The Road from Damascus

Now that a disengagement agreement has been signed, attention in Washington will surely be distracted from the relations between Syria and Israel. Yet it is on the relations between the two countries that peace in the Middle East may depend.

Why Syria should be so important may on its face seem difficult to understand until we realize that the Syrian-Israeli negotiations lie at the point of greatest strain between Israel and the four Arab principals in the current round of conflict. These are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and the Palestinians. In order to reach peace Israel and the US must deal with each of them in turn; for while King Faisal and the Palestinian commandos have little in common, they are bound together by their relations to the other two powers. And strangely enough, the relations among each of the principals are similar in the sense that Egypt’s interests are just about as important to Saudi Arabia as Syria’s are to Egypt and the Palestinians’ to Syria. Syria, for example, cannot publicly refuse to permit commando raids from her territory any more than Egypt could publicly urge Syria to accept the disengagement agreement. But both countries could make their influence felt privately.

The point could be reached where negotiations are impossible. There is no compromise between the maximum demands of the Israelis and the Palestinians, unless two floors were built over the same small piece of earth. Of course, concessions are possible between peoples. But if there is to be a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it must have the backing of all three Arab states. And negotiations between Israel and Syria will be crucial in deciding whether or not such a settlement can be had.

Damascus, May, 1974

For Americans Syria has always been a largely unknown quantity. Unable to visit there in recent years, we have tended to see it from an Israeli point of view. Damascus, even the looks of the city, is a surprise. When I arrived in early May only the crowds of soldiers in the streets visibly reminded me there was a war on twenty-five miles away. The archways over the road from Beirut announced an international fair to be held later this summer. The civilian officials I met did not engage in polemics. Many of them seemed disappointed I had not flouted their visa restrictions and gone to Israel—they always used that word—before coming to Damascus. They were curious about Israel and, it seemed to me, somewhat uncertain. Two of them compared Rabin favorably with Dayan, and also saw some hope in the fact that Rabin would be the first Israeli prime minister to be born in the Middle East.

A visitor’s impressions of course cannot provide conclusive evidence about Syrian attitudes to war and peace, but if one also considers the political and economic changes that have recently taken place, Syria now seems closer to peace than it has at any time during the last decade.


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