Posted by Alex on Tuesday, July 10th, 2007
Posted by Camille Alexandre Otrakji
Anyone following Syria's news lately would get the feeling that something is about to happen in Syria's neighborhood during the following two months, and more specifically around mid-July. President Assad is expected to make a speech on the 17th of July, the official date of his second seven-year term in office. There are speculations that a new government will be announced to be led by a newly appointed prime minister.
UPI International editor Claude Salhani listed a number of other possible events that might take place during the month of July:
The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to discuss the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701 on July 16. The discussions will center on the Syria-Lebanon border and the possibility of positioning international observers along the border to prevent weapons finding their way from Syria into Lebanon.The London-based al-Hayat newspaper says the United Nations' recommendations will demand the stationing of international experts in the border area to assist Lebanon's security agencies in monitoring the frontier.Also between July 15 and 17 the head of the International Investigation Commission into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Serge Brammertz, is to submit his report to the U.N. Security Council.
The Iranian news agency speculates that the recall of Syrian nationals is due to the ultimatum Lebanese President Emil Lahoud gave the opposition to decide on how to deal with the crisis in Lebanon. Other sources think Syrians are being recalled home as Damascus plans to mobilize reserve units in expectation of an Israeli attack.A contributing factor is a declaration by the Lebanese opposition of plans to establish a second government if no solution to the current political deadlock is reached by mid-July. Members of Hezbollah have joined President Lahoud in threatening to establish a second government in Lebanon. They speak of taking "historical" and "strategic" steps. Such a move would likely re-ignite Lebanon's civil war, or possibly cause the country to fracture.A series of editorials in the Lebanese daily al-Mustaqbal, meanwhile, warns of a planned Syrian-Iranian coup in Lebanon, spearheaded by Hezbollah and backed by Iran and Syria. The paper, which is close to the pro-government March 14 Movement, speaks of Hezbollah's military preparations, including military activity both south and north of the Litani River, in defiance of U.N. Resolution 1701; and the transformation of the Bekaa region into a military zone.With tension in the Middle East at an all-time crux, it would not require very much to set the region ablaze. If the Bush administration ever intended to push for peace in the region, now would be the time to do so.
A summer war?
Which brings us to the ongoing debate in Israel about an “accidental” war with Syria this summer. Last week the Israeli conducted an extensive military exercise on the occupied Golan Heights. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert stated that he sent a message to Assad letting him know that Israel does not intend to attack Syria. Most, if not all, Israeli experts stated that they do not believe Syria is about to attack them either. They agree that Syria’s army positions are obviously defensive. They explain that Syria is probably worried as a result of witnessing large-scale Israeli exercises on the Golan.
So why is Israel preparing for war?
Apparently, all those Israeli military exercises were meant to increase the IDF's state of preparation in case Syria misunderstood Israel’s intentions behind the military exercises and then decided to launch a pre-emptive war on the Jewish state!
There are more logical ways one can explain the flood of summer war statements from Israel. Either Israel really needs to erase from everyone’s memory its disappointing performance against Hizbollah, or Israel is maneuvering for a better negotiating position against Syria if and when those negotiations do start… reminding Syria of the big Israeli stick before offering her a smaller carrot. Silly, but less foolish than an actual war. Especially an accidental war.
by Syrian Cartoonist Ali Farzat
Akiva Eldar interviewed Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uri Sagi and Syria expert Dr. Eyal Zisser in an article published in Haaretz this week. Here are the more interesting parts of the article
MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) recently learned firsthand about the difficulty of solving the Syrian riddle. In January he asked Assad's legal adviser, Riad Daoudi, who represented Damascus at the second Madrid Peace Conference, whether Syria would agree to sever its ties with terror organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas and to distance itself from Iran. Daoudi replied that if Israel agreed to return to the negotiating table, those issues would be placed on it.
At a conference this week in Brussels, Pines-Paz received a different response to the same question. This time Daoudi said Syria insists on negotiations without preconditions and that its relations with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran be discussed only after the conclusion of the negotiations. A diplomatic source says that Daoudi expressed a harder line than the official one. The understanding in Jerusalem is that Syria is linking its relations with Hezbollah and Hamas to the pace of its negotiations with Israel.
Relations with Iran are linked to relations with the United States.
Daoudi was adamant on this point: Without the U.S., there will be no negotiations. The explanation: "The Americans have to pay all the parties for the U.S. responsibility for what is happening now in the Middle East. [They have to pay] Israel as well." He was probably referring to events in Iraq and in the Gaza Strip.
Sagi says that Israel, too, cannot reach an agreement with Syria and Lebanon without the U.S. "Israel cannot permit itself to have a conflict of interest with Washington," he states. He cannot but regret that the U.S. has relinquished its status as honest broker between Israel and Syria, forcing Syria "into an extremist corner, unnecessarily."
According to Sagi, Israel has interests in common with the secular regimes in our neighborhood, or, to be more precise – enemies in common. He is referring to extra-national organizations, such as Al-Qaida, which threaten the existing order. "The talk of democratization is too early and too threatening," Sagi says. "The Syrian regime, even the Jordanian regime, cannot absorb democracy. One makes peace with the existing regime, not with democratization. The Syrians are waging a genuine struggle against extremist Islam, and mainly against the Shi'ites, who are led by non-Arab elements such as Iran."
Syria needs a shrink
The U.S. refusal to promote a peace agreement between Israel and Syria, in the name of democratization – which in light of its successes in Iraq one might assume had disappeared altogether – is viewed by Israeli diplomats as a relatively small problem. The big problem is George W. Bush's obsession with bringing down the regime in Damascus. In talks with senior U.S. officials it became clear that they haven't the vaguest idea of what would take its place. Israeli warnings of the danger that Islamic extremists would do to Syria what they are now doing to Iraq makes no impression on the president. To Bush, death provides the only release from the axis of evil.
Syria expert Prof. Eyal Zisser, of the Department of Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, says Assad is working on the assumption that the U.S. is determined to bring him down. Zisser says Assad's feelings of persecution are affecting his behavior and that Western visitors to the country report a regression in all areas related to human rights, freedom of expression and other signs of liberalization.
"Assad lacks the experience and the power needed for a Sadat-like move," Zisser says. "If there is no nanny, such as James Baker (secretary of state under President George Bush Sr., who initiated the Madrid Conference – A.E.), nothing will move. Syria needs a psychologist as much as we do. [Egypt's late president, Anwar] Sadat and [Jordan's late king] Hussein were willing to hold our hand and understood how problematic we are. This time we're dealing with a different sort of Arab. Syria is unwilling to extend gestures and make nice while Israel continues to build settlements on the Golan Heights. For them, the demand to disengage from Iran is like asking us to disengage from the U.S."
Zisser emphasizes that Assad does not really want to be stuck with Iran, which cannot fix his country's oil shortage, rising unemployment and a shaky economy. Zisser believes that if there is no change in the situation, such as a diplomatic move based on the Arab peace initiative, these problems will worsen until the whole thing explodes. The failure of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians strengthen the hand of those surrounding Assad who seek to persuade him to stop wooing the Americans and the Israelis.
Participants in the Brussels conference witnessed this internal struggle up close. The Syrian-American businessman Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman, who had represented Syria at the secret talks held under Swiss auspices, sat next to Dr. Alon Liel, his partner in the talks. Suleiman made a point of leaving the room whenever Daoudi opened his mouth, and vice versa. (Since his address to the Knesset in April, Suleiman has become anathema to Syrian conservatives.)
In light of the political weakness in Israel and U.S. intransigence, Sagi recommends we stop whistling in the dark and prepare the army for the next round. To his great satisfaction, Ashkenazi, who was his operations officer in the Golani Brigade, is doing what needs to be done. Nevertheless, Sagi hopes that in the coming months Israel's political leadership will decide what it does want, and not only what it does not want. He believes that if the government decides it wants to move forward and makes a concerted effort to bring the U.S. on board, a peace agreement with Syria would be within reach. Sagi is adamant that the disagreements between Israel and Syria over borders and security arrangement were solved seven years ago, and that Barak backed down at the last moment from signing an agreement with Hafez Assad.
"It's true, Syria is not nice," concludes Sagi, a man who has spent hundreds of hours with Syrians. "But what's better, to talk to countries like Syria about stable agreements or to run around in the alleys after organizations that don't want an agreement with us, like Hezbollah, which is liable to take over the government in Lebanon any day?"
In a rare month-long online discussion between Syrian and Israeli bloggers and experts on Creative Syria’s Creative Forum (40th anniversary of the occupation of the Golan Heights), it was clear that there are two main challenges to starting peace negotiations between the two enemies.
First, many Syrian bloggers showed hesitation about signing a peace treaty with Israel while the Palestinians are still left alone suffering under Israel’s harsh occupation. Apparently, the old solidarity with their Palestinian brothers is not dead. One gets the feeling that it will be difficult for the regime to sign that treaty if there isn’t at least some serious progress on the Palestinian front.
Second, Israeli participants wanted Assad to understand them the way Sadat and King Hussein did. They wanted him to visit Jerusalem or to invite their prime minister to Damascus.
Here is part of Rime Allaf's opinion she expressed in her article:
This is not about relative degrees of compromise, or about confidence-building measures, promises of everlasting love, nor even about dignity (which is certainly not more important than food for the hungry) or the tired Orientalist notions that Arabs are supposed to attach more importance to certain things like land. It is about legality, human and national rights, and all the other rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including, of course, the right of return.
That we should convince the Israeli public to give back the Golan, or indeed parts of Palestine, is a laughable concept, as is the notion that the Israeli people would convince their government to wage peace if they knew they stood no danger. The proverbial silent majority has certainly remained true to its name, responding with only deafening silence to its government’s brutality in Lebanon, in Palestine, and anywhere it pleases. The uproar about the army’s performance in Lebanon isn’t because of the massive civilian casualties it inflicted, the senseless destruction of Lebanese infrastructure, or the hundreds of thousands of inhumane cluster bombs left to maim and kill innocent civilians on a daily basis; the uproar is because the army didn’t win. This is what bothers most of the Israelis who supposedly control the fate of the Golan Heights; the others don’t seem to care. If they did, they would revolt against the shooting and killing of a seven-month foetus in his Palestinian mother’s womb, around the anniversary of Israel’s creation; or they would denounce the killing of an unarmed elderly Palestinian man in his own home, and the shooting of his wife and two sons in Hebron in a literal blood bath, on the sad anniversary of the vicious attack they so proudly name the Six Day War.
That it has become the duty of the victim to reassure the aggressor is scandalous. It must be the other way round: it is Israel which must begin to reassure its neighbors that it is worthy of the repeated peace overtures and the ever-increasing concessions made by Arab regimes in the name of the Palestinian and Arab people, without their permission. Israel must return land, pay compensation, and apologize profusely to all its victims, for all the hardship, misery and despair of the last 60 years of dispossession it forced on them. If anyone should be demanding its right to exist now, it is the Palestinian people, and it is up to Israel to prove that it is a worthy partner in peace, and that it deserves to be treated as the civilized equal it pretends to be.
And here is an Israeli peace activist's comment to Rime:
…Do you think there’s a chance in the world that ANY person on the other side would even contemplate listening to you, let alone do business with you? What you’re very clearly suggesting, is that there are NO equal parties here, and that we shouldn’t treat each other as such. That the proof of intentions should come from only one side (ours) not from both. That genuine fear and distrust legitimately exists only on one side (yours), and not also on ours.
What really gets to me, regarding the Syrian-Israeli conflict, is that we already know the price, we already agree on the price, yet neither side wants to be seen as “bowing” to the other. Each side is convinced it is the threatened one, the victim, not the aggressor, and therefore has the right to “sit and wait” for the other, stronger side, to act. Maybe we just don’t want this peace badly enough, because when you want something, and you don’t get it one way, you try another, and another, and another. Until you get it. But in the meantime, the pressure is growing on both sides, and there is some physical tendency of bodies to eventually find a way to release that pressure, and we all know too well how that’s normally done in our part of the world, don’t we?
I suggested that Syria faces a difficult challenge in deciding how to communicate with Israel. Israelis who oppose returning the Golan Heights fall in two very different camps. Some worry about Syria's intentions after it recovers its Golan Heights. They need to be reassured that Syria is a friendly nation and that the Syrian leaders are not ideologically attached to hard liners such as Hamas, Hizbollah, and Iran. Goodwill gestures from Syria's side might be useful to address some of these concerns. However, they will be counter productive with the other group of Israelis who oppose the return of the Golan Heights because in their view Israel is the strong party and Syria the weak one who is begging for something it can not take by force. They see Assad's repeated calls for peace negotiations with Israel as a sign of Syria's weakness.
I concluded that Syria should take into account the 180 degree variance in Israeli opinions and attitudes which could only be accommodated through an adaptive, continuously variable communication style… different messages must be sent to try to positively influence each type of Israeli citizen who today does not believe that his country should, or needs to, return the Golan to Syria.
Today Prime minister Olmert gave an interview to al-Arabiya Satellite TV station in which he said
"Bashar Assad, I'm ready to hold direct negotiations for peace with you. But you know, and you say this all the time, that you are only willing to hold talks through the United States."
"Bashar Assad doesn't want to sit with me, he wants to sit with the Americans, but the Americans don't want to sit with him. I am willing to meet him if he's willing to meet me. If that happens, we will discuss peace, not war. I don't want to fight the Syrians,"
I sent Akiva Eldar and Eyal Zisser an email to explain to them why Bashar is not dealing with the same favorable Critical Success Factors that Sadat or King Hussein dealt with when they felt encouraged to make a goodwill gesture to Israel:
Israel is not headed by a decisive and respected leader like the late prime minister Rabin. There is a good chance the current shaky and highly divided Israeli government, headed by a very unpopular prime minister, might collapse before it can conclude a peace agreement with Syria. Assume that the chance of survival for the government is 30% (P1=0.3)
There is no friendly president Clinton in the White house anymore. The current American administration seems to prefer to make life difficult for the Syrians. Assad probably does not expect any positive American supporting role. We can assume that the probability that this administration will eventually sponsor peace negotiations is quite small … perhaps as low as 25% (p2=0.25)
A majority of the Israeli public currently oppose the return of the Golan Heights. Syria already learned its lesson when prime minister Barak “got cold feet” at the last minute and decided to not sign the peace treaty negotiated with the help of president Clinton. Barak at the time did not want to take an unpopular decision of returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Assume that there is only a 50% chance Prime minister Olmert (considered a weak leader by many observers) would eventually be courageous enough to “make the painful concessions” of returning the full Golan Heights. (P3=0.5)
In order for a successful completion of the peace process, the three variables above must take on favorable values. The probability of that desired outcome happening can be calculated as follows:
P(success) = P1 X P2 X P3 = 0.3 X 0.25 X 0.5 = 0.0375 = 3.75%
Why should a sane Syrian president go for such a hopeless option?
A Madrid II peace conference might be the simplest solution to deal with the American administration's refusal to sit face to face with the Syrians. Palestinians, as well as the other "moderate" Arab states would also be invited to participate. The participation of Egypt and Saudi Arabia will prevent the Syrians from looking and feeling like "winners" who forced the US administration to sit with them at a summit type of meeting.
Or perhaps it is better to …
Wait another year?
George Ajjan in the June issue of Chronicles (a paleo-conservative magazine):
While Bush will be gone in less than 20 months, Syrian President Bashar Assad will be on the ballot this year in a Sham referendum designed to garner him a second seven-year term. So he will be saying "I told you so" to America about Bush's Mesopotamian Misadventure for a long time to come. Given this longevity, coupled with the White House's demonstrated inflexibility, Assad knows that he cannot hope for a full rapprochement with the United States until Washington is remade after 2008. This means that, for the moment, Syria will use any direct diplomatic access to Washington to rehabilitate her image by appearing helpful, while loudly broadcasting her traditional grievances and positioning herself for a variety of post-Bush contingencies.
Logically speaking, nothing should happen this year. Neither war nor peace.
But this is the Middle East.