-opening peace talks with Syria. Something which both governments, has strongly thrown cold water on, in the period after the end of the 2006 Lebanon War (on this see any number of postings in the leading American online journal devoted to Syria and things Syrian professor Joshua Landis': www.Syriacomment.com). Notwithstanding rumblings in elements of the Israeli establishment, that it was time to re-open talks with Syria, both in an effort to close down Hezbollah's military threat from Lebanon, and to 'turn' Syria away from its alliance with Persia. Whether due to American pressure (likely but not definitive) or for internal Israeli domestic politics (much more important), Tel Aviv, chose to ignore the signals being put out, by Damascus that it wanted to open talks 'without pre-conditions', on 'solving' the Golan Heights question. Indeed, as it was revealed a few months ago, semi-official intermediaries from the Israeli side,were in contact with de jure Syrian officials from 2003 to 2006, over terms to be negotiated between the two countries. Contacts which were only halted in the late Spring of 2006.
As per the ICG, the time is ripe to re-commence the negotiations that almost lead to a breakthrough, between Tel Aviv and Damascus in 1999-2000. Only faltering at the last second due to Israeli second thoughts at the last moment in Geneva. According to the ICG's Peter Harling, its senior analyst in Syria, the time is ripe for action on the Diplomatic front, arguing that:
"Rejecting Syria's overtures is a mistake which is fast on its way to becoming a missed opportunity....The mood in Damascus is turning decidedly sceptical, and the regime is reverting to its more cautious habits. Mirroring Israeli doubts on Syria's seriousness, officials here are deeply disillusioned with Israel, questioning its ability to negotiate in earnest" (see: www.crisisgroup.org).
A sorely missed opportunity indeed, as the ICG, correctly argues, notwithstanding the fact that in respect of both its foreign and domestic policies, the Assd regime leaves much to be desired (and which Near Eastern regime does not?), a re-opening of peace talks between the two countries would have immediate and important ramifications in the entire Near East:
"Peace negotiations between Israel and Syria would profoundly alter the regional atmosphere; a peace deal would fundamentally transform it".
The benefits accruing from such an outcome would be: a) a secure peace along the entire Israel-Syrian-Lebanon border zone; b) remove both Syria and the Lebanon, from being 'activated' by Teheran, in case of any Israeli or American moves against Persia; c) greatly enhance Israel's legitimacy among the Arab masses in the Near and Middle East; d) Perhaps begin the process of not 'regime-change' in Syria, but, 'regime-adaptation' by Assad Fils and his inner circle. A quiet transformation, which might, just might, bring political pluralism and some form of democratization, without the side effects of political instability `a la present day Iraq. A transformation which is in both the long term interests of both the United States and Israel. This is not to argue that with signatures on a peace treaty, that Syria will become either Democratic or no longer a ally of the regime in Teheran. Neither option is immediately likely. However that does not gainsay the fact that any peace deal between Syria and Tel Aviv, will open up potentially important roads and possibilities in both Syrian foreign and domestic policies. Alternatives to the current state of affairs in Syria. A state of affairs, which experts have recently shown lead to a rather dismal view of the short much less longterm health of the Syrian economcy and hence society. One does not have to view in a erroneously warm light of the Assad regime to know that however much it falls short on many levels, the Assad regime is perhaps the best available regime on offer in Syria at the moment. A fact which Israeli intelligence has long recognized (on the weak state of the Syrian economy see: www.syriacomment.com & on the Israeli view of the Assad regime see: www.Haaretz.com.)
Can the moment be seized and will it at the ICG urges? Unfortunately, looking at those who make decisions in both Washington and Tel Aviv, it is highly unlikely that either government has either the willingness or the ability to re-start talks or even to seriously consider them. For the neo-conservative acolytes running Near Eastern policy in Washington, Syria is still, their personal bete noir, for whom even pour parlers are a complete non possumus. A state of affairs which the light-weight and not very intelligent, American Secretary of State, appears to be unable or unwilling to overcome or overrule. In the case of Tel Aviv, the weaken and no doubt terminal Olmert government, is also unwilling to make any movements towards Damascus. Both for reasons of domestic political weakness (fear of the Golan Settler lobby) and, ideology (retreat from the Golan was never in either Sharon's much less Olmert's playbook). Consequently, it seems highly likely that this indeed most opportune moment will be lost. Joining of course many other such 'opportune' moments, in the Near East since 1945. The only difference is that in the current atmosphere engendered by the Iraq, debacle, the negative consequences of leaving the Syrian-Israeli issue unattended are more dangerous than ever before.
Middle East Report N°63
10 April 2007
Abruptly interrupted in 2000, Israeli-Syrian negotiations seem only a distant possibility but a renewal is urgent and would have a real chance of success. The obstacles appear daunting, including a weak Israeli government and a U.S. administration intent on isolating Syria. However, Syria’s President Bashar repeatedly has stated his desire to resume talks, and in recent conversations with Crisis Group in Damascus, senior officials have clarified these could take place without any precondition – thereby removing what had been a principal hindrance. Peace negotiations between Israel and Syria would profoundly alter the regional atmosphere; a peace deal between them would fundamentally transform it. This opportunity may not last long and should not be wasted.
The conflict between Israel and Syria is no longer the costliest – the border has been Israel’s quietest since 1974 – but it is harmful all the same. It has taken the shape of bloody proxy wars, involving Lebanese territory and both Lebanese and Palestinian groups, and the opportunity costs have also been substantial. It has prevented broader normalisation of Israel’s relations with the Arab world and helped maintain regional tension which could degenerate – directly or, once again, through Lebanon – into another armed conflict.
In Israel, a government discredited by its performance in the Lebanon war and tarred by myriad scandals will think long and hard before taking on the powerful settler lobby backed by a public that has grown accustomed to controlling the Golan Heights, sees little incentive to part with it and whose suspicion of the Syrian regime – which has provided rockets to Hizbollah – has grown with the Lebanon war. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the 1990s, withdrawal from the relatively quiet Golan today likely would trigger stronger public opposition than would withdrawal from a violent and burdensome West Bank.
U.S. hostility to any dialogue with Damascus – with the recent, limited exception of the regional conference on Iraq – is a further significant obstacle. Although Washington denies it, there is every indication it has signalled to Jerusalem its opposition to resumed negotiations with Damascus which, in its view, Syria would use to break out of isolation, cover up greater intrusion in Lebanese affairs and shift focus away from the investigation into former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. As U.S. officials see it, Damascus might like to recover the Golan but desperately wants to recover Lebanon; since that is not something Washington is prepared to concede, there is little to be gained by discussions. Given their highly strained relations with Syria, even leading Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan are said to have privately counselled the U.S. against any move that would relieve pressure on Damascus.
As a result of these domestic and foreign factors, and due to scepticism regarding Syria’s intentions, Israel has conditioned any dialogue on broad, prior change in Syria’s policies: cutting ties to Hamas, halting any assistance to Hizbollah and fundamentally altering its relationship with Iran.
This is a mistake which is fast on its way to becoming a missed opportunity. In March 2007, Crisis Group engaged in a series of high-level discussions in Israel and Syria in order to assess the two parties’ positions and the prospects for renewed talks. While official resistance to negotiations was clear in Israel, it waned rapidly among both senior military and intelligence figures and members of the political establishment who recognised the value of testing Syria’s overtures and the risks entailed in ignoring them. In Syria, appetite for peace talks may have diminished – a function of repeated Israeli rebuffs and of unwillingness to appear to be begging – but persists nonetheless. Most importantly, officials in Damascus provided their clearest indication to date both that they would resume negotiations without any precondition and that the country’s regional posture and relationships with Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran inevitably would change following a peace deal. In other words, what Israel demands could potentially be achieved, but only as part of a final deal, not as preconditions for it.
Even assuming Syria is more interested in the process than the outcome – itself a debatable proposition – the mere fact of Syrians negotiating with Israelis would produce ripple effects in a region where popular opinion is moving away from acceptance of Israel’s right to exist. The onset of a peace process also would affect the behaviour of militant movements close to Syria; Hamas and Hizbollah are not mere tools of Syrian policy but they are adept at reading the regional map and would likely adapt their policies in response to signs of a changing Syrian-Israeli relationship. The same holds for Iran: Syria would be unlikely to break ties with its closest ally for two decades but Tehran would have to adjust its behaviour as it faced the prospect of a peace agreement.
Resuming talks with Syria is all the more imperative given ongoing efforts to revive the Arab (Beirut) peace initiative in the wake of the 28 March 2007 Arab League summit. While both the U.S. and Israel may prefer to give precedence to the Palestinian over the Syrian track, lack of movement on the latter inevitably will hamper the former. Damascus possesses multiple ways of undermining Israeli-Palestinian talks, whether by encouraging Hamas or Islamic Jihad to resort to violence; vocally criticising Palestinian concessions; or, in the event of a peace deal, obstructing the holding of a referendum among Palestinian refugees in Syria. Likewise, unless it makes a deal with Syria, Israel cannot achieve normalisation with the Arab world – a core objective without which its leaders will find it far more difficult to convince their public to endorse historic concessions to the Palestinians.
The outlines of a solution by now are well known. They were put forward in a 2002 Crisis Group report and recently restated in the context of an unofficial peace initiative involving two private Israeli and Syrian citizens. Under such conditions, there is little justification for Israel to put off peace talks – and even less justification for the U.S. to oppose them.
1. Respond positively to Syria’s unconditional offer to resume peace negotiations.
2. Halt efforts to augment settler presence in the Golan.
3. Facilitate family reunions for Syrian nationals living in the Golan and lift restrictions on visits to Syria by Israeli nationals.
4. Support Arab League efforts to explain and market its peace initiative to Western and Israeli audiences.
5. Engage in public diplomacy by:
(a) restating clearly that Syria is ready to negotiate without any precondition;
(b) giving select Syrian officials a clear mandate to disseminate both Syria’s version of past negotiations and its current position;
(c) committing to provide information on Israeli soldiers missing in action and return the remains of executed Israeli spy Eli Cohen in the early stages of resumed negotiations; and
(d) facilitating access to Syria for Israeli nationals with relatives or ancestral roots in Syria, including Israelis of Palestinian and Syrian origin.
To the Members of the Quartet (UN, U.S., EU and Russia):
6. Press for renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations, beginning by holding parallel discussions with both sides.
Jerusalem/Damascus/Washington/Brussels, 10 April 2007.