Farewell to Ibrahim “Abe” Soliman: A Syrian-American Who Worked for Peace between Syria and Israel – By Geoffrey Aronson

Farewell to Ibrahim “Abe” Soliman: A Syrian-American Who Worked for Peace between Syria and Israel
By Geoffrey Aronson
For Syria Comment – June 10, 2017

 

Abe Soliman, Jeff Aronson in middle, and Alon Liel at the Bnot Yaacov Baily bridge over the Jordan River

“Hey, it’s Akiva. Who was the old guy with you?”

The “old guy” was Ibrahim “Abe” Soliman.  He and I had just finished a meeting with Ron Prosor, director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, in a nondescript Tel Aviv café. The two of us were exiting to the street when Akiva Eldar, senior correspondent for Ha’aretz, just happened to drive by.

“Oh he’s just a friend, “ I replied. “No one you would know.”

Abe was in Israel during a secret visit in April 2005, part of our quiet dialogue in support of an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. Together with Alon Liel, a former ambassador and top foreign ministry official, we toured the Golan plateau and walked across the Bailey Bridge across the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee Heights.  Abe met with the widow of Eli Cohen and his daughter to discuss the prospect of repatriating her husband’s remains. It’s impossible to keep a secret in Israel. The fact that we were able to keep Abe’s visit out of the press was a testament to the seriousness with which our efforts were viewed … and no small amount of luck.

Eli Cohen’s daughter and widow with Abe Soliman and Jeff Aronson

Some months later we were able to agree upon a “non-paper” outlining the creation of a “park” in the Golan Heights. (link to the Carnegie document). The understanding, drafted with Liel and Uri Saguy, remains the only example of a successful  “track one and one half” engagement between Israelis and Syrians. Eldar’s chance drive by threatened to blow up our three-year effort in mid-course.

Abe died late last month of complications following a stroke. I last saw him only a few days before the debilitating attack. We were making laborious efforts to reconcile opposing combatants in Syria — efforts that, after many frustrating months, had begun to show a hint of promise.  At our last meeting, as Syria’s descent into self-destruction continued, Abe continued to see an opportunity to revive discussions between Israel and Syria on the Golan’s future.

Abe Soliman was all but unknown to the lay public, but he has been a familiar figure to diplomats on three continents who have toiled in the barren vineyard of Israel-Syrian diplomacy for almost three decades.

Beginning with his successful effort to win Syrian approval for the emigration of Syrian Jews in the early 1990s, Soliman worked to improve Damascus’ and the Assad regime’s relations with Washington. And as the Assad’s road to the White House often passed through Jerusalem, this meant that Soliman dedicated time and resources in the last decades to solving the crisis in relations between Israel and Syria.

Abe’s particular role, his effectiveness and its limits, is a reflection of the idiosyncratic exercise of power and authority during the Assad era. Young, Alawi, and dirt poor, Abe was befriended by Hafez al Assad, who had served under the command of Abe’s older brother. Abe tells this evocative story in his self-published memoir, “My Grandfather’s Tree: A Syrian Immigrant’s American Adventures, Friendship with Dictators, and Quest for Peace in the Middle East

Abe emigrated from Syria to the United States in the late 1950s. After establishing himself as a US citizen – a life-changing consequence of a chance friendship with a USFSO whom he met as a young boy  — Abe maintained business ties with his ancestral homeland and continued his close familial relationship with the ruling family and its inner circle.

Syria is a small country steeped in relationships tied to family, geography and religion. Abe was a good businessman and he provided valuable training to woefully ill-equipped members of a new and growing Syrian governing and administrative class. But the real source of his entre was a relationship of trust forged with the Assads, rooted in a shared history that transcended politics or business, and a deeply ingrained belief that quiet understandings reached between men of influence were the key to diplomatic progress.

Abe was intimate with the regime and its shadowy leadership.  But he was not of the regime. Throughout the years he was determined to maintain his independence, including financial independence, from Damascus, and even to risk its displeasure. He understood better than his friends in Damascus that he was more valuable to them and an abler and more effective interlocutor if he stayed outside the wide circle of those who owed everything to the regime.

The gutters of Middle East diplomacy are littered with poseurs and braggarts of all stripes claiming, usually without foundation, privileged access to those in power.

Abe, in contrast, was the real deal. More than one government in the region was satisfied that Abe did indeed have entre to Assad’s inner circle, if only because they could see the star treatment he received upon arrival in Damascus and meetings he arranged for others with the president or his top staff.  Over the years, a parade of US officials made their way to Abe’s modest home outside Washington to sit with senior Syrians around his dining room table.

If on the one hand Abe stood apart from the regime, he well understood that his value to interlocutors from Ankara to Jerusalem and Washington was as an authoritative link to the government and its interests.

He was also well aware that his value to the Assads lay in his ability to articulate their views — not his own  — discreetly and secretly in such a way as to elicit something of value that could maintain or excite interest in Damascus.

Then as now, the regime operated in the dark. The leadership is most at home with the curtains drawn, jockeying for influence among the shadows. Transparency is to be avoided at all costs. Public efforts are all but useless for transacting serious business. This is how power and influence are exercised in Syria.

Abe was a product of this system and a wily, able practitioner who exploited its advantages and was hobbled by its shortcomings. Secrecy was the signa qua non of any effective diplomatic engagement. He was extremely sensitive to the fact that a misstep on his part would not easily be repaired or forgiven by a regime intolerant of any such attempt, undertaken by design or in error. This proved to be the case when Abe arrived in Israel for a second, this time public, visit in April 2007, when he testified before the Israeli Knesset and made an emotional visit to Yad Vashem.

It could not be easy to manage these apparent contradictions — to represent the interests and views of the regime to outsiders while retaining his distance from it and to maintain his personal independence and ability not just to represent but also to influence the policies of Hafez the father and, after his death in April 2000, Bashar the son.

There was also the challenge of maintaining control over the various negotiating tracks that developed during the course of his encounters.  During our efforts from 2004-2007 for example, meetings in Zurich, sponsored by the Government of Switzerland, were only one facet of a multidimensional array of bilateral engagements –like the one with Prosor– some of which at times appeared to be more important to Abe — that is, Damascus –than the track one and one half dialogue with his Israeli counterparts that was nominally the heart of our efforts.  Like the spider at the center of the web, Abe endeavored to make sure that he was the only player with the full picture. I would bemoan this complexity but for Abe it was a natural and necessary state of affairs.

Abe was a son of Syria.  He was only too familiar with the manner in which power and influence were maintained and exercised in Damascus.  Outsiders could never hope to obtain the keys to this particular castle, and Abe was continually critical of the uncanny ability of Americans and others to misread the opportunities for progress.

He had few kind words for the Syrian opposition, especially its expatriate leadership, and many reciprocated his antipathy. But just as he could call upon his lifelong ties to the Assads, he remained a respected figure among some opposition figures whom he had known over a lifetime, and their children, some of whose education he had sponsored at American universities.

Not that he spared the regime. Particularly in these latter years, Abe lamented Assad’s missteps and repression. He despaired for Syria’s independence from Iranian and, less so, Russian designs. And he worried that in Syria, Washington would fall into the trap first opened in Afghanistan, when it succeeded Russia in a war that has yet to end.

End

For Jeff Aronson’s article, describing the Track II talks with Syria, see

Published on Dec 21, 2010

Geoffrey Aronson, Director for Research and Editor of Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Foundation for Middle East Peace

Comments (4)


1. Ghufran said:

Most Syrians want peace with Israel but that is not on the table now. Israel sees no reason to give concessions and that means it is either the status quo or an unbalanced deal that will not survive and will not win public support. By the way, Israel was hoping to see a new leadership in Syria headed by the pro ksa figures who publically declared that Iran is the enemy and Israel could become a potential ally, curiously enough the Golan Heights was not mentioned by peace hawks !!

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June 15th, 2017, 8:26 pm

 

2. ALAN said:

/Most Syrians want peace with Israel/
On the other hand, think that, the majority of Syrians, believe in the demise of the artificial Israeli entity!
Ghufran
what are you based on?
the peace with the Zionist enemy contradicts the faith and principles of life of the Syrian people, which prefers not to waste even a grain of rights until the removal of the occupation Entity
If you have expressed your personal opinion using (the majority), the Zionists preceded you in this way, by kidnapping the Jewish religion.

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June 16th, 2017, 7:45 am

 

3. Yoav said:

Most Israelis want peace with Syria as well,
As long as the Golan heights stay in Israeli hands.

To say that most syrian want peace in terms (i.e. Israel would give up the Golan heights) that are not acceptable to Israel, is like saying most Syrians don’t want peace.

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June 19th, 2017, 6:51 am

 

4. Akbar Palace said:

I think Syrians should worry about making peace with their muslim brothers first. Then they can worry about relations with their Southern cousins.

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June 24th, 2017, 11:18 pm

 

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