Too busy dancing
What will become of Syrian overtures to Israel? Nothing, if Ariel Sharon has his way, writes Sami Moubayed*
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Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a signing ceremony in in Moscow. Assad, in Russia for four days of talks, defended his nation's right to buy anti-aircraft missiles from Russia despite strong Israeli protests against such a deal
President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria ended 2004 by declaring that he was willing to resume unconditional peace talks with Israel, a proposal flatly refused by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN special coordinator for peace negotiations in the Middle East, wrote saying: "This outstretched hand should be grabbed, not refused!" His words have been echoed by politicians, activists and leaders all over the world, yet Israel remains adamant, claiming that Syria is not serious about peace.
Some argue that Al-Assad only made the offer under immense pressure from the US in an attempt to bridge the growing chasm between Damascus and Washington and show that he is a man of peace. Others claim he had made Sharon, "an offer he couldn't refuse", knowing perfectly well that Sharon would refuse it given his preoccupation with his Gaza disengagement plan.
Al-Assad's initiative did not mean Syria would be faced with immediate negotiations. The Bush administration gives priority to the Palestinian-Israeli peace track, as President George W Bush said bluntly in his speech on 19 December 2004. Larsen rightfully argues against this policy, claiming that Americans and Israelis can engage on two separate tracks simultaneously. Progress on one track would have the advantage of stimulating progress on the other. Israel shouldn't be too concerned with the motives behind Al-Assad's initiative; they are far less important than the fact that Syria's hand is extended. This is a rare move on the part of Syria that must not be missed.
Why has Syria chosen peace? The answer is simple: they are fed up with war and want to stabilise and improve the country after 57 years of conflict with Israel. Al- Assad wants to re-position Syria on the world map and integrate it into the international community. Peace would increase regional security for all parties and guarantee a stable Iraq, which is in everybody's interests.
Peace with Syria would also mean peace with Lebanon, which serves Israel's security interests. It would limit the influence of Hizbullah, transforming it into a political party rather than a resistance movement. Peace would give reformers in Syria a free-hand to carry out their programmes, away from the danger of war and regional instability. Peace would also give Syria enough room to comply with UN Resolution 1559 and withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
To a new generation of Syrians peace means many things. On an immediate level it will lead to a softening in the military conscription laws that force many to flee to the Gulf for five years in order to avoid being drafted into the Syrian army. Those who are unable to leave are stuck for 30 months in the armed forces, paid a paltry minimum wage under harsh conditions. Any able-bodied young male of 18 years of age who is not studying had, until last week, to join the armed forces for two and a half years, during which time he cannot work at any other job or travel abroad, not even to Lebanon. Now conscription has been reduced to two years. The move was greeted with gritted teeth in Syria, where it is considered too little, and too late.
Those who complete their university education are forced to travel abroad or are drafted into the army. This deprives Syria of young talent which is invested in, and sometimes abused by, the Arab Gulf. After five years many young Syrians permanently settle in the Gulf and elsewhere. The biggest loser in this case is Syria.
In addition to the drain of talent caused by a continued state of war with Israel, Syria faces high unemployment because it is seen, by investors at least, as an unsafe venue. Military spending amounts to 30 per cent of the annual budget, and six per cent of national income. Today, more than ever, Syria needs to handle its purse strings with caution. It cannot afford to continue spending so much on the armed forces. Before the war in Iraq, between 1997 and 2002 especially, Syria made an estimated $1.5 billion a year from its dealings with Iraq. That income has evaporated. If peace is achieved, and Syria is freed from spending millions on its military, it can invest more in education, tourism, and public works. Following peace projects will mushroom all over Syria, and investment will pour in, prompting expatriates to return and work at home.
According to the London-based Al-Hayat, Syrian deposits abroad are estimated at $50 billion. Officially, employment in Syria stands at 9.5 per cent, though the real figure is probably closer to 25 per cent. Unemployment stands at a staggering 30 per cent among university graduates. It is hovering around 80 per cent among those aged 18-24. Around 300,000 people enter the job market every year and most of them are unsuccessful in finding suitable positions. Everyone in Syria wants peace.
The Syrian street is not fully aware, however, of the duties it faces in light of Israel's refusal, encouraged of course, by the US, to talk seriously with Damascus. There is a systematic smear campaign against Syria perpetrated by US officials, think tanks, and media. Most recently, in December 2004, three analysts from the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (DFF), an influential organisation close to Sharon's Likud Party, published an article in The Washington Times entitled "Syria's Murderous Role". Then, William Kristol, chairman of the Project for the New American Century, another neo-con, published, "Getting serious about Syria!", in which he said that despite the problems the US was facing in Iraq, the Bush administration was willing to up the ante with Syria. "We could bomb Syrian military facilities, we could go across the border in force to stop infiltration, we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, a few miles from the border we could covertly help, or overtly support, the Syrian opposition," he wrote.
Soon after an article showed up in The Wall Street Journal claiming that Syria was sending armed men to Iraq to fight the Americans. If this smear campaign continues much longer the world will come to believe that Syria is part of the problem of the Middle East and not the solution. Only this month The New York Times quoted a US counter-terrorism official as saying that the treasury department was considering action that could effectively isolate the banking system in Syria if Damascus refuses to halt the infiltration of fighters to Iraq, and does not hand over officials from the Baath regime, including relatives of Saddam Hussein.
There are disagreements among US policy-makers on how best to deal with Syria. The neo-con Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage showed up in Damascus on 2 January offering Syrians assurances that their actions vis-ˆ- vis the Americans in Iraq had been met with approval but there was more to be done. Sanctions were still an option, he said, but this had yet to be decided by President Bush. Nor did he dismiss the possibility of the US raising Syria's non-compliance with UN Resolution 1559 at the UN Security Council meeting at the end of this month.
Before Armitage arrived in Damascus a senior State Department official told AFP that "obviously Syria is a big problem", adding that Washington needed to "keep the heat on". Senator John Kerry showed up in Damascus in mid-January and before departing said: "I leave here with a sense that we can improve our relationship." His positive words, however, have been overplayed by the press, and Syria. His visit, in the end, was little more than a publicity stunt aimed at keeping him in the limelight after his defeat in the US elections. Clearly Damascus remains pivotal to US decision-makers, especially Americans opposed to Bush's policies in the Middle East. Yet unless the US adopts a clear policy towards Syria, and pressures Israel to respond to Al-Assad's initiatives, Syrian overtures will go unnoticed in 2005.
As talk of Syria's peace initiative towards Israel makes world headlines, the Israelis respond with little, if any, enthusiasm. They have been keen to remind us of a story that took place during the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Yossi Ben Aharon, the director of Yitzhak Shamir's office, represented Israel in the talks with Syria. Like Shamir, Ben Aharon was not interested in peace. He went to Madrid because that is what the US had promised the Arabs would happen if they joined in the liberation of Kuwait. The Syrians were represented by Ambassador Muwafaq Al-Allaf. At the meeting Al-Allaf took out a UN report on which party had provoked the war of 1967 and began to read its contents out loud. Ben Aharon did not want to listen and rudely got up while Al-Allaf was speaking to drink a cup of tea. He returned, and began to noisily bang his spoon on the table to distract Al-Allaf, who ignored him and continued to read out loud. When Al-Allaf reached the part that was critical of Israel, Ben Aharon got up and began dancing in the room. When Al-Allaf finished, Ben Aharon childishly replied, "I didn't hear a thing! I was too busy dancing!"
Today President Al-Assad is proposing to return to peace talks. Yet Ariel Sharon and George W Bush, like Ben Aharon, have not heard a thing. They too, it seems, are too busy dancing.
* The writer is a Syrian political analyst and the author of Damascus between Democracy and Dictatorship, 1948-1958.