Posted by Alex on Friday, December 19th, 2008
Posted by Alex
Waging Peace in Atlanta
By Britta Froelicher
Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Middle East Peace Education Program
Written for Syria Comment / 12-16-2008
Is peace about to break out between Syria and Israel? Are the talks sponsored by the Turkish government going to lead to a lasting peace agreement between the two countries? Will the Golan Heights be returned to Syrian control soon? What part can Turkey play? What about the new Obama Administration? And how would this affect the regional balance?
Over seventy people gathered in a fully packed room in Atlanta to learn answers to these questions on December 16th. The panel discussion featured the Honorable Imad Moustapha, Syrian Ambassador to the USA, and David Cuthell, Executive Director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Georgetown University, and was moderated by Dr Maia Hallward of Kennesaw State University. The event was jointly organized by Britta Froelicher, Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Middle East Peace Education Program, and Tarik Celik, Director of the Istanbul Center. A second event scheduled for January 13, 2009 will feature the Honorable Reda Mansour, Israeli Consul General, and a similar format.
Dr. Mustapha gave details about his role as Syria’s representative in the US during the Bush years and the challenges of what he described as the lowest point in American-Syrian relations. He reminded listeners that, while American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has stated that “Syria is the source of all problems” in the Middle East, in the three major conflicts in the region – Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon – Syria is not the occupying or invading power in any of them.
He reviewed the recent history of peacemaking efforts between Syria and Israel. Syria and Israel are in a continuing state of war, he told the audience, and Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights. Over a quarter of a million Syrians are, according to the Ambassador, internal refugees from the Golan, while another 46,000 Syrians live under Israeli occupation and have almost no rights.
Despite this, he said, Syria remains committed to its strategic initiative for peace. Its goal is to recover lands through peaceful means. “Syria,” Dr Moustapha said, “believes it should give non-violence an opportunity.”
“For the past fifteen years,” he said, “Syria has not wavered on being willing to negotiate peace. Israel has been the party that refused peace talks. We lack from the Israeli side the presence of an Israeli leader who lacks the presence and the leadership to make peace with its northern neighbors.”
So far, he told the crowd, a peace treaty has almost happened twice. Yitzhak Rabin agreed to the principle of land for peace, putting this down in writing and gave to President Clinton in what Moustapha referred to as the ‘Rabin Deposit’. Israel, at that time, was willing to withdraw from entire Golan in return for peace and peace talks began. The bilateral issues were not that contentious and a draft peace agreement quickly began to form. Unfortunately, the Rabin assassination led to collapse of peace talks and Prime Minister Netanyahu vehemently rejected the idea of land for peace.
Later on, Ehud Barak revived the same ideal of land for peace when he came to power in Israel. The Rabin-era draft agreement was not used so the process started from zero. Again, the US served as broker and a second draft peace agreement was drawn up. However, once again, Israeli politics intervened. Barak stated that he was unwilling to lose an election by making peace first yet lost the election and no peace was made. Then, Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister and, again, the categorical rejection of the notion of land for peace became Israeli policy while, under the Bush Administration, American views towards the peace process altered. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syrian-American relations collapsed and, according to Ambassador Moustapha, the Americans began to advocate a policy of “isolation and regime change” towards Syria.
Into this atmosphere, Moustapha recalled, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert began sending messages to the Syrians through intermediaries that he wanted peace talks and was stalled by the opposition of the Bush administration.
The discrediting of President Bush allowed an opportune moment for one country, Turkey. Turkey is well positioned in this role due to excellent relations with both Israel and Syria. “Syria,” Moustapha stated, “is only allied to its own national interests and the Pan-Arab cause.” Even so, Turkey is currently Syria’s largest trade partner and shares a long common border. Dr. Moustapha also referred to the extraordinary personal chemistry between the leaders of Syria and Turkey, calling them “unprecedented” and stating that , on a personal level, the closest leaders to Syrian President Bashar Asad, were Reccep Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Qatar.
Dr Cuthell expanded further on Turkish Syrian relations and what Dr Moustapha had described as “wasted decades bickering and small petty hostilities with Turkey,” as well as on Turkish-Israeli relations. For many years, Turkey’s relations with Israel were based on what Cuthell called “a common anti-Arab view”. During the Cold War, Turkey largely ignored its southern neighbors. That has changed in recent years as Turkey’s role with the Arabs has shifted. As Turkey has become more Islamicly oriented, Israel has “taken a fall”. Further, during the Intifada, Turks saw an explicitly Arab point-of-view and that won over a lot of people. “Disdain for Arabs has decreased”, he noted. At the same time, Turkey was deliberately working to improve relations with all its neighbors.
The current Justice and Development Party government began rethinking Turkey’s foreign policy and took note of Turkey’s central location. With Syria, two of the key problems were water rights and the Kurdish issue.
“Turkey has an abundance of water,” Dr Cuthell pointed out and could use it as a tool for dealing with its neighbors. Both speakers referred to how, when the Turks began building dams on the headwaters of the Euphrates, the Syrians became deeply concerned that their access to waters from the river would be limited. In 1998, the two countries came close to war over this. However, in recent years, the “whole issue vanished due to the growth of goodwill to manage bilateral issues,” Dr Moustapha noted. “Turkey is now willing to give more water than requested.” Where a will for good relations exist, he pointed out, such issues are always solvable.
In addition, in the 1990’s, Turkey accused Syria of giving haven to Abdallah Ocalan and others in the armed wing of the Kurdish separatist PKK guerilla movement. When the Syrians made clear that they were no longer willing to do so, solutions became viable.
While Turkish-Syrian relations were becoming increasingly friendly, Turkey maintained its close connections to Israel. Rather than seeing this as a hindrance, Ambassador Moustapha said, the Syrians saw an opportunity: “instead of trying to persuade Turkey to break relations with Israel, we think it is better to get the Turks to use their good office to try and find a solution.” He characterized this as part of the general Syrian view that rather than persuading pro-Israel supporters to turn against it, it makes more sense to get them to support the Israeli peace camp.
In this context, the meetings in Istanbul between the three states promise a great deal. Turkey has a topnotch diplomatic corps that engages in dialogue and will talk to anybody and is seen by both as an honest broker; historical ties and credibility are there on all sides. The talks appear to be about to resume. In a document released on December 15, the Syrian government has outlined their definition of six Geographical points that define the Golan Heights, including the eastern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Disputes over this area led to a breakdown of talks in 2000. The area of square miles was controlled by Syria until 1967, the Syrians point out, though the Israelis argue that, under the British mandate, it was a part of Palestine. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is once again preparing to travel to Istanbul to further peace efforts.
Many in the audience wondered if is it possible for Syria and Israel to achieve peace without the US serving as an honest broker. “I have a problem with the term honest and impartial applying to the US,” Dr. Moustapha responded. “The chief four negotiators of the US during the Clinton Administration, Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Robert Malley, and Aaron David Miller, none of them claimed to be impartial. Of course, the US is absolutely pro-Israel. When the US tries to negotiate between Israel and the Arabs, it always does from a pro-Israel point. The US opposes any occupation except for Israel and the US will blindly support Israel … we do believe, despite that, there is a role for the USA and without it peace cannot be achieved. It hasn’t happened yet because of American opposition. The Turks were able to kick-start the peace process and were willing to take the risk. The Turkish ambassador reminded me yesterday how upset the US was when they learned of the talks. Even in Syria, the belief is that the USA is the only country with leverage on Israel and, had it not been for the US veto, there’d be a stack of UN resolutions. Had any other country done what Israel has done in Gaza, the whole world community would visit it with its wrath. … We still need the US to come and play a role in the peace talks. The US is morally responsible for Israeli actions and … since the invasion of Iraq, the USA has decided to become a part of the region. Now the US has a double responsibility to the region.”
Dr Cuthell noted that the US has very little role as interlocutor but will clearly have a role as guarantor of any peace agreement. At the present time, though, he said that the US doesn’t have credibility in the region. Certainly, he noted, the US cannot offer troops to guarantee a peace but could offer verification. He stated that he “expects a tremendous rebound for the US in the coming year” and thinks that the USA can regain credibility in the region. All parties are looking for an America that is committed to using diplomacy and solving problems.
Both speakers noted that, if peace comes between Israel and Syria, Lebanon will definitely benefit. “The Lebanese and Syrian tracks are intertwined,” Dr Moustapha stated. “Most probably, peace between Israel and Syria will lead automatically to peace between Israel and Lebanon. Israel will never know security as long as a policy of occupation remains. The only way for Israel to secure its northern borders is by ending the conflict and signing peace agreements with Syria and Lebanon.”
The two speakers, however, clashed over the role of Iran in Lebanon. “Iranian influence has potential to create a lot of mischief,” Dr Cuthell noted. On the other hand, Dr Moustapha said he was “unsure how the Iranian presence is destabilizing when the President of Lebanon just said the opposite.” He further wondered, “why should Syria be ashamed of having good relations with Iran? What did Iran ever do to us?” and recounted the past of Arab-Iranian relations. He contrasted this with Israeli policy in Lebanon, bringing attention specifically to the use of cluster bombs dropped in mass numbers in 2006. “From Morocco to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, “ he reminded the audience, “Hezbollah is highly regarded as a national liberation movement. The overwhelming majority of Arabs are very proud of Hezbollah.”
Over all, both speakers seemed to feel that the potential for real peace was strong, especially with the presence of a new American administration. However, Israeli politics might yet again prevent it. “In the past Israeli foreign policy has fallen victim to domestic policy,” Ambassador Moustapha noted. “If Kadima and its allies win, then Tzipi Livni will become Prime Minister, and then peace will go ahead. On the other hand, if Bibi wins, then there will be no peace talks at all. However, many prominent Jewish figures in the USA have told me that despite Netanyahu saying there are no peace talks, these are only electioneering …. And Netanyahu has to deal with the new American president.”
Both expect to see a real will for peace emerge and definite steps towards confidence building on all sides. If this happens, they expect that Turkey will play the role of an honest broker; the historical ties and credibility are there with both parties. Probably, the US will not play nearly as central a role as in the last century. But conversations towards real peace will likely emerge.
“Turkey will probably be the place,” the Ambassador said, “where these conversations happen and where we can look for peace in the Middle East.”