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The View from Damascus,’ cont’d.

To the Editors:

I would like to thank Amos Elon [Letters, July 20, NYR] for correcting a mistake I made in my article “The View from Damascus” [NYR, June 15] in claiming that the Arab-Israeli Copenhagen conference never met. His fuller explanation of the origins and purposes of the Egyptian-Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian “Copenhagen initiative” is informative and to the point.

I cannot help noticing, in Moshe Ma’oz’s and Itmar Rabinovich’s letters [NYR, July 20], the persistent tendency of many eminent Israeli spokespersons and representatives to overpsychologize their country’s politics with regard to the Arab world in general and Syria in particular. This is evident, first, in Ma’oz’s continuing nostalgia for President Sadat’s exaggerated and reductive (but at the time useful and self-serving) claim that 70 percent of the Arab- Israeli conflict had stemmed from the “psychological barrier” between Arabs and Jews. It is also evident in Rabinovich’s repeated insistence that peace with Syria somehow hinges on certain Syrian acts of “public diplomacy” that would placate the neuroses of “Israel’s collective psyche.”

In my view, the prospects for peace with Syria will improve the sooner the Israeli side overcomes its fixation on Sadat and leaves behind its unrealistic attachment to the “charismatic” moment of the Egyptian visit to Jerusalem, and returns soberly to “normal” politics among states. I have no doubt that “Syria’s collective psyche” is, for its part, incapable of producing “charismatic” and paradigm-shifting gestures in the Sadat mode.

When we consider that Israel craves normalization with the Arabs and with Syria in particular, a return to “normal” politics becomes doubly important for the achievement of a peace agreement. At the same time, it would be most helpful to all concerned if the Israeli side stops painting the idea of normalization, and the process to achieve it, in such bright colors. The “normal” in Middle Eastern politics and Arab affairs is, after all, quite somber.

To get a glimpse of the “norm” in this case all you have to do is look at the history of the relations between Syria and Turkey, Syria and Iraq, Iraq and Iran, Morocco and Algeria, and so on. For example, it is “normal” for Syrian-Turkish relations to swing violently and unpredictably between cold-blooded ostracism and outright threats of war (as in Turkey’s threats concerning the Kurdish PKK’s alleged relations with Syria) and highfalutin expressions of warm friendship, cooperation, and exchanges of state visitors at high levels. In 1978-1979, Syrian-Iraqi relations suddenly veered in the direction of unifying not only the two ruling Ba’ath parties, but the two states as well. That much-trumpeted pan-Arabist collaboration flaunted, at the time, a very high-profile visit by President Asad to Baghdad and the unveiling of a mutually agreed-on Charter of Nationalist Action. Soon after, and no less suddenly, relations between the two states reverted to the usual condition of bitter enmity, destructive rivalry, total boycott, and mutual vilification.

So observers of the peace process in Damascus ask, why should Syria’s relations with Israel be any more “normal” than, say, its relations with Turkey or Iraq? They also wonder whether optimistic Israeli discussions on normalization and its rewards are genuinely aware of the actual meaning of “normalcy” in the region.

Certainly it is gratifying that, in spite of the recent upsets and reversals, all three distinguished Israeli commentators on my article sent an upbeat message in their letters concerning the prospects of an Israeli- Syrian peace agreement. And those prospects are now reinforced by the accession to power in Damascus of Dr. Bashar al-Asad, the son of the recently deceased president of the country.

The most commonly asked question at present is whether in dealing with Israel the new, young president can settle for less than his father’s commitments concerning an acceptable price for making peace and, in particular, the retrieval of the Golan Heights. But then, exactly to what did the father commit Syria?

The answer is to be inferred from (a)the draft peace treaty submitted by the Clinton administration to Prime Minister Barak and Syria’s minister of foreign affairs, Farouk al-Shara’, at the end of their Shepherdstown negotiations in January of this year1 ; and (b) the failed Clinton-Asad summit meeting in Geneva last March.

According to the draft treaty, Syria showed unprecedented flexibility in dealing with Israel’s primary demands and concerns. For the first time, Syria openly admitted that the June 4, 1967, lines are adjustable military lines and not borders. Or, as Ha’aretz commented in introducing the text of the draft treaty: “According to the American document, there is no argument between Israel and Syria over the fact that no clear boundary line exists between the two countries.” The Syrian position now accepted as “the location of the boundary” is to be commonly agreed upon by the two sides as “based on the June 4, 1967 line”2 and no more.

In the first partial leak of the contents of the draft treaty made to the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat on January 9, 2000, Syria made clear that “it does not object to taking into consideration the topographical nature of the terrain on each side of the border” when fixing the boundary line. This pretty much granted the Israeli position (as stated in the Al-Hayat leak), to the effect that “the June 4 line is not a border, but the lines marking the concentration of the armed forces of the two sides on the eve of the war.” It seemed to me then that this new adjustability of the June 4 line would resolve in favor of Israel the question of which nation had sovereignty over the northeastern corner of Lake Tiberias.

The second major Israeli concern that Syria accommodated at Shepherdstown was that there be a ground listening station at Mount Hermon, whose information, it was assumed, could be available to Israel. According to the draft treaty, the Syrian side agreed to allow for “early warning capabilities including an early warning groundstation on Mt. Hermon operated by the United States and France under their total auspices and responsibilities.” It should be remembered that Syria and Israel had remained deadlocked on this issue all along, and right through the breakup of the Maryland negotiations in March 1996.

Article III of the draft treaty dealt at length and in minute details with normalizing relations between the two countries. The specifics mentioned ranged from full diplomatic relations and the exchange of ambassadors to roads, crossings, rail links, ports, cargoes, civil aviation, post, telephone, telex, facsimile, wireless, tourism, trade, travel, electricity, and much more.

In contrast to all this, the Israeli side determinedly refused to address Syria’s primary concerns about borders and full withdrawal. Although the draft treaty says “A Joint Boundary Commission is hereby established,” the commission never even met. We know now that Prime Minister Barak blocked its work and President Clinton went along with this decision, in spite of the fact that the Water, Security, and Normalization Commissions met and worked hard to produce results.

All four commissions (or subcommittees) were formed at the Blair House talks between Barak and Shara’ in December 1999, and were supposed to proceed simultaneously with their work. From more than one authoritative account, I learned that Barak would not “talk borders” except with Asad himself. This in turn meant that a Barak-Asad summit meeting remained an Israeli precondition for a serious breakthrough with Syria. Furthermore, the Israeli side spoke in the draft treaty of “relocating all its armed forces” behind the boundary line and never of a “withdrawal” from occupied territory, although the entire negotiating process was supposedly based on Asad’s original formula of “full peace for full withdrawal.” This left the question of the “withdrawal” of the settlers in limbo—a very “destructive ambiguity” indeed for the Syrian position.

In view of this drastic imbalance in the results of the Shepherdstown meetings, the failure of the Geneva summit became inevitable. In the first leak published in Al-Hayat (January 9), I could already sense the Syrian position stiffening. In the Geneva meeting with Clinton, President Asad refused to show any of the conciliatory flexibility reflected earlier in the draft treaty. This is why the summit turned into a fiasco.

According to the Jerusalem Report (May 8, 2000, p. 22), Asad even flabbergasted Clinton at the summit by reopening the question of sovereignty over the northeastern shore of Lake Tiberias; apparently he did so because the American president glossed over the issue on the firm assumption that the matter was already settled at the Shepherdstown talks.

American news reports described Asad at the Geneva summit as “immovable,” as “the most implacable person in his delegation,” and as “obstinate in his long-held view that there must be a full Israeli withdrawal to the frontier that existed on June 4, 1967.” This was read in Damascus as simply evening the score and returning what was perceived at Shepherdstown as a snub over the question of withdrawal.

Once the Syrian side felt that the act of retaliation had been effectively completed and the field was level once more, the signals of willingness to negotiate reemerged. For example, when the Lebanese minister of defense suggested in early April that Syrian troops accompany the Lebanese army on its expected march to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, Farouk al-Shara’, the Syrian minister of foreign affairs, immediately killed the idea by announcing in Beirut itself that “what we need is negotiations and peace, not war.” On April 18, The New York Times reported as follows on Dr. Bashar al-Asad’s interview in the London-based weekly Al-Wasat:

In one of the most upbeat messages to come out of Damascus since the breakdown of the Syrian-Israeli peace talks in January, the son of President Hafez al-Asad said in an interview that a deal was still possible. “The time is not too late and it has not run out,” said Bashar al-Asad—“the positions that need to be achieved and worked on are known in detail. There is a need to make a decision and enough time to make such a decision.”

The conclusion seems clear that Syria’s new president will remain committed to the achievements of the Shepherdstown draft treaty as long as the Israeli side shows signs of doing something serious and substantive to meet Syria’s primary concerns over borders and full military and civilian withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Sadik J. Al-Azm

Damascus, July 3, 2000
  1. 1

    After a leak of some of the contents of the draft treaty to Al-Hayat (January 9), Ha’aretz published the text in full on Thursday, January 13.

  2. 2

    Emphasis added.

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