Syria Says “Yes” to 1701. Why?

According to Kofi Annan, Syria has agreed to uphold UN resolution 1701. He said on Friday that “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had promised to enforce an arms embargo on Hizbollah under a U.N. resolution that halted Israel’s war with the Lebanese group.” According to Reuters,

Annan did not say if he had pressed Assad to comply with other U.N. demands on Syria. These include demarcating its border with Lebanon, including in the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms area, claimed by Beirut, with Syria’s verbal backing, but viewed by the United Nations as Syrian territory.

The Syrian president has previously ruled out any demarcation in Shebaa Farms while it is occupied by Israel.

Annan, who had told the Lebanese government earlier that he would press Syria to open diplomatic ties with Lebanon, said Assad had accepted this in principle, but had told him it was a sovereign issue to be worked out with the Beirut authorities.

Syria has long argued the two closely linked neighbors do not need diplomatic ties, prompting Lebanese suspicions that Damascus refuses to acknowledge as fully sovereign the country it dominated until it ended a 29-year troop presence last year.

Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the talks with Assad had covered “all tracks of the peace process”, referring to Israel’s stalled negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians over territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.

“Out of this tragedy of war there is a real opportunity for peace that we all must not miss,” Annan declared.

European Union foreign ministers were set to push for a revival of Middle East peace efforts with a greater EU role.

Ministers meeting in Finland will study how to leverage their growing military presence as peacekeepers in southern Lebanon to bring about regional talks, which EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana wants to be based on a return to Israel’s 1967 borders “plus or minus agreed minor adjustments”.

This is anathema to Israel which, with the acquiescence of the United States, wants to retain swathes of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Golan Heights and Arab East Jerusalem.

Syria also says it is ready to hold direct peace negotiations with Israel with certain conditions, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said in an interview published Aug. 30 by the Austrian Press Agency. Al-Moualem set conditions for peace as resolution of the status of the Golan Heights, Shebaa Farms and the West Bank, and complete Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

David Schenker, in a National Review on Line article entitled, “Syria’s Answer: Bashar Assad has set his country firmly against the interests of peace and civility,” tries to preempt European efforts to open a dialogue on regional peace. He claims that Bashar’s August 15 speech to Arab Journalists gave a clear answer of “No” to US attempts to make peace. What the US did offer Bashar was a demand to unilaterally disarm. Bashar said “No” to this. The main thrust of his speech, however, was to say “Yes” to land for peace. This has been the consistent demand of both the Syrian foreign minister and Syrian ambassador in Washington. Washington refuses to acknowledge this and insists that Europe refuse as well.

By telling Annan that Syria will respect UN resolution 1701 and stop smuggling illegal arms, Bashar is trying to give Annan a chance to get a European initiated dialogue off the ground. Annan must have given Asad some assurances this would happen. Asad undoubtedly has little faith that the Europeans can deliver, even if they have shouldered new responsibilities in southern Lebanon and claim a willingness to get more involved in regional problems.

But Asad must show a good faith effort not to gum up the works. Chirac made a wide ranging speech a few days ago in which he put the onus on Syria. I understood him to be warning Syria that there was little France or any European power could do to stop the US from getting nasty towards Syria if it didn’t make some positive gestures. But he counter-balanced this with his statement that he would be on the side of a comprehensive peace and would meet Asad half way. He said:

“The choice is between a resumption of hostilities, creating a permanent rift between two neighboring peoples, and the political option of a global and lasting settlement,” Chirac said.

Painting a bleak picture of the Middle East, he added violence in the region might get out of control unless the peace process was revived.

“Everyone can clearly see that in the Middle East, the fracture lines join up and the crises grow,” Chirac said, adding the key issue was the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Over and above these clashes, there is a bigger danger, that of a divorce between worlds. East against West, Islam against Christianity, rich against poor,” Chirac said. “The gamble for peace and security also concerns Iran and Syria,” he added, urging Damascus to “abandon its insular mentality.”

“[Syria] has the calling to retake its place at the table of nations, respecting the international legality and sovereignty of its neighbors. The Middle East needs Syria to be working actively for peace and stability in the region,” he said, adding he wanted a rapid meeting of the “Quartet” of Middle East peace brokers – the US, the UN, the EU and Russia – to look at ways of resuming peace talks.

Europe is gearing up for a major push to apply resolution 242 – land for peace – in the region. “European Union foreign ministers meeting in Finland will study how to leverage their growing military presence as peacekeepers in southern Lebanon to bring about regional talks, which EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana wants to be based on a return to Israel’s 1967 borders “plus or minus agreed minor adjustments,” writes Reurters.

Many of the realists in both the US and Israel have been calling for just such region-wide negotiations. All Arab heads of state have said they will back land-for-peace and reiterated their support for the Saudi-led peace plan of 2002.

Undoubtedly Annan told Bashar not to be the fly in the ointment as the UN and Europe tries to push forward such a peace initiative. Asad probably told Annan, I will give you some time to see if there are results. Annan then stood up and told reporters that “Asad has accepted 1701.” Asad did not say this himself and was silent at Annan’s side. We do not know exactly what the quid pro quo was, but we can be sure there was one.

The fear that must haunt Asad is that the US is preparing to stab him in the back. Europe will go to Washington and say something along the lines of – “We will help you place sanctions on Iran, if you back us in settling the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all.”

Washington will give a qualified “yes” because President Bush has insisted that Iran must pay a price for continuing with nuclear development. All the same, Bush and Olmert will scuttle the possibility of land for peace. Washington, however, is willing to allow for a peace process in order to nail Iran. But it will not allow for actual peace on these terms.

If Sryia plays along with this and helps keep the Lebanon front quite and weakens Hizbullah while Iran gets sanctioned, he could end up with nothing and a much weakened alliance. This will be the case if European promises to deliver the Golan go nowhere, as they are likely to.

The notion of giving land back to Syria and a Hamas led Palestinian state is anathema to the Bush White House. They would consider it a defeat, giving in to blackmail, and emboldening Islamo-fascism. They may, however, play along just long enough to get European support against Iran, expecting that any peace initiative on the Arab-Israeli front will founder without considerable American backing and arm twisting.

Asad is in for a tough few months.

He has shown that Syria has teeth. Israeli intelligence has stated that many of the missiles shot into Israel have Syrian serial numbers on them and were made in Syria and not Iran. If this is true, it shows that Syria did play a vital role in helping Hizbullah stand up against the full brunt of the IDF. The LA Times writes:

New postwar intelligence indicates that the militant group Hezbollah had broader access to sophisticated weaponry than was publicly known — including large numbers of medium-range rockets made in Syria, said U.S. and Israeli government officials and military analysts.

The size of the Hezbollah arsenal and the direct role of Syria in supplying it will complicate the daunting task of keeping Hezbollah from rearming, the officials said.

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