Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008
Camille gathered questions from a wide number of Syria Comment readers of various nationalities. He summarized them before giving them to Ambassador Moustapha. Many thanks to Camille and Ambassador Moustapha. Next week, we will publish part two. [Joshua Landis]
PEACE WITH ISRAEL
1) If peace is signed between Israel and Arab countries, how do you see the future role of Israel in the Middle East?
[I.M.] It is important to understand that any Syrian approach to peace with Israel falls under its endorsement of the Pan Arab Peace Initiative. Therefore, any long-term relationship with Israel will ultimately fall within a broader Arab strategic plan.
Ultimately, the onus is on Israel in regards to her role in the Middle East, which will inevitably stem from her handling of the Palestinian question and especially its two thorniest issues: Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees. Israel’s ability to address these issues along with the return of all occupied land will help define how the Arab nation regards Israel in the region.
It is unreasonable to expect the Arab states and nation to have warm, friendly relations with Israel while the latter continues to occupy Arab land and to humiliate the Palestinian people.
2) Is a nuclear free Middle East a possibility? Will Syria continue to accept Israel’s current military superiority (nuclear and conventional) years after a successfully implemented peace settlement?
[I.M.] Is it a possibility? We believe it is a necessity. We cannot envision a region bristling with nuclear weapons to be one with prospects for peace and prosperity. If a peace agreement is to be achieved, Israel’s position towards its nuclear weapons will be another determining factor towards its standing and role in the region. You cannot expect to be a partner in peace while you continue to stockpile the most advanced conventional weapons, as well as weapons of mass destruction. There is a contradiction here that Israel has to recognize and address.
The fact that Israel has maintained a conventional military superiority in our region has not provided it with the ability to dictate events; it has not caused us to surrender our rights. Israel should have realized by now that it cannot depend on sheer military superiority to sustain its occupation of Arab lands while dreaming of attaining security. Ultimately, in order to nurture peace in the region, Israel needs to adhere to international law, and understand that there cannot be a two-tiered legal system in our region in which Israel is judged by one set of standards and code of conduct, while the Arabs are judged by another.
3) Syria’s regional allies in the resistance camp who do not clearly recognize Israel’s right to exist, such as Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, do not publicly oppose the talks between Syria and Israel which were taking place in Turkey. Is this because your allies do not expect those talks to succeed, or because Syria has fine-tune its peace strategy with its allies? Are they ready to support a successful outcome of those negotiations? Or, can Syria be “flipped,” where by it repudiates its allies who will reject Syria’s settlement with Israel?
[I.M.]I strongly contest the premise of this question. The Hamas leadership has stated time and again that they cannot recognize the borders of the state of Israel when Israel continues to be vague about what it considers as its final borders. Blaming the occupied for not recognizing the ‘rights’ of the occupier is immoral. It is an attempt to overturn the table of justice and to blame the victim. Before setting preconditions, mighty Israel should acknowledge the suffering and despair of the Palestinian people. It must recognize their right to an independent and viable state.
Our allies have always known and appreciated the fact that restoring our sovereignty over the Golan is a matter of utmost national priority. They recognize that Syria will not hesitate to use any means necessary in order to attain this objective.
As for the notion of ‘flipping’ Syria, we find that both, absurd and counterproductive. The U.S. needs not create a rift between Syria and, say, Iran. Instead, the U.S. should benefit from the dramatic paradigm-change in the region to capitalize on Syria’s strong relations with Iran. We can help bridge the stark differences between Iran and the U.S.; we can help find a regional settlement to the many contentious issues of the region. We can help avoid the perils of yet another major conflict in our region. The same applies to Hezbollah, which we regard with much pride and consider a very close ally.
Syria builds its policies on a framework of principles and national interest, just as other countries do. We have many regional and international allies, such as Russia and Turkey. And while our foreign policy reflects first and foremost our national interest, we constantly touch base with our allies and friends, updating them on major developments in our foreign policy.
The fact that we disagree at times is a testament to our close relationship, where differences in strategies or tactics, are not only accepted, but respected. Syria’s position regarding the peace process and the principle of land-for-peace lies at the heart of the Syrian foreign policy and stands unchanged for decades. Any party, whether an ally or not, understands this position, and therefore, no one can forge and alliance or friendship with Syria without grasping, and accepting, this reality.
4) Opinion polls frequently show that Israelis do not want to give up the Golan. If Israel leadership is incapable of changing its public’s mind over matters of utmost significance to their future and to that of their children’s future, isn’t it time for Syria to consider addressing the Israeli public more directly? Isn’t it possible to do this without officially recognitzing Israel — something Syria understandably believes must take place at a later stage?
[I.M.] We strongly believe that it is up to the Israeli government to decide whether it wants to make peace or to continue its policy of occupation. If it chooses peace, it will ultimately have to convince its own public of the advantages of peace. We do not expect the Israeli government to address our public on why we should engage in peace negotiations to get back the Golan. Syria’s leadership has for decades prepared the Syrian public of the necessity of a peace and the need to regain our occupied land. We have rallied domestic public opinion around peace. If the Israelis have made peace extremely difficult by moving settlers onto the Golan, investing money there, annexing it, and by demonizing Syria, they have themselves to blame. Surely they cannot now expect our government to explain to their people why peace is necessary. Still, Syria’s position towards peace is well known and constantly repeated. We spare no effort to reiterate that our strategic choice is peace. We go one Western TV; we give interviews to Western print media; we do everything in our power to make our position christal clear.
5) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the United States and Syria maintain low level contact. How do you see the current relationship between the two countries following the recent meeting between Rice and Mouallem? What will it take to bring the Americans to sponsor the peace negotiations?
[I.M.] The term ‘low-level’ is not applicable any more. During September and during the visit of our Foreign Minister to New York, Secretary Rice asked for a meeting with him, which was then followed by a longer meeting with Assistant Secretary of State, David Welch. Many issues were discussed in detail. Welch voiced the US’s interest in some sort of a political dialogue and re-engagement with Syria. If what they have both expressed will not be vetoed by other centers of power within the Bush administration, then we expect to see more of these high level contacts in the near future.
During the meeting, the Americans expressed interest in the current indirect talks between Syria and Israel. They expressed their willingness to get more involved. While we believe it might be too little, too late, we have made our position very clear regarding the pivotal role for the US as a sponsor of such talks once they mature into the direct-talks stage.
However, the far more important position is that of the US Congress, whose leaders have unequivocally called on this administration to engage diplomatically and politically with Syria. This goes as far back as the Baker-Hamilton report, and as recently as September, when during a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ranking Republican and Democrat members explicitly asked none other than Mr. Welch himself why the US administration has yet to engage with Syria. We also know that both presidential campaigns have sent signals that they are interested in greater involvement with Syria. Ultimately, the Americans will sponsor the peace talks only when they believe it is in their national interest and in Israel’s national interest to do so, (not to mention the Arabs’). When they realize that a peaceful conclusion to the Arab-Israeli conflict is in their interest, the US will return to the table as a sponsor.
6) The Israelis claim that Lake Tiberius has shrunk in size by few hundred meters since 1967 because of receding water levels. Will Syria still accept an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the 4th of June 1967 line that does not give Syria access to the eastern shore of today’s smaller lake?
[I.M.] The line of June 4, 1967 is clearly demarcated based on international agreements. We have made it very clear in Turkey that we can only restart the peace process with the understanding that this line constitutes the Syrian-Israeli border. Early signs indicate that the Israelis accept this premise. Attempting to change the rules of the game will be a nonstarter. Now, when you start discussing details, the answer is simply that very difficult negotiations will need to be conducted over each and every issue, and I believe you must agree with me that we cannot conduct peace talks over the Internet.
7) After three failed attempts to reach a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement — first with Prime Minister Rabin who was assassinated by an Israeli extremist, then with Ehud Barak who “got cold feet” according to President Clinton’s memoirs, and most recently with Ehud Olmert who was forced to resign — have you concluded that Israel is only interested in the peace process and not in peace itself?
[I.M.] The past cannot constitute the framework or basis for our future policies. It does, however, serve as a lesson. In this case, our past experience negotiating with Israelis informs our understanding of what it takes for Israel to ‘make’ or ‘break’ a deal. A truth in politics is that while caution is necessary, opportunities are very rare and must not be missed. This does not mean that we blindly jump at every opportunity. This is the primary reason for our involvement in several rounds of indirect talks with the Israelis through our Turkish friends.
We need to ensure that if we move to direct-talks, their chances of success will be higher than that of previous talks. The past and present are not the only elements at play here. Any future talks will run a greater risk of failure if these peace talks collapse. As parties approach these talks, this fact needs to be made very clear. Thus, if the Israelis are merely interested in the ‘process’ and not the ‘peace’, they will ultimately be held accountable, morally and politically, for missing the opportunity for peace. History will be Israel’s harshest judge; but most importantly, future Israeli and Arab generations will pay a dear price for this shortsightedness and obstinacy.
8. Many Lebanese who listen to Mr. Nasrallah’s speeches are worried that Hizbollah does not want to stop fighting Israel until Israel is wiped off the map of the Middle East. Can you reassure them that their country will not necessarily continue to be paying the heavy price for its “resistance culture” after Syria signs a peace treaty with Israel?
[I.M.] If certain speeches by Mr. Nasrallah have worried some Lebanese, they should address their concerns directly to the leader of Hezbollah. Asking a Syrian official to ‘reassure’ them regarding the Lebanese resistance reflects a profound and disturbing refusal to come to terms withthe fact that Hezbollah is part and parcel of the Lebanese political and social fabric. The notion that Hezbollah gets its orders from outside Lebanon is both absurd and counterproductive. Those in Lebanon who have a problem with the “resistance culture” should understand that it grew out of a purely Lebanese context. I find it embarrassing that I need to explain to anybody in the world, let alone to Lebanese individuals, that this culture evolved as a result of decades of continuous and extreme Israeli violence committed on Lebanon.
By insisting on perpetuating this remarkable state of denial, those who refuse to accept that Hezbollah is a partner in what they consider ‘their’ Lebanon, will do themselves and ‘their’ Lebanon a great disservice. What I urge them to do is to accept that Lebanon belongs to all its constituent parties and not exclusively to one or another. Once they accept that, they will then need to start by conducting a comprehensive national dialogue among themselves in order to reach answers and solutions – not direct their questions to us, or even to the Americans.
9)Hizbollah officials have made it clear that they intend to take revenge on Israel for its probable assassination of Imad Mughniyeh. Has Syria advised Hizbollah against taking revenge for Mughniyeh?
[I.M.] We don’t usually advise Hezbollah on what sort of actions they should take. This is strictly their business; they know what is best for the Lebanese resistance. Obviously, decisions of war and peace are taken by states according to a complex set of criteria and considerations.
On the one hand, strategic military decisions cannot be discussed publicly unless you want us to make rhetorical statements. On the other hand, we are confident that Hezbollah is capable of defending Lebanon and inflicting another humiliating defeat on the Israeli military machine if it decides to launch yet another war of aggression on Lebanon. We also believe that the Israelis fully realize this simple fact.
10) Egyptian and Saudi journalists these days argue that Syria, which successfully led the Arab world’s decade long boycott of Egypt after President Sadat signed a separate peace treaty with Israel, now appears to be interested in a similar deal that achieves nothing for the Palestinians. How are Syria’s negotiations with Israel, thirty years after President Sadat’s Camp David Accords, different from Sadat’s? Will Syria insist on negotiating towards tangible gains for the Palestinians in addition to recovering its occupied Golan Heights?
[I.M.] This is an extraordinary question based on a totally false premise. When Kissinger came out with his famous dictum that ‘there could be no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria,’ he realized two important facts. First, by drawing Egypt into a separate peace with Israel, the US effectively eliminated the largest and most powerful military in the Arab world from the Arab-Israeli conflict, thereby, shifting the balance of power in the region decisively in Israel’s favor. Second, it established a new precident in Arab politics: separate negotiations with Israel. Such a culture of every man for himself dashed any hope of a comprehensive pan-Arab peace agreement with Israel. Only sticking to a unified strategy could have given the Palestinians more leverage in their negotiations with the Israelis.
For this reason, Syria staunchly opposed the separate Egyptian peace agreement; we spearheaded a campaign to convince the rest of the Arab states not to be trapped into individual negotiations with Israel.
Unfortunately, we failed and Israel won. After Camp David there was the Wadi Araba agreement, which was then followed by the Oslo agreement. Syria’s position was not that Arabs should not negotiate peace agreements with the Israelis, but rather, that they should not do so separately. The golden adage of divide and conquer has rarely proven more accurate than in this instance. As each additional Arab state signs a separate peace with Israel, those that remain find it more difficult to negotiate peace and achieve their demands.
Today, the Palestinian Authority is negotiating its own peace agreement with the Israelis. We understand their circumstances and appreciate how difficult it is for them to live under the draconian law of occupation. To see one’s land being steadily confiscated by the Israelis cannot be easy. We are not happy with the state of Arab disunity and lack of political coordination that prevails among us, but this, unfortunately, is the sad reality in the Arab world. This is the legacy of the Camp David Accords.
11) This year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attended the Arab Summit in Damascus despite pressure from his Saudi and Egyptian main Arab allies not to. He is also visiting Damascus more frequently this year, compared to previous years. What is the reason behind Syria’s improved relations with President Abbas? How will Syria manage to keep its Palestinian friends and allies happy given that each Palestinian group have different expectations for a settlement with Israel? Will Syria be able to keep moderate Abbas, islamist Meshal, and Marxist Hawatmeh happy?
[I.M.] It is not Syria’s task to keep all Palestinian factions happy. Sadly, deep differences and strongly entrenched mistrust divide the Palestinian factions. This is very damaging to the Palestinian national interest. It is our moral duty in Syria to extend every possible means of support to our Palestinian brethren. Right now we believe that the best support Syria can offer is through attempting to heal the rifts among the Palestinians and reach a national consensus on matters of paramount importance. For this reason, we are keen on maintaining the closest possible relations with all factions, without exception. Fortunately, all Palestinian parties trust us and lean on us for support at this critical juncture. Syria happily assumes this this role and duty.