Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
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Why is peace floundering?

By Osama El-Ghazali Harb *

Osama El-Ghazali HarbThe process of reaching a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict is currently passing through its most difficult phase. This applies to both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks as well as the issues that are under consideration within the framework of the multilateral negotiations. Nonetheless, the Syrian track is of a sensitivity and complexity that cannot be ignored.

The particular nature of the Israeli-Syrian track can only be understood within the broader historical context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Put otherwise, the significance of a settlement between Israel and Syria transcends the regional or geographical dimension of completing the series of Arab accords with Israel (the bilateral accords with Egypt, Jordan, Palestine), given that it will constitute the most important guarantee for a settlement with Lebanon. It also transcends the temporal dimension of the last phase of the peace process since it began with President Sadat's visit to Israel in 1977. A settlement between Syria and Israel means far more than any preceding steps. It means that, from the historical perspective of the conflict, the "Arabs" have accepted the existence of Israel and committed themselves to peaceful coexistence, at least for the foreseeable future.

This truth, more than anything else, explains why the Syrian track was left to the end, why it is so laden with psychological and emotive obstacles, and why reaching an agreement over the so-called "confidence-building" measures has been so much more difficult than agreeing over tangible factors like the extent of Israeli withdrawal from occupied land, delineating borders and determining access to water resources.

Syria, which has now embarked on an extremely arduous negotiating process with Israel, with all the haggling and mutual pressure this entails, has always held itself to be the "heart of pan-Arabism," the focal point for pan-Arab nationalist feelings, not to mention the centre of Greater Syria or the Levant. It was in this pan-Arab/Greater Syrian mantle that Syria fought alongside Egypt in the October 1973 War, and called for the expulsion of Egypt from the Arab fold following the Camp David accord. This, too, was the guise in which Syria always conferred upon itself the right to intervene directly on behalf of the Palestinians, to the point of expressing strong reservations over the mechanisms and substance of their (separate) accords with the Israelis.

Syrian policy, however -- which, perhaps since the 1920s, has always been caught between higher Arab nationalist aspirations or ideals and the demands of reality -- has once again, since the late 1990s, found itself compelled to respond to immediate pressures and challenges and, indeed, to opportunities that do not present themselves often.

First, it must deal with the US's intention to reach a final settlement in the region before the end of Clinton's last term. The US has maintained a persistent presence, both open and covert, in all channels of communication and on all negotiating tracks, especially the Syrian track, with President Clinton putting his personal influence to work on many occasions. This factor is difficult for Syria to ignore or downplay, particularly because, during the forthcoming presidential elections and the early part of the next incumbent's term, US politicians will have other priorities.

Second, the Israeli prime minister has pledged to withdraw from Lebanon by June this year, a vow prompted by the heavy toll the Lebanese resistance has exacted from the Israeli army, and by consequent pressure from Israeli public opinion. Were this withdrawal to occur while conditions in the area remain unchanged, it could have dangerous ramifications for Syria, and perhaps for the whole region, since any activity from the Islamic resistance in southern Lebanon implies Syrian support or approval.

Third, certain domestic considerations in Syria encourage an adaptation to reality. President Assad's age and precarious health have made the question of his successor particularly urgent. Since it is likely that his son, Bashar, will inherit the presidency, Assad has been especially keen on reaching a settlement himself, thereby sparing his successor enormous difficulties, even if he did suggest to Clinton during their recent meeting in Geneva that he was prepared to leave the settlement process to future generations.

There are many other reasons why Assad's wait-and-see strategy has lost much of its appeal. Syria's primary source of international support -- the Soviet Union -- no longer exists. Even if Russia remains capable of furnishing the powerful Syrian army with expertise and ammunition, that support carries nothing like the former moral and political weight of the Soviet Union. Nor will the quality of Russian armaments be likely to keep pace with the armaments Israel obtains.

Within the Middle East, the special relation that Syria has striven to maintain with Iran, even against Iraq, is sure to be affected by developments inside the Islamic Republic. These include both the declining influence of "revolutionary forces" and US-Iranian rapprochement, along with other moderating trends emerging in Iranian foreign policy in general.

Simultaneously, Syria must face tension with Turkey to the north, which recently escalated to the verge of armed confrontation because of Syria's support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party. The prospect of a military engagement was only defused through the speedy and responsible initiative of President Mubarak, who realised the dangers inherent in such a confrontation.

Inside Syria, the accelerating pace of economic reform has also made it imperative to ensure a reasonable level of stability and security, which involves establishing solid international relations with the world's major economic powers. Foremost among these, of course, is the US, which certainly articulates economic support upon the realisation of peace.

In spite of all these obstacles, however, as well as the current stalemate in these difficult negotiations, the road already travelled is far longer than that which lies ahead. Both sides are now convinced that full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan is an essential prerequisite for a final accord, even if some differences remain over the final borders. On this issue, Israel is exploiting the discrepancy between the international boundary as defined by the Lausanne agreement of 1923 and the border as it stood on 4 June 1967. The problem is intimately connected to the location of Lake Tiberius and, therefore, to rights to the waters of this lake and the problem of access to water resources in the region in general, which in turn also involves Turkey.

Israel and Syria have also agreed upon the security arrangements that Israel has been pushing for. These include such matters as the depth of the demilitarised zones on each side of the border, the reduction in the size of Syrian forces and the presence of early warning stations.

There remains a third issue, which is Israel's demand for full normalisation. Syria insists that full normalisation should be an outcome of its agreement with Israel, not one of the preconditions. This point brings us back to the earlier point of building confidence between both sides. While the Israelis see normalisation as a means of convincing the Israeli public that Syria is truly committed to peace and, consequently, of overcoming the fears of those opposed to withdrawal from the Golan, the Syrians perceive, correctly, that it is impossible to undertake constructive and cooperative relations with Israel without an effective change in the status quo on the ground.

In a nutshell, the considerable progress that has been made towards an agreement is still obstructed by a lack of confidence, or what President Sadat once termed "the psychological barrier."


* The writer is editor-in-chief of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawlia (International Politics), issued by Al-Ahram, and a member of the Shura Council.

 

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