Lebanese Sovereignty: Where Does Syria Stand?

[Landis analysis]

The Following news story by Sam Ghattas (copied below) on the changing ideological and strategic policy of Syria toward Lebanon is spot on.

I add an anecdote that convinced me that Syria's elite has accepted the notion of Lebanese sovereignty and jettisoned the rigid Arabism of their fathers.

A year ago, I spent a classic summer day in the Ghouta – the farming and orchard region extending beyond Damascus. My hosts were the Azme family – one of Syria's Sunni elite. Their forefathers include Yusif al-Azme and Bashir al-Azme. The first led the small Syrian army under King Feisal when it sought in vain to defend Syrian independence from French invaders. He was killed. Bashir al-Azme served as Prime Minister in the early 1960s.

Ambassador Imad Moustapha and his wife Rafif included me in their invitation to while away a Friday in the Ghouta as guests of the Azmes. Around a simple wooden table, spread with home made confections and shaded by a grape arbor, about 12 of us debated the issues of the day.

The issue that predominated was Lebanon-Syria relations. The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon was only two years in the past and the UN investigation into the Hariri assassination was ongoing. Several of the older generation around the table explained that Lebanon would come back to Syria with its tail between its legs. Lebanon needed Syria and was an indivisible part of it both culturally and economically. The matriarch of the family explained how she and her mother would travel to Lebanon for a meal with friends and relatives every week, how the "families" married back and forth, and how socially the two peoples could not be separated. I short, there was a lot of nostalgia and patriotism.

Imad Moustapha, however, led the counter argument. He kept insisting that national identity is plastic and ever changing. Perhaps in the past, "Lebanese saw themselves as one people with Syrians," he said, but today that reality is no longer. He pointed out that not longer does one segment or sect among Lebanese want anything but independence. He reminded everyone that even Hizbullah had not asked for Syrian troops to remain in Lebanon in 2005. The Shiite organization thanked Syria for its help stabilizing Lebanon during the Civil War even as it waved goodbye to Syrian soldiers. "The old days are over," he kept on insisting, "we must embrace the new reality, which is that Lebanon is a separate and sovereign country. They don't want us."

In fact, Ambassador Moustapha kept insisting on this point and drawing out the debate at such length that Rafif, his charming wife, had to take him by the hand and gently remind him of other worthy topics of conversation for fear that he would bore his hosts!

Conclusion: What this story told me is that in Syria's halls of regime power Lebanese sovereignty was a hot issue. Ambassador Moustapha was belaboring his point because he was rehearsing debates and arguments that were preoccupying Syria's leadership. many of Syria's policy makers were arguing that Damascus had to find a new and different modus vivendi with Beirut that accommodates the Lebanese desire for autonomy and independence.

The notion that Syria has one choice — to accept Lebanese sovereignty — prevails today. This does not mean that Syria does not insist on security requirements from Lebanon. It does. Syria belives Lebanon lies within its sphere of influence. This is quite different from insisting that the two are one country or even one people. Most countries adopt a "sphere-of-influence" argument about their neighbors. The US did not accept Cuba hosting Soviet bases, for example.

[News Summary]

Syria shift on Lebanon suggests hard-liner softens

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Syria's diplomatic recognition of Lebanon marks a symbolic turning point in the two neighbors' often turbulent history, and may have bigger significance for the Middle East and the chances of an overall peace deal with Israel.

By doing something Damascus has resisted for decades, Syrian President Bashar Assad is seen as being ready to make concessions and boost stability in the region, provided he remains a force in Lebanese politics.

At the same time, Syria and Israel are in indirect peace negotiations — another apparent sign that Syria is rethinking its approach to the big Middle East issues.

Lebanese have lived for much of the past 30 years under Syrian military and political domination. Just three years ago, the country was in turmoil over the assassination of a prominent former prime minister and the suspicion Syria was behind it. So Lebanese tend to be skeptical about the motivations behind Assad's newfound willingness to exchange ambassadors and demarcate the ill-defined border between the two countries.

But Edmond Saab, executive editor of An-Nahar, a leading daily which is seen as anti-Syrian, reads a positive message in Assad's move — "that he desires peace and that Syria is a factor of stability and not a threat … It is a country that knows what it wants and goes for it."

What Syria wanted was assurance that it will still have influence in Lebanon through its allies and that its back will remain relatively secure — the Lebanon border is only a 20-minute drive from Damascus.

It got all that with the creation last month of a new government in Beirut that gives Syrian-and Iranian-backed Hezbollah significant power. The new president, Michel Suleiman, is also considered relatively friendly to Syria, having been army chief for 10 years when Damascus controlled Lebanon.

Once those changes were in place, Damascus was open to a historic turnaround.

Ever since Lebanon was created by the region's French rulers in 1920, Syria had refused to acknowledge its sovereignty, leaving the Lebanese with a permanent feeling of living on borrowed time. Now Syria has agreed to recognize that sovereignty…..

Biden in 2007 interview: I am a Zionist
Barack Obama's new running mate praises Israel In 2007 interview with 'Shalom TV'
Yitzhak Benhorin, 08.23.08, 18:15 / Israel News

WASHINGTON – Calling Israel "the single greatest strength America has in the Middle East," Senator Joe Biden also revealed a Jewish connection in an interview last year.

– Senator Joe Biden, who was chosen by Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama to be his running mate in the upcoming US elections, has previously declared himself to be a Zionist. Calling Israel "the single greatest strength America has in the Middle East," he also revealed a Jewish connection in an interview last year.

During the interview conducted by the Jewish 'Shalom TV' Biden said, "I am a Zionist. You don't have to be a Jew to be a Zionist." He also revealed that his son is married to a Jewish woman, of the Berger family from Delaware, and that he had participated in a Passover Seder at their house. He added that "probably my most poignant Seder memory is not with the Bergers, but what happened right after I came back from meeting Golda Meir (in 1973). I had predicted that something was going on in Egypt. And I remember people talking about what it meant to them if Israel were actually defeated."

Biden presented himself as a friend to Israel, which he referred to as the US' greatest Middle East ally.

"Imagine our circumstance in the world were there no Israel. How many battleships would there be? How many troops would be stationed?" he asked.

He also called comments about Israel's connection to the war in Iraq "insulting", explaining that "if tomorrow, peace broke out between Israelis and Palestinians, does anybody think there wouldn't be a full-blown war in Iraq?"

Regarding the terror attacks in Israel, Biden said the Sept. 11 attacks made American parents feel what Israeli parents have been feeling. "The difference between now and before 9/11," he said, "is that many Americans can taste what it must feel like for every Israeli mother and father when they send their kid out to school with their lunch to put them on a bus, on a bicycle or to walk; and they pray to God that cell phone doesn't ring." ….

Dangerous talks with Syria
Aug. 24, 2008

The current indirect talks between Israel and Syria are highly unlikely to result in a peace agreement. The talks, far from playing any positive role for Israel, are mistaken both in terms of our values and in terms of our practical interest. They are being conducted by an irresponsible government with no public mandate, and are already causing real harm. We should be working to isolate the Syrian regime, not rehabilitating it.

From the point of view of values, the government’s approach is fundamentally mistaken. The Golan Heights were taken in a just war in 1967, a war which was provoked by an extremist and reckless Ba’athist regime in Damascus. Our presence is both legal and essential. The Golan Heights must be retained under Israeli sovereignty. …..

Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, a former head of the National Security Council, is a Likud Knesset candidate. Jonathan Spyer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.

POMED includes the following notices in its Weekly News Wire: http://pomed.org/blog/ 

Diplomacy between Lebanon and Syria? Violence continued in Lebanon last week after a two-day visit between Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad.  With regard to a renewed diplomatic effort, some questioned whether Syria willrecognize Lebanon's independence and sovereignty, pointing to its promise to officially exchange ambassadors and to investigate the disappearances of hundreds of Lebanese who went missing during Lebanon's civil war, while others look to Syria's refusal to demarcate the border at Shebaa Farms. Also last week, Hizbullah and representatives of Lebanese Salafist groups signed an agreement to ease sectarian divisions. Meanwhile, some connected the recent violence with Lebanon's weak state and a population that has turned to religion because the state cannot provide for their basic needs.

Terrorism: Take a look at a new publication from the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine entitled "The Terrorism Index."  The Index surveys foriegn policy experts for their broad assessment of U.S. efforts in the War on Terror.  More than 100 experts give their insight into U.S. policy toward Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, and the survey's results are also compared with policy statements from the 2008 Presidential candidates.

Comments (75)

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51. Shai said:


Wrong again… wrong again… 🙂

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August 26th, 2008, 7:37 pm


52. Qifa Nabki said:


Very smart and good points but unfortunately Karim still wins for the Gillette punchline.


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August 26th, 2008, 7:42 pm


53. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

You want democracy when the situation in the middle east is “pleasant”. By now I know what you mean. You want democracy first in Saudi Arabia before you will support democracy in Syria. The thing is, the people in Saudi Arabia will agree to democracy if you first try it in Syria. I guess you will be without democracy for a few more decades.

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August 26th, 2008, 7:45 pm


54. Shai said:

Looks like we’re headed for a stormy winter (Iran, HA?)… Barak is trying to sell his apartment in Tel-Aviv (for a mere $11,000,000) – http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1015145.html

Our previous COGS, Dan Halutz, on the day HA kidnapped the soldiers in 2006, sold his entire portfolio at the bank. Can’t really blame these guys… like Mike Tyson said after biting Holyfield’s ear, “Gotta feed the kids!”…

Here’s one brave Iranian: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3588198,00.html

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August 26th, 2008, 7:46 pm


55. Qifa Nabki said:

AIG & Alex,

I would like to volunteer Lebanon as a test case for democracy in the region. If it does not work, nobody is liable but the Lebanese. But if it DOES, then we will own the copyright. Of course, we will be happy to sell you the model for a very reasonable price.

Shall we call it a deal? (Can I offer you a cup of tea? Coffee? Cigarette? Make yourself at home…)

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August 26th, 2008, 7:51 pm


56. Alex said:


I stopped paying attention to warning signals, but Barak selling his apartment … Now, that was bad news! 😉


We have been good so far … let’s stay that way. You will need to work harder at not simplifying and distorting what I say.

As you know I want “democracy” in Syria in abut 10 years (7 to 14).

Here is what I wrote on Mona Eltahawy’s blog few months ago about Saudi Arabia:


AFTER Syria becomes democratic, not before … capiche??

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August 26th, 2008, 8:01 pm


57. Shai said:


And this guy is supposed to fight for social-welfare… ha!

He’s got so many shady-deals around his developing waistline, with Egypt’s highest echelon, with King Abdullah, with the Palestinians, you name it. I really hope no one in Damascus is banking on Barak. Time for him, as well as all the other corrupt politicians that brought Israel no peace, and no security, to go home.

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August 26th, 2008, 8:08 pm


58. Alex said:

Shai .. no one in Damascus is banking on BArak.

Actually, no one in Damascus in banking on any Israeli politician.

Except Ausamma … you know, … Livni.

And to be honest .. I also hope Livni will be the one… for a simple reason … I watch her in interviews, and she is able to smile while being criticized. She can accept criticism … which I hope can make her comfortable changing course when she realizes it is a dead end.

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August 26th, 2008, 8:11 pm


59. Shai said:


You know the last thing I want to do is disappoint you… But we must all get used to the furniture-salesperson’s smile of… Netanyahu. Six months from now, Livni will be leader of the Opposition, or his FM. She will not be our next Prime Minister, I’m afraid. In 4 years, maybe.

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August 26th, 2008, 8:20 pm


61. Alex said:

Syria and Iran: an Alliance of Convenience

Alon Ben Meir

August 26, 2008

Syria’s relationship with Iran, though largely asymmetrical, tends to be viewed as a robust alliance that many political observers believe is only getting stronger. Underneath the showmanship, Iran’s ties to Syria are largely based on perception rather than reality. Both countries have been systematically engaged in mutual deception to create a myth of a solid alliance that rests on economic, political and military collaboration when in fact much of it exists on paper only. Syria is hardly benefiting from its relations with Iran while it is in dire need for economic reforms and massive capital investments that only the West can provide. The new American administration will be in a strong position to lure Damascus out of Iran’s orbit and dramatically improve the political climate in the Middle East which could lead to regional stability and even peace.

For all intents and purposes, Iran and Syria have very little in common: whereas Syria is a secular state, Iran’s regime is theocratic, and there is also Persian culture versus Arab culture with two entirely different national identities. Although Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite–an offshoot of Shi’ism–the Sunnis make up the majority in Syria while the Shiites are predominant in Iran. The two nations also have no shared border to foster great trade or security relations. Their economies differ in that Iran is overwhelmingly oil-based while Syria is by and large an agrarian society. Furthermore, Iran needs advanced technology that Syria is unable to provide and Syria needs capital investment that Iran cannot offer. And on a crucial policy matter, Syria is supportive of the Arab Peace Initiative with Israel, whereas Tehran continues to oppose any peace talks with Israel, including the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations it is actively trying to undermine. Moreover, Syria views itself as the intellectual center of the Arab nation in quest of rejoining the Sunni Arab fold and reinstates its position as an independent leading Arab state. Iran seeks regional hegemony and nuclear weapons while trying to subordinate the Sunni Arab states. The gulf between these two nations is deeply reflected in their day-to-day relationship, but their political collaboration and the tentative nature of their strategic objectives creates a smoke screen that covers the precariousness of their alliance.

It is clear that the main catalyst behind Syria and Iran’s close political collaboration is the Bush administration’s campaign to isolate both nations. The imposition of American and some Western sanctions against Syria and the accumulative international sanctions against Iran have provided further impetus for their political alliance. In addition, their mutual disdain for Israel’s policies has brought them further together. Adding to this mix, both countries feel threatened by United States’ professed intention of regime change. As a result, Tehran and Damascus sought each other for political support and agreed, at least from a tactical perspective, to join hands by actively opposing American and Israeli interests in the region. Iran skillfully used Syria to buttress its position in Lebanon by supporting Hezbollah and aiding Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, while Damascus benefited from the political and limited financial support that Iran provided.

That being said, Damascus and Tehran have yet to translate political and strategic convenience into a meaningful economic and security cooperation. While Iran is boasting to have invested and concluded deals worth billions of dollars in Syria and dozens of agreements have been signed covering tourism, banking, health, the environment, agriculture, and education, most of these agreements are effectively collecting dust. The trade between the two countries is minuscule reaching a mere $200 million in 2007, nearly $180 million of which was Iranian exports to Syria. In fact, the U.S.-Syrian trade for the same period, even under the constraints of American sanctions, was more than double that amount while Syrian-Turkish trade exceeded $1.6 billion for the same year. A CIA report from March of 2008 indicates that while “The Syrian economy grew by 3.3% in 2007 nevertheless, the economy remains highly controlled by the government. Long-run economic constraints include declining oil production, high unemployment and inflation, rising budget deficits, and increasing pressure on water supplies caused by heavy use in agriculture, rapid population growth, industrial expansion and water pollution.” Moreover, billions are needed to improve infrastructure, education, health care, social services and housing.

Regardless of an apparent political collaboration, the lack of compelling economic relations, absence of shared ideological fervor and the divergent long-term strategic interests have rendered the alliance between Syria and Iran basically empty of real substance. Based on what I know first-hand and supported by the current negotiations, it is clear that Syria has made peace with Israel a strategic choice. Not only because the Syrians want to recover the Golan but because Damascus seeks to normalize relations with the United States. Damascus is fully aware that only normal relations with the U.S. will bring Western and especially American capital investments, trade, new technology and over time even the prospect of procuring modern military equipment. Damascus, however, no longer hopes that the Bush administration will normalize relations in its waning days. This, to a large extent, explains why Syria refuses to conduct direct talks with Israel and prefers to continue to negotiate through Turkey as an intermediary. Direct talks with Israel are Syria’s trump-card and it does not want to use it without getting something in return. As one Syrian official told me recently, only through direct involvement will the United States have stakes in the success of the negotiations and only then will the peace be solidified and Syria can expect to benefit financially as well as politically.

As the Russians have started to flex their mussels again, Damascus, perhaps out of necessity or as a warning to the U.S., is renewing its flirtation with Moscow. The new American administration should waste no time signaling to Syria that it is willing to start a new chapter in their relationship. As the international pressure continues to mount against Iran due to its nuclear program, President Assad realizes that his alliance of convenience with Tehran is becoming increasingly less convenient and less useful. He also knows the price he must pay for the Golan and for normal relations with the U.S. which in one form or another must result with the following: a substantial reduction in cooperation with Tehran, efforts to weaken and eventually disarm Hezbollah, a cessation of support for Palestinian militants Hamas and Islamic Jihad, full support of American efforts in Iraq, and finally cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Syria is eager to change course and the new American administration must make this possible. The fact that Assad has made the peace talks with Israel public attests to his willingness to shift alliances. A realistic plan of engagement coupled with incentives by the next U.S. president will deal a major blow to Iran’s regional ambitions which explains why Tehran was and still is so alarmed about the Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

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August 26th, 2008, 8:43 pm


62. Qifa Nabki said:

Your comment on Alon’s piece, Alex effendi? 🙂

In particular, on the description of the price that Assad will supposedly have to pay for the Golan and for normal relations with the U.S. (and a price he secretly wants to pay anyway, it seems):

a substantial reduction in cooperation with Tehran, efforts to weaken and eventually disarm Hezbollah, a cessation of support for Palestinian militants Hamas and Islamic Jihad, full support of American efforts in Iraq, and finally cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

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August 26th, 2008, 9:17 pm


63. Qifa Nabki said:

Mmmmmm, delicious:

Tons of Milk for Huge Cheese Chunk in the Bekaa

As part of tourism festivals in Jdita, the eastern Bekaa valley town claims to have produced the biggest chunk of cheese in the Orient.

Some media reports on Tuesday considered the chunk of cheese to be the biggest in the world.

According to the organizers of the festival in the town of Jdita, the cheese weighs 1.5 tons and required 12 tons of milk to produce it by seven factories.

Jdita mayor and other officials sliced the town’s product under the slogan of cutting “the biggest chunk of white cheese in the Orient.”

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August 26th, 2008, 9:54 pm


64. Alex said:

Qifa effendi

Syria’s cutting relations with Iran and Hizbollah is nothing more than a trick by those who want to weaken Syria without giving up the Golan at the end. I’m sure President Bush and others (journalists, think tankers) believe it is a real “price” that Israel can ask of Syria in exchange for returning the Golan, but those who know better, do not take it seriously. Syria will never fall for such a trick.

The “price”, or the reward that Israel should hope for is serious reduction in hostilities.

I am for natural way of reducing tension.

All this accumulated and stored “potential” energy in the “resistance” camp can be converted into a useful form of energy, “kinetic” energy.

Just like potential energy turns into kinetic energy in nature, Hizbollah will become a constructive political force in Lebanon, and Iran will become a good friend with the Untied States and Israel … there is no other way to release the tension.

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August 26th, 2008, 9:54 pm


65. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

You say:
“The “price”, or the reward that Israel should hope for is serious reduction in hostilities.”

This is exactly why there will be no peace agreement between Syria and Israel. Israel is quite happy with the level of hostilities as it is. No need to lower it further.

All those Israelis that you quote and that support a peace process with Syria are all supporting it in order to flip Syria. If that is not going to happen, you better tell them to stop wasting their time.

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August 26th, 2008, 10:13 pm


66. Alex said:

So if they are happy with the hostilities, why do they want to flip Syria … what is the utility they get out of flipping Syria?

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August 26th, 2008, 10:17 pm


67. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

I do not see much utility and therefore do not support the current peace process. But for example you quote Alon Liel or Halevy who do see a utility in that because they believe it will allow Israel to isolate Iran and not have to attack it.

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August 26th, 2008, 10:56 pm


68. Shai said:


So if they are happy with the hostilities, why do they want to flip Syria … what is the utility they get out of flipping Syria?

Best comment yet! The level of arrogance knows no limit…

While it is true that Alon Liel, and Ephraim Halevi, do wish to see Iran isolated, and in their fondest dreams do wish to see Syria leave the infamous “Axis”, both will accept peace with Syria that promises to “not support terrorism, or terror organizations”. Neither places a precondition such as the severing of political ties between Damascus and Tehran. Both believe a natural distancing will occur once Syria and Israel make peace, but neither demand to see this occur first, before returning the Golan to its rightful owner. It is a nice attempt to misinterpret the two (very wise) men, but unfortunately, their position is simply not that. For at least one of those two gentlemen, I can speak from personal knowledge.

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August 27th, 2008, 4:36 am


69. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

What you are saying contradicts everything Halevy and Liel have said in public. It is just wishful thinking on your part.

Since you know Liel so well, why don’t you ask him to contribute a piece saying clearly that Israel should return the Golan without a committment from Syria to flip? That would certainly clear all misconceptions about his position.

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August 27th, 2008, 5:01 am


70. Shai said:


Your naivety is astonishing. You actually expect someone to make such a statement? I’m glad you’re able to diagnose my wishful-thinking from such a distance, but I happen to actually be listening to Liel and Halevi, and not reading what I like to hear from them. Nowhere have they ever said Syria must first disassociate itself from Iran and HA. Both have said they believed there would be a natural separation (which I actually disagree with). None have said Syria must first flip. No politician, has or ever will, demand to see democracy first in Syria. Likewise, none will demand a severing of all Syrian ties with “The Axis”. There is a difference between Netanyahu’s rhetoric before elections, and what he’ll do afterwards. Even you can contemplate that notion, I’m quite sure.

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August 27th, 2008, 5:24 am


71. Nour said:

Let us not adopt the “Israeli” and US propaganda terms in addressing the issues in the middle east. Syria does not support “terror” organizations. Syria supports legitimate resistance against “Israeli” terrorism. If “Israel” does not wish to confront armed resistance against its murderous occupation, then it should immediately halt its terrorism, end its occupation, and recognize the national rights of the indigenous inhabitants of this land. Otherwise, it is going to continue to have to face armed resistance as a result of its continued policy of persecution and subjugation.

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August 27th, 2008, 2:57 pm


72. Qifa Nabki said:


I think that Syria’s leadership has concluded that the strategy you prefer is not the one that they are going to pursue. Syria is basically offering its services to rein in Hizbullah and other legitimate resistance groups in exchange for recognizing “Israel” and its occupation, up to the borders established by the 1967 war.

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August 27th, 2008, 3:06 pm


73. Nour said:


What the Syrian leadership decides to do is ultimately not my responsibility. I am only stating my opinion here. However, I do believe many people are misreading Syria’s strategy, which I believe is to buy time and stave off international pressure while strengthening its position. I don’t foresee any “peace” deal coming out of this anytime soon, so for all those looking for such an outcome, I wouldn’t hold my breath. “Israel” is not ready to recognize our rights and Syria is not going to give in to “Israeli” demands.

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August 27th, 2008, 6:38 pm


74. Qifa Nabki said:


I think the impossible has just been achieved and you are actually in agreement with AnotherIsraeliGuy.


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August 27th, 2008, 6:57 pm


75. Shai said:


It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? Both are fulfilling each other’s prophecies. That in itself, is reason for peace, no? 🙂

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August 27th, 2008, 9:02 pm


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