Thursday, January 06, 2005

Lebanon, Syria and Israel

Israel won't lose by talking to Syria
By Terje Roed-Larsen
Wednesday, January 05, 2005: Daily Star

Terje Roed-Larsen, one of the architects of the Oslo channel who served as the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process from 1993-97, and again since 1999, is making a last effort to convice Israelis and Americans to take Syrian peace offers seriously. He is leaving his post at the end of the year to become president of the International Peace Academy in New York. This commentary first appeared in, an online newsletter.

In retrospect, historians will undoubtedly view the autumn of 2004 as a crucial juncture in the annals of Middle East peace diplomacy. The question is, Will they see this moment as a new beginning in the region, or as a missed opportunity?

A window of potential opportunity has opened up on the Israeli-Syrian track of the Middle East peace process. Syrian President Bashar Assad has stretched out a hand toward Israel. This outstretched hand should be grabbed, not refused.

During my recent visit to Damascus, Assad told me very clearly: Syria is willing to go back to peace negotiations with Israel without any preconditions and within the framework of the relevant Security Council resolutions and the fundamental principle of land for peace.

I am well aware that many in Israel are very skeptical as regards the sincerity of Assad's overtures. Many kinds of pressure characterize the region at the moment, and some observers have linked Assad's initiative with those changing dynamics. This may not be wrong - but I believe that the motivating factors behind Assad's outstretched hand are far less important than the fact that Syria is indeed reaching out to Israel. At the very least, I think, the offer should be explored. What does Israel stand to lose? If Assad were bluffing, Israel would not lose anything by exploring the sincerity of his initiative, and by calling the bluff.

My meeting with Assad took place in a very warm, creative and constructive atmosphere, including a lengthy private discussion. I came away convinced that the president is genuinely interested not only in restarting negotiations, but also in seeking to reposition Syria and integrate the country more deeply into the international community. All the indications are that Syria has recognized the signs of the times and is trying to make some progress, both as regards peace with Israel and in terms of a broader redefinition of its role in the region.

My impression was furthered in the other meetings I had in Damascus, where I also talked with Foreign

Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah. Two days after my departure, Dakhlallah reiterated the president's offer publicly in a press conference in Damascus: Syria was ready to negotiate with Israel, without any preconditions.

Since my initial public remarks about Assad's offer, a debate has raged in Israel and beyond regarding the potential and interest behind the Syrian peace overtures and the prospects for progress. I have had frank discussions with a number of key Israeli leaders and officials. Both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Jordanian ruler, King Abdullah II, have offered to mediate between the two parties. Israel has so far refrained from taking up either offer, or from exploring the Syrian initiative. And I think this needs to be done before what may be a fleeting moment passes.

There are those in Israel who think that in the present situation, with promising prospects for movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track and with imminent implementation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan in Gaza and the northern West Bank, Israel should not engage in a parallel second track of the peace process. Of course, there are also some who would like to keep the entire Golan Heights, period. However, without the willingness to embrace the principle of land for peace, there are naturally few prospects for lasting peace in the region.

As regards the engagement on two parallel tracks of the peace process, I do not see a problem here. On the contrary, I would argue that engagement on two parallel tracks could actually consolidate the momentum toward peace. Progress on one track would fuel the overall momentum, and thus propel the other track forward, too. The recent talks between the Palestinian leadership and the Syrian government, and the agreement reached to coordinate their respective negotiating positions, only serve to illustrate and underline this point.

I am not arguing that the realization of a comprehensive peace deal in the region is imminent, or will be easy. But clearly, movement on the Israeli-Syrian track of the peace process will also prompt movement on the Israeli-Lebanese track. Perhaps it cannot be done at once - but momentum toward the realization of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East has already been created, also aided by the promising prospects on the Israeli-Palestinian track. And this momentum should be explored and if possible, exploited.

Syria's hand is outstretched toward Israel now. It should be grabbed. The opportunity is now, and may soon pass. And history will judge these days in retrospect for being full of missed opportunities, or for being the first days of a new beginning in the Middle East.

I think they can, and should, be remembered as the latter.

The Israeli press has been peppered with articles and opinion pieces that pour cold water either on Asad's sincerity or the notion that Israel could actually benefit from giving away the Golan. It is this last reason which seems to hold sway over Israeli opinion. Why give away such a wonderful hunk of territory, that actually causes Israel no hassles, for nothing - or as one Israeli journalist put it: "for an Israeli flag flying over one building in Damascus?" Syria is too week to get Israel's attention.

This leads many Israeli's to argue Asad must do a Saddat and fly into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and engage in a major charm offensive to melt the hardened hearts of his opponents. Of course no one suggests that he do a 1973 and try to hurt Israel before undertaking the charm campaign. But of course, Syria does not have the power for such a show of force and demand of credibility. This is Syria's real problem. It is not clear that charm will melt Sharon's heart, and Syria has no force. Without major American assistance and pressure, Syria will not retrieve the Golan.

Syria is quite eager to open up peace negotiations under almost any terms before Lebanon slips from its control. Once that happens, Syria will be that much less persuasive in the region and immeasurably less able to "punch above its weight."
I am in Beirut writing this and have met with many of my "neocon" Lebanese friends, who are ecstatic about Junblat's rebirth as a Syrian fighter. The Christians are in a state of extreme excitement about the number of Muslims coming over to the "Lebanese" national view.

Of course all eyes are on Hariri now, to see how his ever sentence may signal the slightest shift toward the opposition. They are convinced the Syrians are on the run and it is only a matter of time before the Shiites fall into line. Of course no one has a very clear concept of how this will actually take place.

Many were overjoyed by King Abdullah's "Evil Shiite Crescent" speech which sent Nasrallah into paroxysms of apology, insisting that the Shiites are only good Arabs trying to do their duty with loyalty and Arouba. They have no imperial plans, etc. Christians saw in these apologetic expressions the Shiites reflexive minority complex, something Christians can relate to. It gave them hope that Shiites will wake up to the realization that playing the consociational democracy game in the Lebanese fashion is ultimately in their best interest. Make deals with Christians because the Sunni will always see you as dangerous heretics, like Abdullah does.


At 1/06/2005 01:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post Josh and nice interpretation of Lebanese reality. I just wish someone would highlight the intricacies of Jumblatt's position.

At 1/11/2005 05:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the Syrians, they have made major political blunders, but I still like them because ordinary Syrians are people trying to make a living like the rest of us. It is also true that most of them like to have a drink from time to time, so do I.
Their strategy in Lebanon has not paid off in the long run because it was historically an unrealistic waiting game. Nevertheless their security staff have made nice
money in the meantime supervising and running the Lebanese society, the sums skimmed off varying with status and length of stay in the land of the Cedars.
President Bachar has been unable to undo what his father did. Dad was far too clever and the system he had created, based on the security branches, was designed to be tight and static to conserve the utmost essentials of power. It is still intact in place.
The question whether the Syrians should leave Lebanon before or after starting negotiations with Israel is not a trivial one, as the writer of the article published in the Lebanese journal Daily Star, suggests.
If the Syrians start leaving Lebanon only after Israel says yes to negotiations, they would be able to vindicate their claim that their policy in Lebanon bore fruit. That way the Syrian administration would still keep its halo in the Arab league and keeps the faith of its inland communities, and the Syrian security branches would continue to excercise their unbroken influence inside Syria and Lebanon, reinforcing the band of followers in Lebanon. The Syrian society would not move an iota.
In my opinion, the present USA administration wants a bit more. In part it too has made blunders, but wants to keep going forward under the banner of bringing democracy to the Middle East. This is their business. In some ways however it is also our business.
I do like the Syrians because most of them like to have a drink from time to time. As a people they are certainly better than the band of their Lebanese followers picking at fat corruption. For the USA and indeed for the rest of us this is the heart of the problem. How far to push the Syrians in order to get them to change their system and to unleash the Lebanese free so that they are able to revive their semi-democratic traditions, all this without inducing another sistanisation in Syria like the one taking place in Irak.

At 1/13/2005 04:10:00 PM, Blogger Marlin said...

What is your take on the following article in DEBKAfile which purports to detail the discussion between Richard Armitage and Syria? I'd be interested in your perspective.


At 1/14/2005 11:28:00 AM, Blogger josh narins said...

Poor Mr. Roed-Larsen. Poor peace process.

Religions are fighting here, and the US force, certainly the most powerful, is in the thick of it. Israel can give back Gaza because that region has no Biblical Significance (see Perlstein's "The Jesus Landing Pad). Can the same be said for the Golan? Then perhaps there is wiggle room.

You seem to dismiss the fact that rightists in America and Israel continue to point to Syria as a Saddam-ally which now houses Iraq's fabled WMD. The press is atwitter with news that it is really Syria to blame for our troubles in Iraq vis-a-vis the insurgents. Perhaps less in the targets of the US hate-mongers than Iran, Syria-US relations are at new lows. Bush sees Lebanon as another predecessor failing that must be righted. The Beirut barracks bombings as proof of terrorism. This is a "leader" who believes changing one's mind is a proof of weakness. Ergo, RW Reagan was wrong for leaving Lebanon.

The settlers in Gaza are wearing yellow stars and being paid a quarter million to leave. How many Israelis live in the Golan? I was there, and it seemed kinda empty (they called it "forest" which I thought was funny), but I didn't have time for a head count.

The imaginary God is running the White House (Bush was just quoted as saying how he doesn't know how anyone could be President without a relationship with the imaginary invisible infinite sky fairy), and this same mumbo-jumbo holds sway with most interested parties.

Poor Roed-Larsen. Poor peace process.

At 1/18/2005 11:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in 1998 The Turks were saying the same things. The sudden crisis appeared where Syria instantly was responsible for all the PKK problems in Turkey. Training camps in the Biqa, Damascus supporting terrorism, and Al Asad (Hafiz vice Bashar) was behind the whole thing. Threats of airstrikes were made, as if this would solve the problem. Then, as quickly as this serious problem arose, it faded. In other words, it was not a serious issue, just something politicians and lazy journalists used to keep themselves busy.

Now, depending on who you listen to, Syria has training camps in Syria and the Biqa for the anti-coalition forces in Iraq. It is behind Hamas/PIJ terrorist acts. It is supressing the neo-con Christians in Lebanon. It is building the Shi'ite arc. It's antiquated banking system is hiding billions of Saddam's dollars. It holds a gun to every Lebanese politicians head. Not bad for a broke, dysfunctional country.

Syria has been the political excuse for failed policies for years. Turkey screwed up in it's dealings with the instantly was a 'Syrian' problem. Sharon treats the Palestinians like dirt, they respond...Israel then diverts attention to Syria. The U.S. goes to war for no valid reason, and the population rises up...the U.S. diverts attention to Syria. Lebanese Christians continue to overreach their political base...they divert attention to Syria.

- Hamas/PIJ would not be an issue if Israel returned to its 1967 borders, and allowed a Palestinian state.

- Mujahedeen fighters would not be a problem in Iraq had the U.S. not invaded.

Syria did not start these problems, does not enjoy them, nor does it have control of them. Just like the PKK/Turkey issue, the current rhetoric by politicians and so-called journalists is overblown and one-sided.


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