Friday, 1 October 2010

The Road to Peace, via Damascus

Intifada Palestine
01. Oct, 2010

Bashar Assad, President of Syria,
By Sami Moubayed

In their first one-on-one since President Barack Obama came to power in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with her Syrian counterpart Walid Mouallem in New York last Sunday; they have previously spoken over the phone, in May 2009.

Mouallem needs no introduction within the upper echelons of power in the US. He served as ambassador throughout the 1990s at a time when Clinton was first lady; Bill Clinton was president.

Despite major shifts since in the career paths of both Mouallem and Clinton, everything remains hauntingly static in the Middle East. If Bill Clinton had ever taken work home, reviewing papers before going to sleep, for example, he would have probably complained to his wife that no progress was taking place in Middle East, despite his monumental efforts. Israel refused to give back the Golan Heights, in full, as the Syrians demanded, Palestinian statehood was not achieved, and no progress was being made on the future of Jerusalem or the right to return of Palestinian refugees. While Clinton sat across the table last Sunday, listening to Mouallem’s argument about peace, it must have seemed a case of deja vu. She has heard it all before and realizes that Syria’s position 15 years down the road has not changed.

Clinton stressed the need for “constructive dialogue” to “remove hurdles” in the Middle East. This cannot be done without support of the Syrians, she seemed to be telling Mouallem. During their earlier phone conversation, Clinton promised to develop a joint “road map” for improving bilateral relations between Damascus and Washington.

Shortly afterwards, Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, went to Syria and also met Mouallem. “It would be a mistake to think that they have changed their position. They will not cede a single centimeter of territory,” is how he characterized the visit.

Clinton tried talking the Syrians into entering direct peace negotiations with the Israelis, building on an argument started in Damascus this month by Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell.

A Syrian-Israeli dialogue, Mitchell said, would complement rather than obstruct, Palestinian-Israeli talks, which kicked-off under American auspices on September 2. Syria’s position vis-a-vis the Palestinian talks had not been encouraging, to say the least.

Damascus believes that no peace is possible as long as Israeli settlements continue to mushroom in the West Bank, and while Gaza remains under an Israeli siege. Pre-set terms of reference need to be agreed on, is the message from the Syrian capital, and all Palestinians must sign off on these talks. This is in reference to Hamas, since the talks being monopolized by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Movement disregard other Palestinian factions.

Despite its long list of objections, Syria has not attempted to bring down the talks. Damascus has to the contrary remained silent, waiting to see what level of minimal progress Abbas reaches with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It seems clear from the silence of men like exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in September that Hamas and Syria are giving Abbas enough rope to hang himself. They have realized that the talks were doomed to failure from day one.

Despite these very low expectations, they do not want to take the blame for the talks’ collapse, waiting to let the world realize that Netanyahu is more interested in a peace process – as the Syrians see it – than a peace treaty with the Palestinians. The Israel Defense Forces raid on the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza on Tuesday night, shortly after Israel announced it would not extend a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, proved the Syrians right.

While Israel’s position did not come as a surprise to the Syrians and Hamas, many in the international community were seemingly shocked by the continuation of settlement building. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon reminded Israel on Monday that the construction of new settlements was illegal and that he was “disappointed” by Netanyahu’s refusal to extend the freeze in the West Bank.

Ban’s disappointed echoed that of the US, Turkey, France and Great Britain. US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley added “we are disappointed”, while French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner insisted, “Colonization must stop.”

Having said that, the 10-month freeze on settlements was far from ideal to start with since it did not halt construction of projects already past the drawing board, nor the building of synagogues or settlements around Jerusalem. By no means did it live up to Obama’s Cairo speech in the summer of 2009, where he came close to saying, “Read my lips; no new settlements.”

By the time she sat down with Mouallem on Sunday, Clinton probably knew that Israel was not going to extend its freeze on settlements in the West Bank. This must have made her aware of where things really stood, Palestinian-Israeli peace remains nowhere close to being achievable.

A speedy collapse of the talks would embarrass Obama, making him look silly, to say the least, before Middle East leaders and the world at large. This is one of the reasons why Clinton called for a meeting with the Syrians – to salvage Obama’s image ahead of upcoming congressional elections in November, in which the Democratic Party is expected to lose.

According to Martin Indyk’s autobiography, Innocents Abroad, the Clinton team in the 1990s opted for a “Syria first” strategy, believing that peace with Damascus was easier and more pressing for the Israelis – and Americans – than peace with the Palestinians. After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Bill Clinton famously sat down with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the Map Room in the White House and told him, with a completely straight face, that the US had orchestrated Palestinian-Israeli peace in order to concentrate on a peace deal with Syria.

If this is what Hillary Clinton had in mind last weekend, she surely must understand that peace with Syria – promising as it may sound – is by no means easy. All of the critical issues that dominated her husband’s agenda in the 1990s continue to be a high priority on the foreign policy priority list of the Syrians, until this very day.

Can Netanyahu, who refused to budge on the settlement freeze in the West Bank, accept restoration of the Golan Heights in full to the Syrians and simultaneously, lift the siege of Gaza? The Syrians, it must be noted, will not venture into a separate peace with the Israelis while settlements continue in the West Bank, and while Gaza remains a human cage to 1.5 million Palestinians.

What collapsed Palestinian-Israeli talks this week will surely torpedo negotiations with the Syrians or Lebanese, just as it did when the war on Gaza began in December 2008. It effectively keeps the Middle East in a circle of violence – ironically, on the tenth anniversary of the Palestinian uprising, known as the intifada, which broke out on September 28, 2000.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. This article appeared in Asia Times on September 30, 2010 entitled, “US sees Damascene route to Middle East peace.”

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian

No comments: