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Syria, Israel, and the Peace Process

Written by Kulick, Amir

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July 22, 2008
What Can Be Learned from the Paris Summit?
INSS Insight No. 64,
by Kulick, Amir
On July 13-14, the Mediterranean Union summit – a new civilian forum for cooperation launched by President Sarkozy – was held in Paris. Over forty heads of state and their foreign ministers were invited. Nonetheless, it seems that the “most shining star” of all, to borrow the description of the Syrian newspaper Tashreen, was President Asad. Dozens of interviews with the media and a personal meeting with the French president seemed to cast Bashar Asad as the guest of honor.

Thus the ostensible political-diplomatic message to emerge from the summit is clear: without having changed its policy, Syria can now bemet by Europe with open arms. Transfers of arms to Hizbollah continue, the command centers of Palestinian terrorist organizations are still headquartered in Damascus, terrorists continue to cross the Syrian border into Iraq, Damascus’ involvement in the Lebanese arena is unabated, and Syria’s relationship with Iran is as warm as ever. Nonetheless, after a number of years of international isolation, Syria is reassuming the status of a legitimate player in the international arena.

Beyond this revival, the Paris summit reflects other important developments. One issue concerns the Israel-Syria peace process. In late 2006, as a result of the Baker-Hamilton commission report on US policy in the Middle East, Asad initiated what was then called a “peace offensive.” It involved a number of declarations regarding Syrian willingness to renew contact with Israel and sign a peace treaty with it. Israel and the United States firmly rejected Syria’s advances. Now it would seem that Israel is the one courting Syria. The Israeli prime minister has even stated that he “is interested in direct talks with Syria.” On the other hand, Bashar Asad declared that he “doesn’t envision direct negotiations within the next six months,” and he pointedly avoided shaking Olmert’s hand at the summit. This state of affairs may reflect Prime Minister Olmert’s standing and US influence in the area. Renewing direct talks with the Syrians is likely to represent an attractive achievement for the Israeli prime minister, especially in light of his difficult domestic situation. As for the United States, the relative silence with which it has greeted recent regional events indicates its shaky regional standing and points to the failure of its policy towards Syria, at least for now.

Another fundamental issue emerging clearly from declarations by Asad and his spokespeople during the course of the summit concerns Syrian priorities. Over the years, potential negotiations between Israel and Syria have focused on the territorial aspect, i.e., Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the issues related to such a move. Now it would seem that at least from the Syrian point of view, there are other issues no less important than withdrawal the Golan. It is becoming increasingly clear that Syria’s top priority is renewing relations with the United States, and, even more importantly, turning Syria into a legitimate ally. For Asad, the contents of the talks are not the only element of value. No less important in any negotiation, he contended, is “under whose auspices they are held.” In other words, a peace agreement with Israel is not just a means of returning the Golan Heights to Syria but is in fact primarily a means of gaining American support. As such, US involvement in the peace process has become an essential condition for moving the process forward, and hence Asad's observation that “Syria and Israel will not hold direct peace talks while George W. Bush is still the president of the United States.” In that case, what is the purpose of the indirect talks underway since May? From the Syrian perspective at least, their goal is to lay the groundwork, to advance the process until a new American president emerges who will, from their point of view, “deliver the goods.” Until then it would seem that the present format of the peace process is sufficient for the Syrian regime, as it yields political fruit at a merely symbolic price.

Another important issue connected to Syria’s presence at the Paris summit concerns Syria’s status in Lebanon. In December 2007, against the background of the crisis surrounding the election of a new Lebanese president, France lowered the level of its diplomatic relations with Syria; President Sarkozy, claimed that Syria was not doing enough to solve the crisis. In May 2008, following the Doha agreement, Michel Suleiman was elected president of Lebanon, and a unity government has since been formed. The solution of the crisis paved Asad’s way to a personal meeting with Sarkozy at the Palais de l'Élysée. It would seem that from France’s point of view in particular and from the European perspective in general, the essence of the agreement, the way in which it was achieved, and its ramifications are less important than the very fact of an agreement. The Doha agreement, reached after Hizbollah fighters successfully attacked pro-Western factions in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon, met almost all the demands of the opposition headed by Hizbollah and its partner, the Christian leader Michel Aoun. Thus as the pro-Western camp was weakened and the pro-Syrian camp empowered, Syria’s strength in Lebanon also increased. In this sense, Asad’s invitation to France and his reemergence as a legitimate partner on the international arena represent a kind of imprimatur by Europe of Syrian policy in Lebanon.

From the internal Syrian perspective, Asad’s successful visit to France has a deeper historical significance. Damascus wants to point to the current situation as proof that it has rehabilitated Syria’s status as a dominant factor in the Arab world and in the region in general. From an isolated, marginal country, Syria, in its opinion, is returning to its rightful standing, or in Asad’s words, “to being an integral part of any solution to problems in the Middle East.” Thus beyond a political achievement, Syria sees this, as Tashreen put it, as “an historical accomplishment” that restores Syria to its status as the standard bearer of the "steadfast way.". Similarly, the Syrian information minister can now declare that his country is acting “to mend the rift in the Arab world, to intensity solidarity and to close the ranks.” Thus from the Syrian perspective, Asad visited France not only as the Syrian president but also as one of his spokespeople put it, as “the president of the Arab summit meeting and as the representative of Syria, the capital of Arab culture.”

Finally, from the perspective of the EU and the West in general, the commentary Asad’s visit has generated may arouse some concern and have more widespread implications, including regarding the Iranian question. From Syria's point of view, its political success stems first and foremost from its ability to stick to its guns. As presented by the Syrian information minister: “We did not recede from our strategy and perceptions despite what happened in the region and in the world.” There may be those who think that what applies to Syria applies also to other pivotal countries in the region. The West European message in this context is therefore quite problematic – both in the explicit gesture to Damascus and the implicit text to Syria's regional neighbors.

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