A deafening silence
Syrian officials have not commented on the resumption of direct talks between the Palestinians and Israel, but nor have they directly criticised them, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
Direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel were launched on 2 September, with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan attending a ceremony at the White House in Washington to mark the occasion. Although two weeks have now passed since the talks started, Syria has yet to express an opinion on them. However, while no senior Syrian official has made any public comment, the Syrian media has launched a campaign to attack the negotiations, predicting their failure in advance.
The official silence from Damascus continues to be deafening. Neither Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim, nor presidential political adviser Buthaina Shaaban, nor Information Minister Mohsen Bilal have commented on the talks, though all three are known for their love of the media and are usually more than willing to comment about events in the region and around the world.
Syria's only opinion on the negotiations was expressed by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who made brief remarks that did not express Syria's position with regard to the principle of the negotiations.
During a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, who had himself just returned from Washington, Al-Assad noted the importance of allowing all the representatives of the Palestinian people to participate in talks pertaining to the Palestinian cause. He also underscored the importance of Palestinian reconciliation and expressed Syria's wish to see a just and comprehensive peace.
Al-Assad added that Israel's policies and settlement building in the Occupied Territories continued to represent a real obstacle to peace.
Yet, while Damascus has been officially holding its tongue, there has been daily condemnation of the talks and the principal parties -- the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel -- in the country's state-owned media.
This has called on the Arab League to withdraw its backing from the PA for restarting direct negotiations with Israel. It has described the talks as a "forced marriage" and "a means of negating the Palestinian cause". These are "empty negotiations", the official Syrian media has said, which only show the PA's "eagerness".
It has also emphasised that the US and Israel are "fooling the Arabs" in restarting direct negotiations, and that rejecting the negotiations would be "an act of resistance" that could be a means of "circumventing the negotiation process".
Some in Syrian official circles appear to believe that the silence from Damascus is a valid position to take because the negotiations are "an internal Palestinian issue", the first time that Syrian officials have used this term for the Arab- Israeli conflict.
However, three successive statements may help to solve at least part of the riddle of Syria's silence.
According to US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, the US is seeking a comprehensive peace that will include the Lebanese and Syrian tracks, though Washington believes that this is a hard road to take and that the problems and challenges remain immense.
Meanwhile, US special envoy for Middle East George Mitchell has stated that the US intends to revive peace talks between Israel and Syria and Lebanon once negotiations conclude on the Palestinian-Israeli track.
Finally, Israeli deputy prime minister and minister of defence Ehud Barak has expressed his optimism about peace in the Middle East, saying that "at the right moment" regional peace will be reached with Syria and Lebanon.
The statements by the US officials seem especially to be aimed at reassuring Damascus and Beirut that their turn in the peace process will come once Washington has reached the finish line on the Palestinian-Israeli track.
The statements could also be part of an attempt to coerce Damascus and Beirut into supporting direct talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, because success there would mean Washington would be free to make progress on the other tracks with Lebanon and Syria.
Some observers believe that it would not have been possible for the US assistant-secretary of state and peace envoy to have made such statements without there having been a previous understanding between the Syrians and Israelis on the issue. Such an understanding would involve not only these statements, but also the overall roadmap for Syrian- Israeli negotiations.
Meanwhile, French presidential peace envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran was in Damascus on Monday to explore prospects on the Syrian-Israeli track and assist in moving it forward by helping to persuade both sides to begin dialogue.
During his visit, Cousseran highlighted France's support for the stalled peace process between Syria and Israel, suggesting ways in which it might be reactivated in cooperation with relevant parties in the region and around the world.
He reminded Damascus of Washington's central role in the talks, which are being tentatively sponsored by Turkey before moving under the direct auspices of the US.
For his part, Mitchell will also be visiting Syria to brief the country's leadership about the direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. He will also assure Damascus of Washington's commitment to making progress on the Syrian-Israeli track, in order to achieve a comprehensive peace in the region.
Asked about Syria's position regarding US ideas pertaining to restarting direct negotiations between Syria and Israel, Fayez Sayegh, former director of Syrian Television and the official Syrian News Agency, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "on principle, this is unlikely. There will be no direct talks in the near future, because relaunching dialogue requires specific conditions, at the minimum those that were in place when the talks stopped. The atmosphere was destroyed by Israel when it attacked Gaza."
"Israel's leaders demonstrate daily that they are not interested in the peace process," Sayegh said. "Meanwhile, the US is only putting pressure on the Arab parties. It is pressuring the Palestinians without any promising signs from Israel. The current negotiations are a waste of time. For Syria, the matter requires US credibility, which is currently lacking."
Talks between Syria and Israel are likely to be more complicated than those that have previously taken place between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, concluding in the Camp David and Wadi Araba accords. The conflict on the Syrian- Israeli track runs deeper, but peace between the two sides is not impossible if it can be taken out of the political game that blocks the path to agreement.
Peace for the leadership of both countries remains a strategic goal, despite differences over the details. If the US were to sponsor the negotiations, its credibility would be restored and it might be able to bridge the two sides' differences to arrive at a compromise acceptable to both parties.
Yet, thus far Syria does not know whether such a peace would be compatible with US plans in the region, whether in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq or Iran.
Meanwhile, Syria continues to oscillate between optimism and pessimism about US promises. The US has thus far publicly refused to sponsor direct peace talks between Syria and Israel, and has been undermining Turkish mediation efforts, which ground to a halt at the beginning of last year when Israel launched its war on Gaza.
In the background, Washington is putting pressure on the Palestinians in the on-going talks with Israel and is letting Israel do as it pleases, presenting only assurances without guarantees to Syria and other Arab countries.
The silence in Damascus over the Palestinian-Israeli talks is unusual, and it has opened the door to speculation. Yet, thus far the message from Washington to Damascus has been clear: the peace process between the Palestinians and Israel is a priority, and the Palestinian-Israeli track is more important for US interests, postponing the Syrian track until further notice.