ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Syrian Peace Overtures 8.1.04

Syrian Peace Overtures

08 January 2004

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Syrian President Bashar Asad has just completed a “successful” trip to Turkey. The two countries have been at odds over border issues for years, especially in the Alexandretta area (ancient Antioch), which Damascus claims for itself but which became part of Turkey in the late 1930’s when the French still held the Syrian Mandate. Traditional Syrian support for terrorism, the sharing of the Euphrates waters and the joint interest in preventing the establishment of a Kurdish state were also on the agenda. Border disagreements were not raised and Asad made sounds of conciliation concerning the terror issue. Positive moves were made over water.

Turkey, a traditional undeclared ally of Israel, is seeking an active role in Mideast peace making, especially where Syria is concerned. So Asad decided that his visit would be the appropriate time to announce his toning down of conditions for the renewal of talks between his regime and Israel, discussions which came to a halt four years ago when then Israeli PM Ehud Barak met Syrian Foreign Minister Faruk a-Shara in the US. The Syrians no longer declare Israel must withdraw to the June 4, 1967 borders (as opposed to the international demarcation), meaning they do not demand a retrieval of territories conquered on the Israeli side of the border in 1948 but lost in 1967. It also means they do not demand access to the Sea of Galilee shoreline.

This is certainly a beginning, although issues of Golan security involve large demilitarized zones stretching to Damascus which Syria would be loath to accept (especially since the army props up the Asad regime) as advocated by the Israel Left or a territorial compromise, or even an acceptance of the present Golan cease-fire line between Israel and Syria as advocated by the Israeli Center and Right respectively. It is said that Labor’s Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak were ready to accept the first option and while the Likud’s Netanyahu (considered a hawk) was amenable to an almost full withdrawal from the area (to the cliffs). PM Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz came in for blistering criticism from all quarters this week for refusing to even relate to Asad’s overtures.

Not to even consider the new Syrian position was considered appalling, especially when the Army Chief of Staff and Chief of Military Intelligence are convinced there is a genuine change of heart by the Damascus regime. Despite the declarations and positive press, it was discovered just yesterday that the Iranians are shipping arms through Damascus to the Islamic fundamentalist Hizbollah in south Lebanon, and as such, continue in ardent support of terrorism and attacks on Israel’s northern border. To make matters worse the same humanitarian aid cargo planes bringing supplies to earthquake stricken areas in Iran returned to Syria with the weapons in an effort to avoid international detection.

Any peace overture must be examined, but more importantly, Syrian actions must be weighed more heavily than any verbiage. Sharon and Mofaz knew something others did not, and therefore did not relate seriously to Asad’s latest policy move.

They demand Syria prove it is ending terror and the “armed struggle” against Israel as a pre-condition, before entering into negotiations. Such a declaration is consistent with the same demands made of the Palestinians.