One would need to be an incurable optimist to expect real progress from the indirect talks that Syria and Israel have begun in Ankara under Turkish mediation. The obstacles to peace between the two long-time adversaries are so formidable as to rule out any realistic possibility of a deal in the near or medium-term future.
Certainly, there can be no substantial movement while President George W. Bush remains in the White House. He has made it abundantly clear that he disapproves of Israeli-Syrian contacts and would prefer Israel to concentrate instead on the Palestinian track.
Bush detests the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad and has sought, by means of sanctions, intimidation and diplomatic pressure, to isolate it and reduce its regional influence, especially in Lebanon. The Syrians, in turn, have no confidence in, or liking for, the Bush administration, and are eagerly awaiting its replacement.
For reasons of his own, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has chosen to override American objections to his contacts with Syria — but there are limits to how far he can risk offending Washington.
An even more serious obstacle is the fierce opposition of a substantial slice of Israeli opinion — at least 60 per cent of the population according to the latest polls — to the idea of returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Yet, without a return of the Golan, Syria will never consent to peace.
Captured over 40 years ago in 1967, the Golan is considered by many Israelis an integral part of Israel. It has become a recreational area, where Israelis go to escape from the narrow confines of their country. It is a place to rediscover nature, ride horses, enjoy the spectacular landscape and drink wine from the local settler-owned winery. The Golan is also an important water source and a strategic asset. The Golan settler lobby, representing close to 20,000 Jewish settlers, is powerful and vociferous, and is totally opposed to withdrawal.
Few observers believe Olmert is sincere in wanting peace with Syria or is strong enough to deliver his part of any bargain reached. He does not have the political or the moral authority necessary to persuade a skeptical Israeli public that the price of peace with Syria is worth paying. His agreement to indirect talks with Damascus is widely seen, therefore, either as a ploy to distract attention from the allegations of corruption that now threaten his tenure of office, or as an attempt to pressure the Palestinians into concessions.
Israel has traditionally sought to play the Syrian track against the Palestinian track, and vice versa. By seeming to move forward with Syria, Olmert might hope to frighten the Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas into believing that he will be left to fend for himself alone against an all-powerful Israel.
Israel’s main leaders — Olmert himself, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni — make no secret of their prime motive in wanting peace with Syria: it is to sever Syria’s ties with Iran, seen as Israel’s most dangerous enemy, and with both Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
But this is as unrealistic as Syria asking Israel to sever its ties with the United States. Syria has had a strategic partnership with Iran for nearly 30 years, ever since the overthrow of the Shah and the emergence of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The Tehran-Damascus-Hizbullah axis forms the backbone of Syria’s foreign policy and the main challenge to U.S./Israeli hegemony over the region.
The Syrian counter-argument is that Israel should not seek to dictate Syria’s foreign relations, but should recognize that peace and normal good-neighbourly relations are worth having for their own sake. The Syrians add, however, that in a context of peace, they would be less dependent on Iran, while Hizbullah would revert to being a normal Lebanese political party, rather than an armed militia.
In Syrian eyes, a peace agreement must comprise two essential components: first, an Israeli undertaking to withdraw from the entire Golan down to the 4 June 1967 line, which Syria held immediately before the Six Day War; and secondly, an agreement that the security arrangements eventually negotiated between the two countries must be mutual, reciprocal, and balanced.
These security arrangements would comprise of demilitarized zones, areas of limited forces, and early warning or monitoring stations in the border region. Syria is insistent that Israel, already militarily far more powerful than Syria, must not seek to gain additional strategic advantages from these security arrangements.
The start of indirect talks between Syria and Israel will serve to lower tension in the troubled Middle East region. This, in itself, is a welcome development. But the gulf between the two countries is wide and deep, and it would be rash to expect it to be bridged any time soon.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of “The Struggle for Syria”; also, “Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East”; and “Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.” Copyright © 2008 Patrick Seale