Is the resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks a political gimmick or a serious effort by two countries in dire straits, Basel Oudat asks in Damascus
The announcement was made simultaneously in Syria, Israel and Turkey. Indirect talks between Syria and Israel were scheduled to start in Istanbul under Turkish auspices. Some news media acted as if the development was a big surprise, but it wasn't. For the past two years, Syrian and Israeli leaders have been moving in that direction.
In July 2006, Bashar Al-Assad said that Syria was seeking a resumption of negotiations with Israel in the hope of achieving a peace treaty. But he stipulated that Israel should promise first to withdraw from occupied Syrian land. Similar remarks were made by other Syrian officials since then. And the Syrian media often takes up the issue, always attempting to justify such efforts.
Meanwhile, Ehud Olmert voiced his country's willingness to hold negotiations leading to an agreement based on the understanding reached during the Madrid Conference; namely, the exchange of land for peace. Syrian politicians reacted by saying that Olmert's statements satisfied Syrian demands and that the road to negotiations was wide open.
Damascus sees the indirect negotiations as a prelude to direct negotiations. It also believes that any negotiations that are not sponsored by the US and backed by Arab countries, the EU, Russia and China wouldn't be successful. And yet, Syria knows that the current US administration no longer has what it takes to act as a mediator, not with the US presidency about to change hands. Therefore, the negotiations in Ankara must be seen as preliminary talks that may not bear fruit before a new US administration is in office.
"The way things are moving ahead suggests that the two sides are serious," Samir Al-Taqiy, director of the Al-Sharq Centre for Strategic Studies and a man known for his close ties with the Syrian Foreign Ministry, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The only thing missing now is the presence of a third partner; namely, the American partner. Such a partner would be crucial to guarantee the whole process and shore up the missing trust between the two sides."
Al-Taqiy, who is believed to have been Syria's negotiator in earlier talks with the Israelis, said that, "the talks will not move on to serious and direct matters unless the Americans are brought aboard. I believe that the US will find it hard to say no to this process."
Although the US has not sponsored the indirect talks, Syria decided to participate anyway as a means of alleviating its isolation, until such time that a new US administration is in place. Syria is interested in ending the impasse regarding its occupied territories. And it wants the restoration of its land to go into the regional agenda once more.
Syrian politicians believe that Israel's options have narrowed since its failed aggression on Lebanon in 2006. Since then, the Israeli domestic scene has been chaotic, and the vulnerability of its prime minister has made things worse. For sometime now, Israeli security services have been pressing for talks and arguing that Syria was earnest about peace. So let's say that both countries were propelled by their own problems to the negotiations table.
As for Turkey, it seems that the Erdogan government is hoping its mediating role would bring it support from the US and the EU. Turkey's ruling party wishes to present itself as a force capable of influencing regional issues. Ankara also believes that it is well positioned to convince Syria to distance itself from Iran. So what exactly are the chances of reaching a deal?
Political analysts in Damascus believe that Syrian- Israeli negotiations are going to be harder than the Egyptian and Jordanian talks that led to the Camp David and Wadi Araba agreements. The differences between Syria and Israel are extensive and span a wide range of complex issues, including borders, water, disarmed territories, military observation points, normalisation, political relations, and future regional roles.
The first signs of disagreement came just before the resumption of indirect talks. President Al-Assad said that Israel must say that it will withdraw from the Golan as a condition for holding the talks. Then, immediately after the announcement that the talks were about to start, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem said that Israel promised to do so. Israel, for its part, noted that the Madrid Conference (land for peace) would be the basis for the talks, suggesting that it was willing to withdraw to the international borders of 1948, not to the armistice lines as the Syrians want.
The difference between the two lines (40 square kilometres) may not be huge, but it is pivotal. Should Israel withdraw to the armistice lines, Syria would have shores on Lake Tiberias, which would give it access to its resources (water, fishing, tourism). A return to the international borders, however, would deprive Syria of all that. This was the main hurdle on which talks between the two sides foundered in the late 1990s. Back then, the Barak government refused to recognise Rabin's pledge to let Syria go back to the armistice lines.
Another dispute is water-related. Golan is rich with water resources which Israel is now using and wants to keep using in the future. The Israelis even demand a share in the water of the Yarmuk river, which flows into River Jordan without passing through Israeli land. They want the Yarmuk to be declared an international, rather than a Syrian, river in order to stake a claim to its water. However, the water of the Golan and the Yarmuk are just as important to Syria as its land.
Differences also persist concerning the disarmed zones that would act as a buffer between the two countries and the reciprocal monitoring stations. Israel wants large swathes of Syria (nearly 60 kilometres deep) to be disarmed in Syria, in return for only a few kilometres in Israel. Syria rejected that, though offering to disarm twice the distance Israel is willing to disarm, and calling for a third party, such as the Americans, to man the military observation points on both sides.
Other differences that surfaced in the past have to do with the time of withdrawal. Israel wants to pull out over 15 years, and Syria is offering five years at the most. Then there is the normalisation process, which Israel wants to start immediately while the Syrians see no need to rush. In addition, the two countries are not in agreement on the manner of establishing diplomatic, economic and tourism-related ties.
Activist Nasser Al-Ghazali, director of the Damascus Centre for Theoretical Studies and Civil Rights, told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "the antagonistic legacy Israel has left since its creation against the Syrians in particular and the Arab region in general makes us think that normalisation would not take root among the public." He added that, "due to the totalitarian nature of the Syrian regime, it is not going to put the peace process to a public referendum. Therefore, the agreement would represent the view of the leadership and not the people."
Another complication is that brought up by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who said that Syria's abandonment of all ties with Iran, Hizbullah and Palestinian resistance groups would be a condition for the talks. This, of course, is something Syria sees as an unacceptable assault on its sovereignty as well as interference in its internal affairs. Syria's ties with Iran are now so strategically vital that Damascus is reluctant, perhaps even incapable, of scaling them down. At any rate, the Syrians believe that such requests are unreasonable and that the Israelis have no right to bring them up in future negotiations.
During his visit to the region last month, former US president Jimmy Carter said that the Syrians and the Israelis had sorted out 85 per cent of their differences in earlier talks. Perhaps, but the remaining 15 per cent may prove to be the hardest to resolve.