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The View from Damascus

(1)The armed intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976, on the side of the Phalangist Party and against Syria’s natural and traditional allies in Lebanon, including the Palestinians.

(2)The swift eradication of the Islamist armed insurrection in Syria in the early Eighties.

(3)The defiant destruction of the separate Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty that Secretary of State George Schultz concluded behind Syria’s back and at its expense in 1984.

(4)The unwavering alliance with Iran throughout the Iraq-Iran war, at a time when the entire Arab world and the West were solidly backing Saddam Hussein.

(5)The daring participation in the Gulf War on the side of the Allies in their campaign to free Kuwait.

Halfway through Netanyahu’s tenure, a sharp controversy erupted again in the Arab world with Egypt and Syria as its epicenters. This is known as the Copenhagen controversy. Once more, the regime in Syria had little to do either with initiating the debate or with its course and development, although the local media were used by the contestants. What is this Copenhagen quarrel?

Acute dissatisfaction with Netanyahu and his policies suddenly created a qualitatively new kind of special Arab vital interest in who rules Israel (and in the party that happens to be in power there). Even in Syria, a feeling was creeping over us that the local conventional wisdom about Labor and Likud agreeing on all the decisive issues is already outmoded and not in touch with new realities in the area. Israel’s internal affairs seemed, all of a sudden, to be acquiring an intimate sort of interest in Damascus that was never there before.

In this climate, a number of prominent Egyptian public intellectuals—led by the famous writer, journalist, and activist Lutfi Al-Khouli—started preparing a conference with like-minded Israelis to be held in Copenhagen, to see what could be done about getting rid of Netanyahu, returning Labor to power, and putting the peace process back on track again. This is indeed the first time ever that Arabs openly and frankly organized a meeting for the purpose of affecting directly Israel’s choice of government. The feeling that they now have a vital stake in who rules Israel could no longer be dispelled, camouflaged, or sublimated. The initiative was intended to throw for once the weight of the Arabs, for whatever it is worth inside Israel, against Netanyahu and his government, and to create some sort of an Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace block that would help return Labor to power.

Although the conference itself never took place—owing to the fierce opposition it encountered and the defection of some of the people involved in organizing it—the Arab controversy over its very purpose and program was huge, varied, passionate, and often vicious. It reached a climax in a Pan-Arab debate in the “Crossfire” format on satellite television between Lutfi Al-Khouli himself and the secretary general of Syria’s Arab Writers Union, ‘Ali ‘Ouqla ‘Ursan, in the winter of 1999. The confrontation was broadcast by the Arab world’s currently most successful and widely watched television station, Al-Jazira, based in Qatar.


Unfortunately, Lutfi Al-Khouli died before Ehud Barak acceded to power in May 1999. But the consensus among observers of the peace process in Damascus right now is that the Copenhagen idea and debate served their purposes eminently well. It is true that throughout the controversy the general attitude in Syria was critical of the project and even hostile to it. Nevertheless, a remarkable development did occur with the start of the new Israeli electoral campaign. Never before had an Israeli election been so apprehensively followed, so deeply discussed, and so carefully watched, by both official and popular Syria, as the contest between Netanyahu and Barak. I would not be exaggerating if I were to say that Damascus followed the contest this time as if it were an internal matter. To the dismay of some, it had become clear to all that even Syria had developed a direct vital stake in the results of Israeli elections.

In Damascus, the Barak victory was generally received with unaccustomed relief and some heightened expectations concerning peace and the peace process. To the surprise of most of us, the exchange of smiles and compliments between President Asad and the new prime minister passed casually and without raising eyebrows either publicly or privately. It became evident to me at that point that Syria had been pushed beyond its earlier mood of stoic resignation. Had President Asad praised an Israeli prime minister during the post-Madrid phase of contacts, for instance, observers in Damascus would have been surprised as never before, and would have received the news with utter disbelief and dismay. But when Asad praised Barak after Barak won the elections of May 1999, Damascus was surprised at itself for having taken the news so coolly and in stride, as if the whole episode were a matter of course. Even more telling is the fact that no controversies have erupted so far over the issues involving normalization of relations, for instance, and no denunciations of the type directed against the Copenhagen idea have been heard either.

The Netanyahu interregnum is now seen in Damascus in three different ways: first, as a necessary evil needed to bring the two parties together and drive home the lesson that there is a considerable difference between Labor and Likud when in power; second, as an imperialist plot and a Jewish-Zionist conspiracy to make Labor look good, conciliatory, and acceptable in Arab eyes; third, as an example of the Hegelian cunning of history working itself out in the direction of a peaceful settlement with Israel. Some Hegelio-Marxians think now of a higher Middle Eastern synthesis emerging historically out of the supersession of both the old Arab thesis and the newer Israeli antithesis.

For intellectuals in Damascus, the fall of Netanyahu pointed to another kind of lesson as well. When he first ran for election, much was said about him as a great television personality, much was made of the present power of the media to make or break candidates, leaders, and politicians regardless of programs, issues, stands, qualifications, etc. Much hype was heard—particularly from the postmodernist pundits and spin doctors—about how only images, television appeal, sound bites, and media manipulation counted in politics these days. Well, the fall of this supposedly highly photogenic media manipulator goes to show that at least in one troubled part of the world, burning issues still count, affairs of war and peace remain decisive, and political stands and tactics continue to make or break candidates.

Syria is adamant about the return of the entire Golan Heights as a condition for peace, security arrangements, and the normalization of relations with Israel. Although officially the whole Golan extends to the cease-fire lines as they existed just before the start of the war on June 5, 1967, Syria has recently shown flexibility on this matter by admitting (at the Shepherdstown peace talks in early January 2000) that these are really adjustable military lines and not borders. On the other hand, the present Israeli government is promoting a definition of the “whole Golan” that stops at the international border between Syria and Palestine as demarcated by the British and French mandatory authorities in 1923. The withdrawal precedent cited in this instance is the return of the “whole of Sinai” up to the international border between Egypt and Palestine as demarcated in 1906, by the British colonial administration and the Ottoman authorities.

All informed observers in Damascus know that the fundamental point in Syria’s resumed negotiations with Israel at Shepherdstown is to find an adequate way to cross the bridge between these two definitions of “the whole Golan.” As has been said, one Syrian objection to the Israeli definition is that it would cut Syria off from the access it had to Lake Tiberias before June 4, 1967. In the end, given the very small size of the area between the two definitions, there is nothing to stop the two sides from agreeing on a convenient and mutually acceptable line of withdrawal, and then calling it the rectified June 4 line as well as the final international border between the two countries. The American sponsors of the negotiations may very well promote such a helpful calculated “constructive ambiguity.”

In fact, these peace talks could not have recommenced in the first place had not President Clinton resorted to one of these “constructive ambiguities” when he announced on December 9, 1999, that the two sides had agreed to resume their negotiations from the point at which they were interrupted, expressly refraining from defining that point of interruption. Underlying the need for such a gimmick are Syria’s longstanding affirmations that: (a) Had Prime Minister Rabin not pledged himself, in 1993, to a withdrawal to the June 4 line, Syria would not have permitted the negotiations on all the other issues and details to proceed in the first place. (b) This highly secret pledge, relayed by Secretary of State Warren Christopher to President Asad, took the form of a written document deposited with the US Department of State. (c) Although Christopher informed Asad in December 1995 of Peres’s continued commitment to the “Rabin Deposit,” Peres nonetheless proceeded to withdraw from the Maryland peace talks and to call for early elections. (d) Syria will, therefore, resume negotiations with Israel only from the point at which they were broken off—i.e., agreement on the “Rabin Deposit.” This Syrian insistence is to be seen in light of the fact that Netanyahu was elected prime minister on a platform that expressly precluded a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

This secret pledge may also be understood against the background of Syria’s longstanding position that since the Golan Heights is occupied territory, the settlement of its future should flow from the principles of international law and not from the principles of Israeli sovereignty. In other words, there is no need to submit a Syrian-Israeli agreement on the Heights either to a referendum or to approval by the Knesset. It was not until February 27 this year that Prime Minister Barak openly confirmed both the existence of the “Rabin Deposit” and his predecessor’s commitment to a full withdrawal from the Golan (down to or very near the June 4 line), in return for Syria’s satisfying Israel’s security and normalization conditions. As The New York Times reported on February 28,

Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel told his cabinet today that Yitzhak Rabin…had given guarantees that Israel would fully withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for security commitments by Syria…. Mr. Barak appeared to confirm what Syria has long maintained—that Mr. Rabin had left a “deposit” with the Americans, a promise that a full withdrawal would be undertaken if Syria conceded Israel’s demands on security.

Since Barak’s accession to power, observers of the peace process in Damascus have noted that a number of lines of interest seem to be converging in favor of producing a peace agreement in the reasonably near future. Among these lines of interest are:

(1) Barak’s open commitments to negotiating a framework for a permanent settlement with the Palestinians and concluding the final status negotiations before the end of the year 2000. Also to disengaging Israel from southern Lebanon by July of the same year, on the basis of an agreement with Syria if possible, but unilaterally if necessary.

(2) Arafat’s deadline for the announcement of the new Palestinian state before the end of this year.

(3) The evident eagerness of key Arab states (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco) to bring the whole Middle Eastern peace process to a successful conclusion as soon as possible.

(4) President Clinton’s natural desire to end his presidency with a significant and lasting success in so troubled and vital a region as the Middle East.

(5) Syria’s desire to end the conflict on credible terms so it can attend to its own internal problems and urgently needed reforms in view of the mounting pressures of a post-cold war globalizing world order.

Finally, when the peace comes, it will be, then, not so much the peace of the brave as the peace of the weary and exhausted.

May 18, 2000

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