Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
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News analysis:

The Cairo connection

By Galal Nassar

Syrian Prime Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa's visit to Cairo this week did much to restore normalcy to Egyptian-Syrian relations, reported over the past few weeks to have been strained by differing points of view -- if not fundamental differences -- over many issues related to the Middle East peace process.

Cairo and Damascus have always been the two front runners in war and peace in the region. Perhaps the familiar slogan, "There can be no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria," best expresses the role each of these countries played in furthering the interests of stability in the region over the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, Egypt wants anything but war and Syria wants an unconditional peace that offers no less than that obtained by the late Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat.

In spite of the strong relations between the Egyptian and Syrian people and their leaderships, their respective policies and national interests are not always compatible, but then this has always applied even to those nations that have had even the overwhelming cause to unite their forces within the context of a strategic alliance.

The recent differences with Syria reached a peak during the Arab Foreign Ministers meeting in Beirut last month, held in the Lebanese capital as a demonstration of solidarity with Lebanon following the Israeli bombardment of civilian targets in the vicinity of Beirut. All participants, Egypt and Syria included, agreed on the need to condemn the Israeli aggression and to explore effective ways to bring it to an end. Differences that arose were over the means to do this.

Egypt is bound by a peace agreement with Israel, although its provisions do not conflict with the priorities of Arab solidarity. At the time of the Beirut meeting, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was preparing to undertake a visit to the US in order to explore ways of pushing the peace process forward. Egypt, moreover, is the only Arab country linked by open relations with all parties in the Middle East conflict and its international sponsors.

Syria, not bound by such links and commitments, pushed for issuing resolutions that may have served Syrian purposes, but that would have greatly hampered Egypt's manoeuvrability. Thus, Syria called for a halt to normalisation and the severing of relations with Israel along with similar actions that Egypt believed would only lead to a breakdown in communications, with the consequent threat of uncontrolled regional tension which neither Egypt nor Syria want.

Compounding the situation is Syria's fear of Egypt's growing influence in Lebanon, a development that has indeed occurred and is supported by various political and intellectual forces in Lebanon, notable among which is the influential Lebanese daily, Al-Nahar. This, moreover, is consistent with Egypt's desire to play a greater practical role in all phases before and after the Israeli withdrawal. President Mubarak's visit to Lebanon and Egypt's assistance in rebuilding the power stations destroyed by the Israeli raid could be said to have inaugurated this policy.

Prior to this visit and afterwards, there were indications that Syria and other Arab and non-Arab parties were acting in a manner that would marginalise the Egyptian role on the Israeli-Syrian/Lebanese track. Syria moved to improve its relations with Jordan, which it perceives as an alternative channel of communication with both the US and Israel. There was thus a spate of intensive official and unofficial meetings between Amman and Damascus, relations between which had been extremely tense until the death of King Hussein.

If the new and close relations between President Hafez Al-Assad's son and likely successor, Bashar, and Jordan's King Abdullah were instrumental in bringing about the recent rapprochement, the Jordanian conduit nevertheless failed to prove as effective as Syria had hoped. As a result, Damascus turned to Riyadh in the hopes of tapping the prospects offered by the Saudi Arabian capital's close relations with Washington. This move proved rewarding for Damascus. According to Al-Ahram Weekly sources in the Syrian capital, Saudi Arabia was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Geneva summit meeting between US President Bill Clinton and President Al-Assad to the extent that a highly placed Saudi official, presumed to be Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, is said to have made three secret visits to Damascus for that purpose.

The failure of the Geneva summit, coming as it did after the success of the Mubarak-Clinton summit in Washington, accounted in no small measure for Syria's move to resume sending friendly messages to Cairo and for President Mubarak's picture to appear prominently next to that of President Al-Assad in the official Syrian newspapers following a congratulatory phone call by the latter to Mubarak in the wake of the Washington summit. Highlighting the renewal of amicable communications was Al-Sharaa's visit to Cairo this week, restoring the relations between the two countries to their former warmth and reopening a the way for Egypt to play a significant role in helping Syria bring about the resumption of the Syrian-Israeli track of the peace process.

Coordination between Damascus and Cairo was made more urgent by Israel's attempt to separate the Syrian and Lebanese tracks through its decision to unilaterally withdraw from south Lebanon -- a move that would effectively neutralise Syria's Lebanese bargaining cards. According to sources in both Damascus and Cairo, Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon would render void the powerful Hizbullah card. Meanwhile Syria's other strong card, its influence in the Palestinian refugee camps, would be weakened by giving the question of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon high priority in Israeli-Palestinian talks. If, for some reason, those talks were delayed, pressure will be exerted on Arafat to maintain calm among the refugees through Fatah and its military organisations which have in past months regained control over most of the refugee camps in southern Lebanon.

Syria is also fully aware that the US will exert inordinate pressure -- including economic pressure -- to compel it to sign an agreement with Israel. At the same time, it knows that nothing will compel the US to force Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights and, specifically, Lake Tiberius, from which Israel derives 25 per cent of its water needs. This situation might help to explain Al-Sharaa's statement in a meeting with the editors-in-chief of national Egyptian newspapers during his recent visit that land is not negotiable, but water is, in accordance with international law.

In fact, according to Al-Ahram Weekly sources, Clinton had strongly hinted to Syria that it should forget about regaining its water rights. Allegedly, Clinton told the Syrians that they have survived for many years without water from Lake Tiberius, which is vital for the Israelis. He is said to have also promised the Syrians that the US would ensure their water needs through Turkey.

More than ever, Damascus realises that Cairo provides the best channel to reactivate the Syrian track and that Egypt is both eager and uniquely suited to fulfill that role. For its part, Cairo has laid the groundwork, through meetings and consultations between President Mubarak and the Egyptian negotiating team, the National Security Council and Egypt's ambassadors in Washington and Tel Aviv, in order to assess the various positions with regard to resuming negotiations on the Syrian track and adding further impetus to the Palestinian track. In this capacity, it has also been able to convey Syrian messages to various parties, lending its full backing to Syria's demands.

The Mubarak-Barak talks last Monday, in anticipation of the results of Barak's visit to Washington, marked Egypt's first step in pursuing this diplomacy. It now remains to be seen whether Barak's visit to Washington will bring the negotiating parties back to the table, or whether negotiations will be deferred until after the US elections.

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