Posted by Joshua on Saturday, August 2nd, 2008
By Qifa Nabki & Alex
The Syria-Israel peace negotiations seem to have moved past their initial exploratory flirtation period and are now approaching a fifth round of indirect talks, with a sixth round planned for September. No doubt the Turkish housekeeping staff at the undisclosed hotel location have acquired enough pidgin Arabic and Hebrew to keep their guests well-stocked in midnight doner kebabs and bitter coffee, as they dutifully plod their way, if potentially only asymptotically, to an historic deal. At some point in the coming months, the two sides may leave their stuffy rooms and walk down the hall to an executive suite to face each other across a table.
The international press is all aflurry with the implications of a successful agreement: will Syria step back into the Arab fold? Will it drop Iran like a hot potato? Will it cut Hizbullah and Hamas loose? Will Israel actually relinquish the lovely and temperate Golan, with its wineries and ski resorts, in exchange for a solemn promise from the man who leads the nation that has — for the past half century — defined itself as the bastion of the struggle against its southern neighbor? Needless to say, amidst the optimism, there is no small measure of skepticism, paranoia, and mistrust.
Feeding the skepticism are many Arabic-language outlets — especially in the Saudi-funded media — which are engaged in a daily hack job on the Syrians to complement their diplomatic initiatives to convince the French and Americans to shun the Syrian talks as a bait-and-switch, i.e. typical Damascene politics as usual. Of course, this response is partly understandable: inquiring minds in Washington, Paris, Tel Aviv, Beirut, Riyadh, and Cairo would like to know what Bashar al-Assad can possibly deliver in exchange for the return of Syria's Golan Heights, after having built up a resistance infrastructure that will not easily dismantle itself. On the other hand, the criticism of the Syria-Israel talks in Saudi newspapers and satellite news networks is also strongly motivated by the bad blood between Damascus and Riyadh, which has built up over the past four years through their turf wars in Lebanon. Having seen Syria's allies emerge empowered after the Doha Accord, the Saudis remain furious and the mini regional Cold War shows no signs of thawing.Syria has largely ignored the provocations and outspoken indignance of the Saudi columnists, but this may not be the wisest strategy.
A barrage of negative publicity runs the risk of being taken seriously and undermining the peace negotiations, particularly if the Israeli public remains unconvinced of Syria's sincerity, and if the next American president declines to commit the United States to its essential role as a mediator of the deal. As such, al-Assad might do well to start trying to build more confidence in his intentions, and in his ability to make good on them. There are three clear ways to approach this challenge, each with a different audience in mind.
I. Damascus Spring, redux
For about a year following the death of President Hafiz al-Assad in June 2000, there were signs of a Syrian glasnost, as testified by the release of political prisoners, the permitting of assemblies of intellectuals and opposition members in political "salons", and a greater sense of openness and optimism in Syrian society. The government, however, brought the so-called Damascus Spring to an abrupt end in late 2001 by clamping down on opposition activities and jailing various intellectuals. This was a period of great optimism but also great risk for the young president, and it is likely that the regime (particularly its old guard members) became skittish at the pace of demanded reforms. The ensuing years, with all of the turmoil wrought by the Iraq war, the Lebanon fiasco, and the showdown with Bush and Chirac, made a return to the days of the Damascus Spring practically impossible.
Times have changed. Bashar al-Assad is popular in Syria and in the Arab world. His ability to ward off American pressure and to re-exert a measure of influence and power in Lebanon has earned him the reputation as a chip off the old block. Thanks to the perceived solidity of his position, Bashar is, today, much more able than ever to embark upon a program of reforms within Syria, reforms which would not only be in the best interests of ordinary Syrians themselves, but would also help to improve Syria's image in the United States, Europe, and yes, even Israel.
Why is this important? In politics, the tail may indeed often wag the dog, but grass-roots support never hurt a political cause. Syria's reputation in journalistic, academic, NGO, policy, and think tank circles is among the worst in the region, this despite the fact that her neighbors are hardly a confederation of Jeffersonian democracies. The extent to which this reputation is justified remains a hot topic, about which people can agree or disagree. However, there is no doubt about the fact that the Syrian government — historically — hasn't done itself any favors in the publicity department. By accelerating reforms in a visible fashion, Bashar al-Assad might begin to address this problem, anticipating a period in which Syria's image might be an important factor in the context of peace negotiations. Cultivating the reputation of a reformer who enjoys widespread popular support can only make it easier for figures such as Sarkozy, Obama or McCain to embrace the Syrian leader without worrying about how such a move will play among their constituents.
Potential reforms might include:
- Beginning to release certain widely-respected political prisoners
- Introducing more effective anti-corruption measures
- Passing the much-anticipated New Parties Law, which would permit the participation of other political gatherings in national elections … to be followed two years later by free municipal elections.
- Liberalizing the press and easing restrictions on Internet sites.
II. A Simultaneous Lebanon-Israel Peace Track
Following the Doha Accord, there have been several historic pronouncements on the shape of future Syrian-Lebanese relations. There's been talk of exchanging embassies and demarcating political borders. There has also been talk of releasing Lebanese prisoners, now that there are no longer any left in Israeli jails. These developments have helped to foster a climate conducive to papering over past grievances at least for the time being, in the interests of establishing stability in Lebanon. As a result, much of the anti-Syrian rhetoric in the Lebanese media has noticeably abated.
This rapprochment could be enhanced further by overtly nudging the Lebanese towards the negotiating table with Israel. Parallel talks in Turkey with the Israelis would send a very positive signal about the seriousness of Bashar's initiative, because it would put an end to the speculation that he is merely playing the process and that Hizbullah and Iran are looking the other way. The presence of Lebanese negotiators would make the talks all the more urgent to millions of Lebanese who will be directly affected by the results. And while it would likely remain tacitly understood that the Lebanese deal could not be pursued separately from Syria's and would indeed have to temporally follow the return of the Golan, the participation of Lebanon in the negotations would demonstrate — if only symbolically — that Bashar has the full support of his Lebanese allies in pursuing peace. Israel could help this along by not sabotaging a future political role for Hizbollah in Lebanese politics.
III. The Arab Peace Initiative
Relations with Saudi Arabia are at an all-time low, and this might not bode well for the future of the talks. In the Middle East, it does not take much to play a spoiler role, and if the Saudis in particular feel that Bashar is trying to steal the spotlight away from them by becoming the go-to guy for solving the conflict with Israel (particularly the Lebanese and Palestinian dimensions thereof), they will likely continue in their efforts to call his sincerity and goodwill into question. The sooner Bashar mends his fences with King Abdullah, the better, although this will be easier said than done.
One way to do this is to deliberately and insistently situate these talks within the context of the Arab Peace Initiative. Syria holds the presidency of the Arab League this year. Bashar could take the opportunity to reinvigorate the offer of a regional solution by complimenting the Saudis on their vision for peace and subordinating the current talks to one piece of an agreement that has already been worked out. All of this depends, of course, on Saudi willingness to cooperate with the Syrians, which may not be forthcoming. When Sadat made peace with Israel in 1978, Hafiz al-Assad cut off relations with Egypt for ten years. One hopes that the current frostiness will not develop into such frigidity.