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The View from Damascus

At the same time, there was concern in Syrian civil society—particularly among the intelligentsia—that on account of the new Israeli intransigence the Syrian regime would also revert to its pre-Madrid rhetoric, positions, and practices. But none of these fears materialized. On the contrary, the Syrian government shrewdly put the Netanyahu interregnum to good use, quickly assuming the political-moral high ground by constantly harping on the themes that (a) it was not Syria but Israel that had second thoughts, if not a change of heart and mind, about the peace process, (b) it was not Syria but Israel that withdrew from the Maryland negotiations, and (c) it is Syria, not Israel, that is ready right now to resume the peace talks from where they broke off. Locally, no significant changes were noted in either the official line or the media accounts, even those meant for purely internal consumption. Clearly, Syria’s policies during this period were skillfully designed to appeal to the gallery and play credibly to the jury, knowing well that both the gallery and the jury, in this instance, were located in the United States, the European Union, and the West generally.

At the start of the Netanyahu interregnum, Syria stood accused of having missed two rare opportunities to conclude a peace treaty with Israel and retrieve the Golan Heights. The first opportunity supposedly came up just before Prime Minister Rabin made his momentous decision to pursue the highly secret breakthrough arrived at in Oslo with the Palestinians, instead of continuing his push on the Syrian negotiating track. The second opportunity presented itself, according to this logic, after Rabin’s assassination, when Prime Minister Peres decided to call for early general elections instead of serving the rest of Rabin’s term of office. The accusation goes on to hold President Asad’s excessive caution, suspiciousness, and procrastination responsible for the loss of these two opportunities. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said as much in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in late October 1997, while Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich expounded these charges in his fine book The Brink of Peace: The Israeli-Syrian Negotiations.1 Naturally, the Damascus rumor mill took up the accusations as well, but without arriving at any serious conclusions or informed deductions at the time.

According to Rabinovich’s account, Rabin on August 3, 1993, sent a message to Asad, via Warren Christopher and Dennis Ross, exploring the possibilities of an agreement for “a very specific peace deal” embracing both Syria and Lebanon. The American mediators returned from Damascus with a response “which they regarded as positive, but which Rabin found disappointing.” This led him to immediately pursue instead the already prepared breakthrough on the still-secret Oslo track.

Now we know that the message sent by Rabin to Asad was a proposal for the Israelis to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights in return for Syria’s fully meeting Israel’s security and normalization conditions. We also know that the Asad response, which the American mediators regarded as positive but which Rabin found disappointing, sought to clarify whether the proposed withdrawal would extend to the June 4, 1967, line or stop at the international border of 1923 as demarcated by the French and British mandatory authorities in Syria and Palestine respectively. A withdrawal to the 1923 frontier would prevent Syria from returning to its earlier positions on the northeastern corner of Lake Tiberias and from retrieving the land that has now become the hot springs resort known as al-Hemma, originally an old Palestinian Arab village of that name. According to some observers and analysts of the peace process, the American sponsors of these indirect negotiations missed a fine opportunity for an imminent breakthrough on the Syrian-Israeli track by failing to explore further with the Israeli side the clarification sought by President Asad at the time.

Upon assuming the premiership, continues Rabinovich, Peres, for his part, explored the possibility of reviving the Syrian track through a number of extraordinary economic proposals and dramatic political measures (an early summit meeting with President Asad, for instance) designed to help his election prospects when the time for the campaign came. However, according to Rabinovich, “Asad’s response was cautiously positive but very guarded” and in the end he failed to “meet Peres’ terms” and to provide him “with real prospects of a good agreement in good time.” As a result Peres decided not only to call early elections, but also to authorize Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hizbollah in southern Lebanon.

A reply to these accusations was made by Patrick Seale, President Asad’s biographer, in the Journal of Palestine Studies.2 He stressed three main points: first, that Rabin responded to Asad’s offer of full peace for full withdrawal by making the withdrawal part of the offer contingent on such unacceptable preconditions (including the “restructuring,” as Seale put it, of the Syrian armed forces) that he, in effect, subverted the “peace opportunity.” Second, that the supposed overture that Rabin made toward Asad just before committing himself to the secret Oslo breakthrough was no more than a political ruse meant to cover Rabin’s clear preference for proceeding on the Palestinian track. And third, that Prime Minister Peres had provoked the Islamist suicide bombings—which, he said, compelled him to suspend the Maryland peace talks and call for early elections—when he authorized the assassination of Yahya ‘Ayyash (known as “the Engineer”), in spite of the fact that this Hamas operative had suspended his activities a year earlier.

A more comprehensive answer was put forward by the Syrian ambassador Walid Mu’allem in a long and authoritative interview, again published in the Journal of Palestine Studies.3 Ambassador Mu’allem rebuts the charge of a missed opportunity by arguing that the ongoing negotiations over such major Israeli concerns as security arrangements, normalization, the timetable for completing the deal, etc., could only have started in earnest, in the first place, after an agreement had been reached by the two sides on the question of full withdrawal, both military and civilian. Or, as Rabinovich wrote in his account, the Syrians, from the start of the negotiations in summer of 1992 until August 1993, would not budge until they heard the two words “full withdrawal.” But then the Syrian side, Mu’allem continues, was completely surprised by the announcement of the Oslo accords as well as by the sudden developments that followed on the Israeli-Jordanian track, leading rapidly to a peace treaty between the two countries.

Concerning the second “missed” opportunity, Mu’allem holds that Peres’s call for early elections and his suspension of the Maryland peace talks took Syria by surprise no less than the Oslo agreement. He attributes both decisions to internal Israeli pressures and party concerns rather than to any peace opportunities that suddenly had become available for the taking. In support of his position, Mu’allem refers to Israeli sources that accused Peres himself of missing the golden opportunity for making peace with Syria. The reference here is primarily to the accurate revelations about the details of Rabin’s negotiations with Syria made by Orly Azulay-Katz in his biography of Shimon Peres, The Man Who Could Not Win.4 Mu’allem also alludes to a much-publicized television interview given by the chief negotiator under Peres, Mr. Uri Savir, in which he (a) admitted that much was achieved at the Maryland negotiations, (b) confirmed that the two sides were indeed on the verge of reaching an agreement when Peres withdrew from the talks, but (c) made no mention of any opportunities, missed or unmissed. Add to that the story published by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv under the headline “This is How We Missed the Peace with Syria” (December 12, 1997), which blamed Peres for the lost opportunity on the basis of information from sources close to Savir himself.

By then, Damascus had guessed that there were no missed opportunities at all, but the usual power plays, tactical maneuvers, and deliberate efforts by both sides to further as much as possible their explicit and implicit agendas. For example, Rabin’s last-minute Syrian move before openly embracing the Oslo option—i.e., his August 3 overture referred to above—was expressly designed to offer President Asad a contract that he could only refuse, i.e., one that confronted him with a fait accompli that Rabin knew he would either diplomatically or bluntly reject. The offer came to Syria more as a take-it-or-leave-it package deal than as a new negotiating gambit. Accepting the package would have put Asad in Arafat’s present shoes, turning him into the breaker of Arab ranks, the abandoner of his negotiating partners, in addition to making a mockery of all his efforts to maintain a minimally coherent “Eastern Arab Front”—including Jordan, Lebanon, and the PLO—while dealing with Israel.

Similarly, the short-lived Peres approach came overloaded with demands and conditions that Syria had either to meet swiftly or face the delays and risks attendant on early elections in Israel. Among these demands were:

(1)An almost immediate summit meeting with President Asad to take place in Jerusalem, the first preference, in Damascus, the second, or in Washington as third best. Actually, Peres not only made the continuation of serious negotiations on the Syrian track contingent on such a meeting, but went so far as to regard the summit as “the litmus test” (to use Rabinovich’s characterization) for any peace agreement with Syria.

(2)That the Golan Heights be turned into a “free economic zone” and/or a “zone of economic development,” as a part of the new Middle East unilaterally envisioned by Peres himself.

(3)The initiation and development of economic enterprises and shared interests in the areas around the border to be designated between the two countries, all as a measure of the “quality and depth” of the coming peace.

(4)The creation of a regional security organization under American supervision and tutelage to be launched under the title “the Clinton Plan.”

In Damascene eyes, Peres’s over-ambitious approach could go nowhere because it neglected the simple fact that Syria is also at all levels a highly security-conscious state. Syria naturally finds it much easier to digest a security-based peace agreement that it can understand and cope with than one overburdened by grandiose economic schemes and ventures that it is ill-equipped to handle. Hence the belief in Damascus that Israel was successfully fragmenting the Arab negotiating front, consolidating its peace agreements on the other tracks, and leaving an isolated Syria to the very end of the negotiating process.

I should add that the image of President Asad as a self-defeatingly cautious, reluctant, suspicious, procrastinating, formalistic leader, ruler, politician, and player can be quite misleading. In Damascus, there is no question that these qualities are all highly prized when brought to bear on Syria’s dealings with Israel and the United States. But people in Damascus also know that at critical moments, Asad has shown himself politically capable of bold decisions, daring initiatives, and decisive actions that have ultimately proved successful and far-sighted, even if unpopular at the time of their initiation, because they have emanated from an excellent grasp of regional alignments and international trends. Examples are fresh in every Syrian’s memory:

  1. 1

    Princeton University Press, 1998.

  2. 2

    See his “Asad’s Regional Strategy and the Challenge from Netanyahu,” Journal of Palestine Studies (Autumn 1996), pp. 27-41; see also his three major articles published in the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat, November 21, 22, 23, 1999.

  3. 3

    Fresh Light on the Syrian-Israeli Peace Negotiations: An Interview with Ambassador Walid Al-Moualem,” Journal of Palestine Studies (Winter 1997), pp. 81-94.

  4. 4

    Tel Aviv: Yediot Ahronot, 1996.

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