Posted by Alex on Tuesday, September 9th, 2008
Rescuing Peace in the Middle East
By Patrick Seale
(posted by Alex)
The four leaders who met in Damascus this past week have this in common: they recognize the extreme danger of the present situation in the region, and the unwelcome fact that U.S. President George W Bush, far from acting to resolve conflicts, is largely responsible for the prevailing tensions.The mini-summit in the Syrian capital brought together President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar, and their host, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.
These four leaders are not seeking to expel the U .S. from Middle East peace-making. On the contrary, they concede that a U.S. role will ultimately be indispensable. But they feel the urgent need to step into the vacuum created by American failure and wrong-headedness — a vacuum likely to last well into 2009, until the next U.S. President gets into his stride and Israel resolves its current political turmoil.
Among the many potential flashpoints in the region, which might explode into violent conflict at any moment, are Israel’s unresolved conflicts with Hamas in Gaza and with Hizballah in Lebanon, and the unsettled state of Iraq. Overhanging the entire region is the threat of a clash between Iran on the one hand and Israel and/or the U.S. on the other. It is obvious that any such clash would be immensely damaging to the security and prosperity of the entire Gulf region.
Fear about the regional fall-out from these many conflicts continues to inspire Qatar’s highly-active diplomacy. This small but rich Gulf emirate has won a brilliant reputation as a peace-maker. It has successfully mediated between Lebanon’s warring factions; it aspires to play a similar role in Yemen; and it has sought to ease tensions between Iran and the Arab Gulf. Behind the scenes, it has also tried to encourage a dialogue between Israel and the Arabs.
The four leaders meeting in Damascus are determined to keep current talks going between conflicting parties and, more ambitiously, to formulate a credible regional ‘peace agenda’, which the next U.S. President and the next Israeli Prime Minister will not be able to ignore.
Sarkozy — a self-declared ‘friend of Israel’– is concerned that time for a regional settlement is running out, in part at least because of Israel’s relentless expansion into Palestinian territory and Iran’s nuclear programme.
According to sources close to him, he is convinced that the creation of a Palestinian state, a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty and a deal with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions are the only guarantees of Israel’s long-term security. Without progress on all three fronts, Israel would, he believes, be condemned to live in a hostile environment for the foreseeable future and have to fight endless wars. Its very existence would then be in danger.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, on good terms with both Israel and Syria, is well-placed to host the Syrian-Israeli talks which have been taking place in Ankara – so far only indirect talks, but likely to progress to direct negotiations once agreement is reached on the basic principles of a peace settlement, and once a new American president, committed to peace, takes office.
Erdogan is also deeply concerned about the situation in the Caucasus and the Black Sea. He fears that the U.S. may overplay its hand in Georgia and the Ukraine and draw Turkey, a NATO member of long-standing, into an unwanted confrontation with Russia — which happens to be Turkey’s main trading partner, supplying three-quarters of the gas it consumes and nearly a third of its oil.
Erdogan has secured Sarkozy’s backing for his so-called Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact – an ambitious project which would include Turkey and Russia as well as Georgia, Armenia and Azarbaijan. If such a pact could be formed, it would be a triumph for Turkish diplomacy.
Syria is an unavoidable player in Middle East peace-making, as France, Turkey and Qatar have recognized. It has a central role to play in Lebanon, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, in its strategic relations with Iran and in its influence in Iraq. But, trapped in outdated policies, largely dictated by pro-Israeli neo-conservatives, the U.S. continues to cold-shoulder and sanction Syria.
It is no accident that, instead of being in Damascus last week – where the real action was taking place — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was far away in Libya, making it up with the erratic Colonel Muammar al-Qadafi.
President Bashar al-Asad is acutely aware of the dangers Syria will face if the chance of peace is missed. Peace, he knows, is an essential precondition for the creation of the modern and prosperous Syria he dreams of. But, in seeking peace – and the return of the Golan Heights seized by Israel in 1967 — he is not ready to sacrifice his relations with Iran or his backing for the resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine — until, as he puts it, ‘the facts of [Israeli] occupation themselves change.’
Syria remains committed to the search for a comprehensive peace which must include the Palestinians as well as Syria and Lebanon. Iran is another player which cannot be excluded from any regional settlement, such is the major role it is playing in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
There is clearly a great deal of work for would-be peace brokers to do until the United States, under a new President, takes up the task, criminally neglected for so long by George W Bush.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.