Few would argue that the indirect Israel-Syria talks through
Turkish mediation, which were first announced 21 May, were a sign of political
maturity and readiness for peace. In fact, while the discussions seemed
concerned with the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and Israel�s desire for
security at its northern borders, the true objective behind the sudden
engagement of Syria is largely concerned with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas.
A precarious report published in The Jerusalem Post --
citing a news report in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai on 2 September -- claimed
that the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has left Syria and moved to
Sudan. �Palestinian sources told the paper that Meshaal had come to an
understanding with Damascus whereby the Hamas chief would agree to leave the
state,� according to the report. It suggested that the indirect negotiations
between Syria and Israel �may have played a part in the decision.� Hamas soon
denied the report.
Whether the report is fully, partially or not at all
accurate, the fact remains that Israel�s key objective in engaging Syria is to
further isolate Hamas and to deny its leadership safe haven. Syria opened its
doors to several Palestinian factions, who have operated politically with a
degree of unison, following the September 1993 Oslo Accords. The relationship
between Syria and Hamas in particular was often scrutinised as a Syrian
bargaining chip in any future negotiations with Israel over the fate of the
Golan. It is no secret that Israel would not transfer the Golan back to its
rightful owner if Hamas and other Palestinian groups continue to use Damascus
as their headquarters, a platform of political freedom and a degree of
But this is an issue that even Hamas itself doesn�t seem to
be concerned with, at least at the moment, for it�s equally understood that
Israel is not serious about its negotiations with Syria, and that the whole
affair is a political manoeuvre aimed at disturbing the Syria-Iran alliance,
cutting off the supposed Hizbullah weapon supply route, and further
delegitimising Hamas, while propping up its Palestinian rivals. Israel is �engaging�
Syria because it�s simply running out of options.
Consider A Clean
Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, a report prepared and signed
by major Washington-based neoconservatives in 1996. It made the following
recommendation to the Israeli government at the time: �Negotiations with
repressive regimes like Syria�s require cautious realism. One cannot sensibly
assume the other side�s good faith. It is dangerous for Israel to deal na�vely
with a regime murderous of its own people, openly aggressive towards its
neighbours, criminally involved with international drug traffickers and
counterfeiters, and supportive of the most deadly terrorist organisations.�
The mindset behind the report had great sway over Israeli
thinking, as was made clear in 2000 when then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak
froze Israeli-Syrian negotiations at a point that an agreement was reportedly
at hand. The thrust of Israel�s policy towards Syria was predicated on the
latter�s presence in Lebanon. Even after Hizbullah forced Israel out of Lebanon
in the summer of 2000, Israel never disavowed its interests in that small
country, and thoroughly focused on removing Syria, a task that was made
possible with backing from Washington.
�Syria challenges Israel on Lebanese soil. An effective
approach, and one with which Americans can sympathise, would be if Israel
seized the strategic initiative along its northern borders by engaging
Hizbullah, Syria and Iran, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon,�
the Clean Break report recommended.
That was tried and failed miserably. Israel�s goals were
trashed in its war on Lebanon in July-August 2006. The war delivered more than
a military blow to Israel and a political blow to its benefactors in
Washington. It empowered Hizbullah to emerge as Lebanon�s strongest party
without any direct Syrian involvement.
Since then, Israel has resorted to a strategy of scare
tactics against Syria and its Iranian ally. French President Nicolas Sarkozy
used a recent four-way summit in Damascus to deliver an essentially Israeli
message. He warned Iran of a �catastrophic� Israeli strike if it insists on
pursuing its nuclear programme. Although the message was to Iran, the hope was
for Syria to take notice as well.
But Sarkozy�s choice of Damascus to promote Israel�s ominous
threat further highlights the relevance of Iran to his efforts, which would not
have actualised without prior Israeli consent. Considering how quickly the
Iraqi regime fell following the US invasion in 2003, and the succumbing of the
Libyan government soon after, Syria is treading carefully, while trying to hold
on to several winning cards, its strong relationship with Iran being one.
Although Syria is eager to reclaim the Israeli occupied
Syrian Golan Heights, its leaders must also realise that the current Israeli
leadership is in no position to negotiate withdrawal from what was illegally
annexed by the Israeli Knesset in 1982. To override the strong opposition to
withdrawal, the Israeli leadership must be indisputably interested in ending
the occupation -- which it is not -- and strong enough to pull off such a major
�concession,� which is also not the case.
Nonetheless, Syria carries on with its indirect talks with
Israel, one round after the other, with much enthusiasm, coupled with talks
about economic development, investment, etc.
It is clear that neither Israel nor Syria is anticipating a �breakthrough�
anytime soon. For now, talking is an end in itself. Concurrently, Israel wishes
to woo Syria to break with Hamas and other Palestinian groups, break with Iran
and, at least, twist Hizbullah�s arm in Lebanon. Syria, on the other hand,
knows well that indirect talks with Israel are an unmatched act of political
validation in the West; enough to lessen US threats, win France�s friendship,
and appear in a positive light internationally.
Both parties want to come across as accommodating, willing
partners in peace and, at a future point, there might be a few overtures, the
extent of which could be devastating to Palestinian factions in Damascus.
Meshaal might not be in Sudan, but if he is, or will be soon, one cannot be
entirely surprised.Ramzy Baroud is an author and
editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many
newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book isThe
Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People�s
Struggle (Pluto Press, London).