This, along with other perspectives, will appear on the forum of the Creative Syria website (see link to the left).
After months of rumours it has been announced that Syria and Israel are engaged in formal peace talks under Turkish auspices. In theory it shouldn’t be difficult for the negotiations to come to a positive conclusion. After all, in 2000 Hafez al-Assad and Ehud Barak came remarkably close to an agreement in which the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, would be returned to Syria, and Syria would recognise and establish normal relations with Israel.
Syria would benefit hugely from peace. Apart from the ramifications for national pride, the return of the Golan would constitute a tremendous economic boost. There would be a boom in construction and tourism as well as an easing of water shortages in the Damascus region. An end to military tensions with Israel would make Syria a much more welcoming environment for investors.
Israel would gain a measure of long-term security and some much needed legitimacy (still not nearly enough – that won’t come until Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs live as equals in Palestine). Both countries would be able to cooperate to confront the climate change and overpopulation crises that are likely to bite in the near future.
As well as potential rewards, there are immediate dangers that could be avoided through peace. In Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Israel has met its most serious enemy, a force which can hit back effectively at aggression and which can not be removed. The missiles of Hamas, while currently not much more than an occasionally bloody irritant, are extending their range and power and present a long-term existential threat. Israel also has its ‘demographic problem’ – the land controlled by Israel already contains roughly equal numbers of Arabs and Jews. As a result, the Jewish state’s pretence of being a democracy rather than an apartheid regime wears ever more thin. Peace with Syria would not solve these problems, but it would provide an environment more conducive to the hard thinking and compromise necessary to solve them. Syria, meanwhile, lives from crisis to crisis, with a shattered Iraq on its east, unstable Lebanon and wounded Palestine to the west, with Wahhabi-nihilists threatening to strike, with hostile Western governments ranged against it, and a mushrooming, youthful population that must be employed. Syria needs the space to breathe that a peace treaty would bring.
Unlike the US, Turkey, which is friendly with both countries, is in an excellent position to mediate talks. Furthermore, it appears that Olmert has agreed to fulfill Hafez al-Assad’s demand of a full withdrawal to the coast of the Sea of Galilee.
So conditions seem right and both sides would benefit. This does not mean, however, that peace is on the horizon. I suspect that both leaderships know this, and are playing along for political and PR reasons. Neither wants to be seen as the warmongering side. Bashaar al-Assad wants to cool down the Western heat, especially if he fears the results of the enquiry into Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. Olmert wants a diversion from his domestic failures and the corruption charges against him. If an attack on Iran is being planned, it may be that Israeli and American planners also aim to keep Syria temporarily sweet, for the duration of the bombing.
So why no peace? Israeli foreign minister Tsipi Livni has said it clearly: as a precondition, Syria must distance itself from Iran and cease support for Hizbullah and Hamas. In other words, Syria must sacrifice its independent foreign policy, accept that its alliances will be decided elsewhere, and welcome American-Israeli hegemony in the region. This is an impossible price for the Syrian regime to pay. Like any government, the Syrian rulers govern by consensus as well as by coercion. In general, Syrians like their government’s anti-imperialist line. Better put, Syrians tolerate the regime’s failures for two reasons: domestic stability and dignity in foreign policy.
The Syrian people are at least as nationalist and anti-zionist as their government. The connection to other Arab peoples, especially in the ‘bilad ash-sham’ cultural zone, is not something that Syrians would be willing to give up. Would Israelis accept cutting links with their US friends, because Syrians don’t like American policy? Of course, Syria wouldn’t be so foolish as to ask for this as a precondition for peace. The fact that Israel demands the equivalent from Syria shows that it does not consider Syria as an equal partner, and that there will be no peace.
There are plenty of regimes in the region which substitute US backing for popular support in their own countries. In other words, they fear the displeasure of the patron, which protects them with military bases and cash injections, more than they fear the displeasure of the street. Could Syria flip and become an Egypt or a Saudi Arabia? I think not. For a variety of ideological and strategic reasons, this would be almost impossible in the easiest of conditions, that is, even if the US was waiting with kisses and bags of investment cash. And the US, which calls Syria a member of the axis of evil, is frowning at the current talks.