Sunday 13 December 2009

Is Syria Getting Serious?

The past week has contained a number of announcements which are significant to politics in the Middle East. While these events were all reported in the international press, they seem to have been downplayed for reasons that are not easy to explain. Perhaps the Copenhagen summit was stealing all the main headlines, or maybe the announcements were timed in such a way so as not to attract too much attention.

The first event was on Sunday when it was announced that Israel would withdraw from the northern part of the village of Ghajar. The on and off Israeli presence in northern Ghajar has been cited as an obstacle to peace between Israel and its neighbours for many years. Ghajar was captured by Israel in 1967. Ghajar's residents were Syrian and members of the minority Alawite sect which is also the sect to which the ruling Assad family belongs. In 1981, the Golan Heights was formally annexed by the Israeli Knesset and many of the village's residents accepted Israeli citizenship. In 2000 when the UN demarcated the border, the border line split the village in two with the northern half of Ghajar allocated to Lebanese control while the southern half remained with Israel. In the 2006 Lebanon War, Israel recaptured the northern part of Ghajar thereby reuniting the village. In terms of the UN resolution that ended the war, Israel is obliged to withdraw from northern Ghajar.

Ghajar, together with nearby Shaba Farms, is claimed by the Lebanese government to form part of Lebanese sovereign territory. This is despite the fact that this area was clearly captured from Syria during the Six Day War. Although it seems illogical to divide the village again and the residents of the village have been protesting against an Israeli withdrawal, such an action on Israel's part would clearly be seen as a concession to its Arab neighbours. Unilateral actions, while they do sometimes happen, are highly unusual in the Middle East. They are more often than not part of orchestrated actions which make up some sort of deal or agreement.

It was only one day later, on Monday, that prime minister Netanyahu announced to the Knesset that Syria has agreed to give up its pre-condition to resuming peace talks with Israel. Up to now, Syria has always demanded that Israel agrees to give up the Golan Heights before it was prepared to enter into peace talks. This pre-condition has been relinquished, and this seemingly paves the way for peace talks to resume. The avenue for this message has been a party that has not previously been involved in the Israel-Syria peace track. It was French president Nicolas Sarkozy who advised PM Netanyahu of the change to the Syrian position. Previous peace discussions, which were reported to have progressed particularly in 2000 and 2006, were facilitated by the Americans or the Turks. It was reported that the previous negotiations secured Israel all water rights to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) , and also agreed on the security arrangements for both countries via an early warning system in the Golan. In addition, it was proposed that most of the Golan Heights would be a "peace park" open to visitors from both Syria and Israel.

For the Israelis, the above-mentioned arrangements might well be enough to exchange for a peace agreement. The Syrians have a more complex issue to address - that of national pride. The Syrian pride was severely dented in 1967 when Israel captured the Golan Heights. In particular, President Hafez El-Assad suffered a public relations catastrophe. Being of the minority Alawite sect, Assad was ever conscious of the need to keep the Sunni majority happy and in support of the presidential family. Until his dying day, Assad promised the people of Syria that the Golan would be returned to them. His son, President Bashar El-Assad has inherited the challenge of bringing back the Golan, although he seems to have been less forceful about promising this to his people.

The next significant event occurred two days later on Wednesday. A law was passed very quickly through the Knesset requiring that a national referendum be held before the government can agree to cede any territory as part of a peace treaty. This effectively means that Netanyahu may come to an agreement with Assad regarding the Golan, but it will not be binding unless approved by a national referendum. I believe that this is a tremendously smart move on Netanyahu's part. Firstly, he can never be accused of acting against the will of the people in giving up the Golan. Such a move will only be allowed if approved in the referendum. Secondly, he will undoubtedly use the referendum in all negotiations with the Syrians in an attempt to extract more from such a deal. One can almost hear him saying that he requires a more attractive deal from the Syrians in order to be able to pass the deal through a national referendum. The referendum will act as a safety net to save Bibi any responsibility if a deal goes wrong. After all, it will have been approved by the Israeli people.

Israel's biggest problem with Syria these days has little to do with the Golan Heights. Rather, it is the ongoing Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. These two organisations are waging constant war on Israel's northern border and on its border with Gaza. If Syria was to agree to cease its support for these two terror organisations, there is no doubt that Israel's safety would be significantly enhanced, and such an agreement would be worth a great deal to Israel.

It is difficult to judge whether Syria is more serious about peace this time, although we certainly hope that this is the case. Perhaps Bashar Assad feels less responsible for the loss of the Golan, therefore less obliged to return it to Syria in the way that his father felt. Assad junior, however, has continued to support the terror organisations mentioned above and even increased his support for them. Any possibility of getting him to step away from this support and to distance himself from the terror regime in Iran would be worthy of serious consideration by the Israeli public in a referendum.

In the meantime, the three seemingly unrelated events seem very closely connected to me. In a region where there is nothing for nothing, I have to conclude that these steps are cogs in the machinery that may progress the Syrian peace track. I certainly hope so.

No comments: