Jerusalem Post- 31/07/2008
A fourth round of indirect talks between Syrian and Israeli representatives was concluded in Istanbul this week and as the Turkish mediators kept themselves in shape conveying messages between the hotel rooms of the two countries’ delegations, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was keen to stress the urgency of the hour. The time was approaching, the prime minister said, when gestures would no longer be enough. Rather, it would soon be time for the Syrians to make their choice between the “Iranian grip” and their partnership in the “axis of evil,” and rejoining the “family of nations” in pursuit of peace and “economic development.” Actions and statements from Syria and its allies, however, convey a distinctly less pressing sense of the negotiations.
More indirect contacts have been tentatively scheduled for later this month, but for the Syrians, the already considerable benefits derived from the very act of talking are more important than the talks themselves. Damascus’s allies in Iran have also given no sign of real concern that their most important Arab allies are about to jump ship. Damascus’s main aim in entering the talks was to use them as a means to rebuild relations with the US and other Western powers, in particular France. These reached a nadir in recent years, most importantly because of Syrian subversion in Lebanon, and suspicions of Damascus’s involvement in the murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and a string of subsequent political murders in that country. Syria is determined to prevent the functioning of the international tribunal into the Hariri murder.
The talks with Israel are intended to demonstrate Syria’s willingness to conform with Western hopes for a peace breakthrough in the region. They are part of a sort of “carrot and stick” strategy pursued by Syria, whereby its clients – for example Hizbullah – make tangible gains through the brute employment of political violence. Once it has been established that Syria and its friends cannot be ignored, Damascus then sets out to reap diplomatic gains by offering a cautious hand of reconciliation. But this hand of reconciliation is intended to add a layer to the gains achieved through violence – not to bargain them away. This strategy has served Syria well in the past. It has been likened to an arsonist who offers his service to the fire brigade. With regard to Syria’s contact with Israel, the terms have been clear from the outset. Damascus is in no hurry. Syrian officials, speaking in Arabic, have made clear that they believe the negotiations would likely take between one and three years for completion, and that no summit meeting would be likely in the foreseeable future. The Syrians have also made clear that Damascus’s long-standing alliance with Iran is not a subject of discussion in the talks, which are concerned with regaining the Golan Heights by Syria only.
As Samir Taqi, the Syrian “independent researcher” who handled the initial contacts preceding the negotiations put it, “It would be naive to think Syria will neglect or abandon its strategic alliances that do not stem from the Arab-Israeli conflict.” So far, the strategy seems to be paying dividends. For the cost of the flight tickets and hotel rooms in Istanbul, Assad has ended Syria’s isolation. He and his wife found themselves feted in Paris in early July where Syria was welcomed into French President Sarkozy’s new Mediterranean Forum. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem beamed after his meetings with French officials that the Hariri tribunal had not even been mentioned. The reception in Washington has been more cautious, of course. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welsh made it clear that he was not prepared to meet with Syrian official Riad Daoudi as part of talks with an “unofficial” Syrian delegation in the US last week. But here, given Syria’s projected time frame for negotiations with Israel, it is evident that Damascus is looking beyond its foes in the Bush Administration. Assad evidently expects a more friendly face in the White House by early 2009, and this offers a further reason for Syria’s lack of haste.
With all this rapprochement going on, the alliance with Iran seems safe and sound. Muallem was in Teheran this week, and met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The two reconfirmed what Ahmedinejad called their “regional cooperation,” and the Iranian president lauded the foiling of “the Zionist regime” and America’s plans in Lebanon and Syria. Thus, the act of talking in Istanbul seems a worthy investment. But it is the side benefits of the conversation which interests Damascus. This was perhaps most eloquently summed up yesterday on the Web site of the official Syrian newspaper Tishreen’s. While the regional newspaper Sharq al-Awsat devoted two editorials this week to dissecting the negotiations, on the same day that the talks resumed, Tishreen’s homepage failed even to acknowledge that they were taking place. Instead, the lead story on its Web site informed readers that “his excellency President Bashar Assad met with a delegation of American churchmen yesterday. In the meeting, we are told, his excellency stressed the importance of dialogue between nations.” There could be few more eloquent demonstrations of Syrian intentions. When it comes to negotiating with Israel, Assad is keen to take the dowry, while showing little enthusiasm for embracing the bride.