After meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded, “I say we would talk about returning land, and for this subject there is a framework, mechanisms and specialized negotiators to handle this. It is neither me nor Mr. Netanyahu. If Mr. Netanyahu is serious, he can send his teams of experts, we will send our teams of experts to Turkey.”
Netanyahu expressed frustration over Turkey’s role as a mediator and welcomed an alternate proposal for French mediation, which Assad may be open to. A separate dispute may form over direct or indirect negotiations. Either way, Assad laid down a gauntlet to challenge President Obama and Netanyahu. High risk entails high reward.
The Obama administration, in its desire to oppose all things Bush, arranged from the beginning to test Damascus. Bush had taken the opposite approach, freezing relations until Syria disengaged with Iran and stayed out of Lebanon. The bitter taste of Syria’s duplicity in Iraq had to be cleansed.
“We are going to start on day one, we are going to take a regional approach, we're going to have to involve Syria in discussions, we are going to have to engage Iran," Obama said in a CBS interview in January.
Assad, eager to reciprocate and improve his country’s image, told Obama before he took office, “We would like to contribute to the stabilization of the region. But we must be included, not isolated, as we have been until now. We are ready for any kind of cooperation.”
Complicated plans don’t last long in the Middle East, however. Assad told Le Figaro during his recent trip to France that Obama had not gone, "beyond an exchange of views. There has not been an executive plan... What Obama said about peace was a good thing. We agree with him on the principles, but as I said, what's the action plan?”
“The sponsor has to draw up an action plan. The weak point is the American sponsor.”
It’s hard to blame anyone when everyone is to blame. Prohibiting IAEA officials from the suspected nuclear site near al-Kibar, followed by a high profile visit to Iran, mixed with unflinching support for Hezbollah and Hamas, leaves no question why America hasn’t moved past an exchange of views.
Yet Israel and America are strong factors in Assad’s behavior. Israel’s actions (and non-actions) throughout the year have impressed upon him that Netanyahu hasn’t changed, a trend spreading across the region. With America in full support of Israel, the Obama administration’s plan seemed little more than a vague concept and the hope that Syria would blink first.
It did not.
With the stakes so high, the three parties haven’t given up on negotiations despite their seemingly irreconcilable disagreements. Breakthroughs often come at the last moment. Israel, fearing a power shift, is glad that American-Syrian relations have stalled. It must now seize the opportunity to engage Syria one on one.
As so much focus goes into preconditions these days, negotiations might be prevented from getting off the ground, but their completion lies at the end of Assad’s concrete conditions: the return of Golan Heights, pursuance of a two-state solution, and an end to Israeli interference in Lebanon. His demands are unrealistic from Israel's perspective, but the three go hand in hand.
Golan Heights is Assad’s slice of “The Resistance” and its fate influences his views on Palestine, Lebanon, and Iran.
“Resisting occupation is a patriotic duty and to support it is a moral and legal imperative... and an honor of which we are proud," Assad said in a speech an Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in Istanbul. "This does not contradict our unceasing desire to achieve a just and comprehensive peace on the basis of the return of the occupied territories, especially the occupied Syrian Golan, but the failure of negotiations to restore all our rights would make resistance an alternative solution.”
Netanyahu has publicly supported the return of Golan Heights under the right conditions. He appears to be fortified by IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who reportedly said during private meetings, "We should not be disheartened by Assad. Syria is not lost... Assad is western educated and is not a religious man. He can still join a moderate grouping.”
Israel has many incentives for ending its acrimony with Syria. The security threat theoretically diminishes after a return of Golan Heights and moves the region in the right direction for once. Failure to resolve the dispute leaves Obama with the same relationship Bush had with Syria.
Meanwhile Syria’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah will continue as long as the status quo is maintained.
Assad blamed the cause of conflict in Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon on "the Zionist occupation" which "we must begin to work to eliminate.” He berated America for condemning the Goldstone report, calling the Gaza war, "one of the worst war crimes ever known in modern times." Israel’s seizure of alleged Hezbollah weapons was "an act of piracy in the middle of the Mediterranean,” not an international war crime by committed by Iran.
Israel must give Assad a reason to discourage military buildup. Hamas and Hezbollah are his leverage in Golan Heights.
Playing bad cop to Assad’s good cop, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah jeered, "We tell all those who asked us to give the Americans some time… it turned out that presenting a black president from the third world was a trick that ended faster than we expected. Meanwhile, Israel maintains its armament, espionage cells and reconnaissance planes and spying devices. It continues to exploit any incident, whether a real or fabricated one, as part of its war on Lebanon, Palestine and Resistance movements."
“I think we have to give Obama more time,” said Assad, striking a moderate tone. “But I can say that the people of the Middle East are progressively starting to lose hope. I hope they are wrong.”
In reality Obama is powerless within Israeli-Syrian negotiations - those two parties are on their own. What he can do is get serious on a two-state solution and squash any potential Israeli incursions into Lebanon, thereby effecting Israeli-Syrian negotiations externally.
But the ball is mostly in Israel’s hands. Viewing its foreign policy through a security lens, Israel doesn't always assign the highest value to “peace” when it’s so illusive and uncertain. War, saturated into the region's history, is more useful for maintaining power. Israel must now realize the same utility in Golan from a peace standpoint.
Naturally theory can only go so far, but the original reason to engage Syria remains unchanged today as it did last year or last decade. End the occupation in Golan and negotiations with Lebanon over the Shebaa Farms could be next. Resolve two territorial disputes and weaken "the resistance," reducing threats from the north and east.
America would then progress relations with Syria as they see fit and Israel could finally turn its full attention towards Palestine. This strategy is more akin to counterinsurgency than overwhelming military force.
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly