Damascus keeps cool
examines the implications of this week's summit for Syria and Lebanon
Damascus and Beirut appear to have been neither impressed nor unduly alarmed by the Arab-Israeli diplomatic show at Sharm El-Sheikh. And while both have genuine concerns about the agenda and outcome of this week's summit Lebanese and Syrian diplomats who spoke to Al- Ahram Weekly say the majority of these concerns are short-term.
"I think it is safe to be sure that time will take care of them," said one Syrian diplomat.
Damascus's major concern is that the summit will help Israel in further sidelining the Syrian track. Hours before the Sharm El-Sheikh meeting opened EU Middle East Envoy Marc Otte said he remained convinced of Syria's willingness to resume unconditional talks with Israel. His comments, like those of other European and UN officials on the same theme, were greeted with frosty silence in Tel Aviv.
Regardless of whether or not the movement along the Palestinian track kick-started at the Sharm El- Sheikh meeting proves sustainable Syria knows that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can use it to continue shrugging off messages Damascus has been sending, through regional and international channels, over its desire to resume negotiations.
Syria is also aware that Palestinian commitment to opt for a ceasefire will translate into increased American pressure to tighten the noose around the neck of Palestinian factions in Syria.
On Tuesday, as Sharon was meeting President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was busy warning Syria of increasing isolation as a result of its "support of terrorism". In meetings with King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit earlier in the week, Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad received assurances that there was no intention of isolating Damascus. Both Cairo and Amman promised to encourage movement, however slow, on the Syrian track.
Though Al-Assad welcomed the initiative sources say the Syrian president has no illusions and knows Sharon is not interested in pursuing action on the Syrian track for the time being.
In his statement at the Sharm El- Sheikh summit President Mubarak made it clear that should a settlement be reached on the Palestinian track peace will prevail in the Middle East only if the Syrian and Lebanese tracks are also resolved. Yet Israeli officials from both the prime minister's office and the Foreign Ministry told reporters that the Syrian track remains low on Israel's current agenda. As for the Shebaa Farm region, Israeli officials said that if Lebanon wanted to talk with Israel it would have to do so "independently of Syria".
Lebanese diplomats say they have no intentions of speaking with the Israelis -- either with or without Syria -- any time soon.
Meanwhile, Beirut conveyed clear demands to the Arab delegations participating in the Sharm El-Sheikh summit that no concessions should be made on the issue of refugees.
"We know that this issue is not on the agenda of this week's summit but we have to make our position clear. We welcome any movement on the Palestinian track and we wish our Palestinian brothers success in their efforts but we are not ready to put up with the consequences of any concessions, given directly or indirectly, on the issue of refugees," said one Lebanese diplomat.
Lebanon has always been adamant in its refusal to accommodate the huge population of Palestinian refugees on its territories.
"We trust that Egypt, as the host of this conference, will give due attention to the legitimate concerns of the Lebanese people even though Lebanon is not present at the conference," the Lebanese diplomat said. "And we also trust that President Mahmoud Abbas is aware of sensitivities over the issue of refugees, not just for the Lebanese but from the Palestinians themselves."
Syrian and Lebanese diplomats doubt the momentum behind "the new chance for peace" generated this week in Sharm El-Sheikh will last long. Sources on both sides insist that events have repeatedly shown Sharon is willing to give only minimum concessions to the Palestinian Authority, and then only in return for the maximum. It is a policy, they argue, that betrays the absence of any long-term Israeli commitment to cease hostilities against the Palestinian people, especially against Islamic resistance groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It will be sooner rather than later, they believe, that the ceasefire reached at Sharm El-Sheikh this week will be violated by the Israeli side -- a scenario that some Egyptian diplomats do not exclude.
"This violation will certainly result in some retaliation by the Palestinian side. We are not gloating but it is simply a matter of time before this process hits the rocks Israeli intransigence always creates," said one Lebanese diplomat.
"Sharon is not a man of peace. He is only trying to impose his agenda of keeping the Palestinians isolated and disarmed in Gaza -- even if he gives up a couple cities in the West Bank."