Syria? Not Yet (Extract)

03ehud (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
03ehud (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The exchanges between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Bashar Asad of Syria - both the public pronouncements and the private messages delivered by the mediator of the day, most recently Turkey, serve a very important purpose. They reduce the danger that Syria will feel obligated to initiate a military or terrorist operation in retaliation for the bombing of its al-Kibar reactor on September 6, 2007 and/or for the assassination of arch-terrorist Imad Moughniyeh in the heart of Damascus on February 12. Public signals indicate that feelers are out to create a climate that frees Asad of the burden of the expectations for revenge. Thus, he, too, is at pains to broadcast statements to the effect that Olmert has promised him to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty. We've grabbed hold of a thread and we should not let it go, is the Syrian message. But there's still a long way to go between these signals and genuine peace talks. True, Olmert does talk privately about wanting to complete what he refers to as a "grand move" - both a file drawer agreement on the Palestinian issue with Mahmud Abbas and a peace treaty with Syria, while Asad declares wherever he speaks that for him a deal with Israel is an undoubtful preference. But both of them are aware that they cannot realize these goals in the foreseeable future because, as Asad explained recently, there is "no common basis" for the opening of peace talks. That basis is lacking because the Turkish mediators, including Prime Minister Erdogan himself, have failed to move things forward on three key issues. In private, they admit that there is no end in sight to their trips between Damascus and Jerusalem. The first of those outstanding issues concerns the alliance between Syria and Iran, which is an alliance in the fullest sense of the word, including varied military cooperation, centering on surface-to-surface missile systems, some with chemical warheads. One of the newest non-military manifestations of this alliance is the dramatic surge in the Iranian presence in Syria, especially around Islamic holy places like the shrines of the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughters Zeinab and Ruqaya, which are gradually becoming Shi'ite pilgrimage destinations. For Israel, there's no sense in real bargaining over the price for withdrawal from the Golan, unless it is clear in advance that Syria is prepared to give up the alliance and cut itself off entirely from Iran. Any other arrangement would mean that the Golan would soon become, like southern Lebanon, an Iranian forward position, with intelligence-gathering facilities and more. However, so far, the Syrians have stubbornly refused to give the Turks any such assurances. Indeed, Asad's associates stress that Iran "remains in the picture" in the ongoing contacts and that Syria is not acting behind its back or against its will. The most explicit statements on this issue have been voiced by the man who is viewed as Asad's caretaker of "the Israeli portfolio," Dr. Ahmad Samir Taqi. A former member of the Communist Party and a cardiologist-turned-politician, Taqi told Hizballah TV station that Syria is not prepared even to discuss Iran with Olmert. This is a topic that should be examined in the framework of a dialogue with the United States and not with Israel, he said. In plain language: Asad wants to know what the Americans will pay if he obliges them by cutting his Iranian ties. He knows that the current administration doesn't want a dialogue with him and he is waiting till after the presidential elections. The implication is that Syria is unequivocally telling Israel that it is mainly interested in reaching an arrangement with the Americans. The second outstanding issue concerns Lebanon. Even if he wished to, Olmert could not begin public negotiations with Syria as long as it continues to tighten the noose around the neck of the legitimate government in Beirut. Such a move by Israel would be a stab in the back of the "March 14 Camp" headed by Sa'ad Hariri, Walid Junblatt and Samir Ja'aja, that is struggling to prevent Hizballah hegemony. It would mean that Israel would be sacrificing Lebanon - as well as the Golan - for peace with a Syria that is still bound to its partners in Tehran. Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.