Thursday, January 17, 2008


As readers of this journal may recall, to our surprise the Bush Administration's peace discussions in Annapolis, Maryland in November 2007, were not the disaster, or even per se the damp squib, which many (including myself) had predicted beforehand. Most of the invited leaders of the various Arab regimes, including Syria came. In the case of the latter, after a combination of heavy lobbying and pressure from Saudi Arabia. At the time, it was thought possible, just possible, that a way forward may have been found in terms of peacemaking in the region. Unfortunately, such has proven not to be the case. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the two parties, have carried on fragmented and not very conclusive discussions. Which so far have yielded virtually...nothing. Except perhaps the occasional photo opportunity for visiting American dignitaries, like Secretary of State Rice or President Bush. Otherwise, it is very much a case of going nowhere fast. The missing link, the element which will provide movement forward here is: American pressure on the two parties, in particular of course on Tel Aviv, to make concessions, and push forward on final status talks, or at the very least, indicate verbally & publicly what the outlines of such a settlement might very well be. Hence, even if (as might well be the case) the PA President, Abbas, is not able to immediately respond favorably, the groundwork will have been laid down for an eventual settlement. By definition such a settlement being along the lines of the Taba Summit of late 2000-early 2001.

In the case of Syria however, even the charade of nominal activity, of peace discussions, are not to be seen. Instead the regime in Damascus, having been invited to come to the Annapolis Conference, and, allowed to make their plea for peace discussions to settle the Golan Heights issue with Israel, has been rewarded for breaking its united front, with its ally in Teheran, with absolutely rien, nothing, zero. Of course, this was even all the more predictable. More so than the treatment of the Palestinians in the aftermath of the Conference. Why so? The pur et simple reason being that the American Administration, even more so than their Israeli ally is still fundamentally hostile to the regime in Syria. Notwithstanding the fact that peace feelers are occasionally put out by the more pragmatic elements of the Israeli political and military establishment, the Bush regime itself views Assad fils, and his clique, tutte quanti, as being only fit to be overthrown. The fact that it is probably the case that: a) the current regime in Syria is much more preferable than any successor regime in sight (Sunni fundamentalist of the Moslem Brotherhood variety at best) is completely ignored or brushed aside by our Near Eastern specialists in Washington DC. Elliott Abrams, et. al; b) as currently configured, the Assad regime on a whole host of criterion: treatment of women and religious minorities, political pluralism, civil society, is in fact the equal to, if not better than such solid American allies as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait, and even some (but not all) of the Gulf States. Again, the Near Eastern 'specialists' in the Bush Regime are quite careful to ignore all this of course. Which is not to gainsay the fact that on several grounds, the Assad Regime is hardly the most lovably or pro-Western. In the case of its policies in the Lebanon, its ties with Persia, its ties with the rejectionist elements of Hamas, as well as its recently foiled attempt to commence, possibly building a nuclear reactor, Damascus has much to be condemned for. Much less its human rights and lack of political pluralism. None of that can either be denied or gainsaid. None the less, the fact of the matter is that the regime in Damascus can and should be talked to, negotiated with and entertained not with threats (which in the current international environment of relative American decline are quite toothless) or illusory attempts at coercion. The time when it was possible to hope that the Assad Regime was ripe for the overthrow, circa 2003-2005 is of course completely past. Very unlikely to be resurrected in the very near future. From all appearances Assad Fils, is very much in the saddle at present and there are no signs that this situation will change anytime soon. A fundamental truth, which the United States, like some formerly hostile countries such as Turkey, should commence coming round to facing up to.

For a better view of how the Assad Regime sees things diplomatically at present, post-Annapolis, I refer you to the following, interview by the writer and journalist, Helena Cobban, with the Syrian Foreign Ministry's Director of Foreign Media Department. I have in the past viewed Miss Cobban as being somewhat one-sided in her view on the region, and excessively anti-American and anti-Western (see her web site: boot. However one cannot deny her resourcefulness as a journalist and her own thoughtfulness as a commentator. Besides the fact that not everyone can get a B.A. & M.A. at Oxford!
In substance the interview clearly shows that the regime in Damascus is open to both pushing forward with talks about the Golan and is willing to ditch its Persian allies, if offered enough for doing so by the Americans, Israelis and Saudis. What Assad et. al., is not willing to do is to detach itself from its ally in Teheran, without some hard quid pro quo from all three of the former powers. One can hardly blame him of course for that. For the rest of it, it seems clear enough that Damascus expects nothing from either the UN, the EU or even Moskva as countervailing forces vis-`a-vis the USA. Again, understandably so. And, of course the comments about the recent Israeli air raid are a monument to obfuscation. But that again is rather par for the course. That being said, I urge you to read the full text of the interview which now follows (for a summary of the interview please go to Joshua Landis' :

Interview with Ms. Bushra Kanafani, Director of the Foreign Media Department at the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs

Conducted for Just World News by Helena Cobban, Jan. 15, 2008.

Q: I'd like to ask your views about the recent Annapolis conference. What persuaded Syria to take part, and how do you view the outcome?

A: The question of Golan is a national priority for us as Syrians-- the people and the government. It is wrong for any international conference on the Arab-Israeli issue to ignore Golan. Golan needs to be on the agenda. That was why we went. We agreed that the Palestinian question could have priority. But at least Golan should be on the agenda, even if it is not given equal prominence.

Right now, we are not sure about the status of the Syrian-Israeli track in the negotiations. We still see no sign of willingness from Israel or the United States-- at this point-- to resume the Syrian track of negotiations.

Q: How about the position of the other members of the 'Quartet'?

A: The Russians have talked about holding a follow-on international conference in Moscow, but they have announced no decision yet-- perhaps because there are still so many difficulties.

The US administration is stressing the Palestinian track for their own internal reasons.

If there is a Moscow conference, its content is still unknown. So far we have no reason to think there will be such a conference. If there is one, we would go-- for the same reason we went to Annapolis: to make sure that the Golan question is on the agenda.

Q: Do you have any reason for new hope regarding achievements on the Palestinian track since Annapolis?

A: Unfortunately not. There is nothing to indicate that there is any hope...

Actually, as we see it, the priority for Palestinians is not in these peace talks but to make a reconciliation among the Palestinians themselves. There will be, as you know, a conference of Palestinians next week in Damascus and its aim is to rebuild Palestinian national unity. Everyone has been invited. Mr. Abbas has been invited.

Q: Is this an attempt to return to the Mecca agreement among the Palestinian movements that the Saudis were able to mediate last February and to heal the inter-Palestinian rifts caused by the events in Gaza last June?

A: You know, we all worked for the Mecca Agreement. We don't want to say exactly who was responsible for breaking the Palestinian national unity that was achieved there, because we always keep the same distance between the different sides in internal Palestinian disputes. Actually, regarding the Mecca Agreement, the Palestinian representatives started the talks here in Damascus but then moved to Mecca because Riyadh [that is, the Saudi government] could be better at marketing the agreement reached. But the situation in Gaza after the conclusion of the agreement was not healthy at all, and that led to some bad developments...

Q: How are your relations with Saudi Arabia these days?

A: There are differences between us. The Saudis put emphasis on the question of Lebanon and express concern about our relationship with Iran-- though they also have their own relationships with Iran, too.

Regarding Lebanon, after the Riyadh Summit conference of late March last year, which we went to, we suggested to the Saudis that we work together on the Lebanon issue. We wanted each side to use its influence with its repsective allies there to resolve the political problems. But the way it turned out, the Saudis wanted us to use our influence but we did not see so much the same from them.

Q: And how are your relations with Iran. Were there some problems with Tehran after you decided to go to Annapolis?

A: We have had good relations with Iran since the revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. These are mainly because of our strategic view of the region. Iran has been a friend to us since the days of Khomeini, and iut is an important regional power-- as Turkey is, too.

We appreciate the Iranians' stand, even though we don't agree with them about everything. We don't agree with President Ahmadinejad's statement about Israel. We declared many years ago that peace with Israel is our strategic choice; and it still is.

Q: Was there a big problem with them when you decided to go to Annapolis?

A: They didn't like it, and they said so. But we do what we think is right for us. In the diplomacy of the 1990s, for example, we had our talks with Israel for ten years. Those talks didn't in the end achieve anything. But our relations with Tehran remained fine throughout.

Q: What is the main thing you want from the US Government?

A: We want them not to be a 'closed-eyes' ally of Israel. We can';t change the fact of the alliance. But at least it should be an 'open-eyes' alliance that also recognizes the realities of this region.

In the negotiations of the 1990s we expected a US role as a neutral negotiator, but we didn't get it.

Q: How do you hope to persuade the Americans to change their approach?

A: Through dialogue. Through talking. This is the duty of the US administration and people, if they want to continue to pursue their interests in the long run. Dialogue and talks are the only way. We would certainly like them to return their ambassador here, to discuss all the many issues of shared concern between us-- but not for them to pick and choose which issues they want to discuss, as they currently try to do.

You know we have a joint committee with the Iraqi government on border security, and the US asked to participate in it. We said, No. Because we need to discuss Iraq as well as the peace process and Lebanon with them. In Lebanon, we see them as fostering a 'winner-takes-all' mentality which is very harmful.

We have seen no sign of any improvement in bilateral relations since Annapolis.

Q: How do you see the prospects for Lebanon?

A: We hope Amr Moussa's mission can succeed. We see some Arabs trying to change the Arab Plan that Moussa has produced, but in our view the whole Arab Plan should be a package deal.

You know, the US also has its friends in Lebanon, in the government and the March 14th movement. It should try to influence them to accept the Arab Plan. Until now we didn't hear any word of support or encouragement from the Americans for the Arab Plan. From our side, though, we have been calling on all Lebanese and Arabs who care like us about Lebanon to support Amr Moussa's initiative.

This problem in Lebanon needs to be resolved, because the longer the constitutional crisis continues, the greater the danger of a crisis erupting.

Q: What is your view of the suggestion from the Iraqi Defense Minister, as reported in today's New York Times, that the US should keep its bases in Iraq until 2018?

A: We are against all this! The US invaded Iraq illegitimately, against the wishes of the international community. Then, to add insult to injury, they brought Iraq into chaos, and they brought Al-Qaeda into Iraq where it had not previously existed. And of course they also found no WMDs. But what they brought into Iraq was what you might call a "bloody democracy."

What is best for America, Iraq, and the whole region is to have a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq parallel to the process of rebuilding the Iraqi forces.

To have American bases there over the long term: this is a recipe for more violence.

Q: How do you view the legitimacy of the present Iraqi government?

A: Firstly, we note that this present government was the result of elections. The democracy was "bloody", but still, there were elections. That made it different from preceding governments in Iraq, because there had been a real political process there.

And secondly, we have mutual interests and concerns that we need to work on with this government. There is security: we have many important security interests in common with them, not least because at one point we were being accused of allowing terrorists to travel to travel into Iraq. But now through our joint work with them we have done a lot to address that problem.

And there are so many other common interests! Water, for example. Last week we had a three-party meeting here in Damascus between us and Iraq and Turkey to discuss water issues on the Tigris and Euphrates. And there are other trade and economic issues.

Q: How are your relations with Turkey? I have heard that the Israelis are uneasy about them.

A: The Israelis want the Arabs to have bad relations with everybody! Turkey is a neighboring country, and it does a good job, including as a channel between us and Israel. The Israelis should value that.

Q: What can you tell me about the incident last september when Israeli planes attacked a site in northern Syria? If the site was as innocent as Syria claimed, why didn't you organize delegations of diplomats and journalists to go and tour it?

A: The whole affair is very mysterious and there is still a lot we don't know about it. The Israeli media announced the attaack -- not the government. And then our defense ministry confirmed publicly that there had been an attack. The Israeli government still said nothing.

The Israeli press gave various different accounts of what the target had been, and settled on the idea it had been a nuclear-related site, involving the North Koreans.

I should note, though, that we did show photos of the damage suffered to diplomats and press people. The Israeli missiles hit an empty area. We showed pictures of the Israeli missiles that had fallen. Then people elsewhere showed pictures of a building that they claimed had been destroyed by Israel. But who knows where that building was?

Maybe they made a mistake? People should ask the Israelis why they did it. So far they have kept silent about what it was all about.

Q: How do you see the prospects for the months ahead, which will include the US election campaign?

A: I can't link it to the election campaign, but the American administration has kept the tension high in the region for years. Now, President Bush is trying to persuade the Gulf Arabs to confront Iran, and he is asking the Saudis to help with his peace process. But it is not easy for the Saudis or any Arabs to support the plan when it ignores half of the Palestinians!

Bush wants to present himsel;f as a peacemaker. But the pressures he is trying to exert on people don't lead to any hope of success.

Q: How can we reinstate the role of the UN in the peace process?

A: The Madrid conference did not give the UN a good role. The sponsorship there was from the US and the Soviets. So we should take a lesson from that. When we were at the "Madrid + 15" conference in Madrid in October, many participants there believed the UN should play a bigger role.

Our view is that you can't have a peace process without an American role, because of the strength of the US-Israeli relationship. But you also need to have a good influencing role for the UN. Also, the Europeans should play a bigger role: one that involves not just giving money, but also, a political role. Even while keeping a special role for the Americans".


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