Along the Road to Damascus, lessons in conflict resolution.

By Camille Alexandre Otrakji for Syria Comment

In his speech at the Democratic party convention, former President Bill Clinton told the American people that Barack Obama will work for an America "with more partners and fewer adversaries".

One of the main objectives of Syria's long-term regional policy is stability. Syria's approach to achieving stability is identical to President Clinton's simple aspiration for America. Syria seeks to convert current adversaries into new friends, not to "flip" against the existing ones.

Is it doable? Can Syria have its cake and eat it too? Can Syria convince potential future friends like Israel and the United States to understand Syria's desire to maintain close ties to Iran, Hizbollah, and other popular Arab resistance movements?

To answer those questions one needs to first look at two of Syria's closest allies: Qatar and Turkey.

Qatar has an American military base. The emir of Qatar has received Israeli officials in the past, including President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and his Aljazeera TV channel reported the news of those meetings to the whole Arab world. The emir, however, is also very friendly with Iran. He is trusted by leaders of Hizbollah, and most of all he is Bashar Assad's closest Arab ally and friend.

Qatar's ability to talk to all parties helped the small Gulf emirate achieve what the Saudis could not achieve: an agreement that ended the complex and bitter standoff between Lebanon's various parties.

Despite considerable European and American support, the Saudis had no chance of reaching such an agreement. They repeated Syria's old line "we stand at an equal distance from all the Lebanese parties," but in reality they stood much closer to their Lebanese allies while heavily criticizing the Shiite movement and Syria's allies. Moreover, the Saudis had no chance of achieving success in Lebanon because they decided to stop talking to Syria.

Turkey is an important member of NATO. The Turkish army conducts joint military exercises with the Israeli army. Turkey wants to be part of Europe. Yet Turkey's leaders meet with the Iranian president whenever there is a need. They support the Palestinian cause, and they, in addition to Qatar, are among Syria's main strategic partners in the Middle East.

Turkey's unique position allowed for the first Syrian Israeli talks to be sponsored by a country other than the United States. Both Syria and Israel expressed their gratitude to Turkey.

Therefore, it is not impossible to be everyone's friend.

 

Independent foreign policy: 

One of the main reasons that Syria has not yet concluded a peace treaty with Israel and often finds itself at odds with U.S. policy in the Middle East, is Syria's rejection of the narrow scope of the settlement proposed by Israel and the United States as well as Syria's refusal to become an exclusive American client like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

While the so called "moderate Arab states" rely essentially on the United States, Syria prefers to derive its support from several smaller allies: Turkey, Qatar, Iran, and the popular Arab resistance movements are among them. This arrangement allowed for an independent Syrian foreign policy that maintained the country's main objective of stability despite frequent challenges and changes in the Middle East and worldwide.

Syria had to shift its support many times in the past. But long term allies of Syria are the ones who proved to be independent and reliable.

syria-table.jpg
 

A New Regional Order: 

Tariq Alhomayed, editor of Saudi Arabia's largest newspaper – Asharq Alawsat – today described the Damascus summit as "the summit of contradictions". He can not see what can possibly bring together the unlikely partners attending the Damascus summit.

Two weeks earlier, Israeli Arab affairs analyst Zvi Bar'el explained the link between the four summit participants:

"The two elderly leaders, Abdullah at 84 and Mubarak at 80, are seeing the region they used to lead slipping out of their grip and into that of new players – mavericks over whom they have no sway, bright new stars in the Middle Eastern skies. These include Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is half their age; Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is repositioning the former Ottoman Empire into power; and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is blazing like a menacing meteor over the Arab Middle East. The cardinal Middle Eastern conflicts – between Israel and the Palestinians, within the Palestinian Authority, between Syria and Lebanon, between Syria and Israel, the Iraqi conflict, the Iranian threat – they have all changed hands and are now under new management.""…But the change in the Middle East goes deeper than a personnel turnover in the ranks of those running the strategic regional game. A new Middle Eastern regional order is in the making."

The attendees of the Damascus summit are the winners that Zvi Bar'el referred to in his article. They won partly because they recognized all the natural, and not so natural, powers on the ground. They talked to everyone and did not try to isolate or destroy anyone.

Lebanese March 14th leaders tried in many ways to convince French President Sarkozy to not talk to Syria. The American administration and the King of Saudi Arabia tried repeatedly to convince the Turkish leaders to boycott Syria. Saudi Prince Bandar traveled to Iran to see what he can do to convince that country to drop its alliance with Syria. Saudi foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal traveled to Europe trying to stop any European Syrian talks.

Those who lost a large part of their ability to influence events in the Middle East (The American administration, Saudi Arabia and Egypt) are precisely the countries that refused to talk to their adversaries and preferred instead to attempt to weaken or destroy them.

Today, President Assad will host the French President, the Turkish prime minister, and the Emir of Qatar and will be holding a four-way summit in Syria.

Nicolas Sarkozy who started by promising Presidents Bush and Chirac to continue boycotting Syria, is by now more of a subscriber to the same problem solving approach of the other three leaders he will meet with in Damascus. He is equally happy working with President Bush, Prime Minister Olmert, and, indeed, President Assad. Sarkozy is slowly reversing his predecessor's failed Middle East policy which focused all its energy on isolating and punishing Syria.

The Damascus summit will extend the following message to those who are not at the summit: once you are ready to share the same vision, there will be many more solutions and far fewer conflicts.

Damascus survived for over seven thousand years to become the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. The Syrians learned enough lessons in stability and conflict resolution.

 

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Camille Alexandre Otrakji is the founder of creativesyria.com and mideastimage.com

Comments (103)


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101. Alex said:

I did.

Problem solved : )

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September 7th, 2008, 3:38 am

 

102. Shai said:

Sorry!

Looks like you may be right about Asharq. It seems a U.S. embassy official has denied the “rumor”.

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September 7th, 2008, 3:39 am

 

103. Alex said:

Shai,

The last ten exclusive news stories reported by Asharq about Syria were all false … I am only extrapolating 😉

Good morning!

You know I used to read Asharq everyday! .. when I was 12 living in Cairo. I used to go out of school and run to buy it.

At the time their editor was the very capable Jihad Elkhazen.

I have the personal cell number of the Emir who owns Alsharq. I almost called him to tell him how sad I am that his newspaper turned into a pathetic Assyasa type propaganda machine.

But I changed my mind.

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September 7th, 2008, 3:50 am

 

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