Syria's Role in Mideast Peace

Negotiating with the Pariah

Syria is isolated in the international community. Volker Perthes argues that Damascus could play a constructive role in the Middle Eastern peace process as long as the country's legitimate and illegitimate interests are not confused

Old Soviet tank in the Golan Heights (photo: RobW)
Lost by the father in war, regained by the son in peace? Volker Perthes considers the return of the Golan Heights to be one of Syria's legitimate interests

​​In view of the prospects for the new peace process in the Middle East, the debate within Germany's coalition government about the recent visit of Syria's foreign minister to Berlin focussed on the wrong issues. The question of how to deal with Damascus is not one of ideals or realpolitik, but one of how European and German policies can pave the way for a peaceful solution to the conflict in the Middle East.

Lasting peace would be in our interest and in the interest of our friends in the region. It would, of course, also be in line with our values. This is why it is important to ask how a difficult player like Syria could become part of the solution and to find out how, if necessary, influence could be exerted on Syrian policy.

Not least because of its considerable potential to cause trouble, Syria is indispensable to a comprehensive peace accord between Israel and every one of its neighbours. It is not a democratic state, but then again neither are many of the countries with which Israel has made or would like to make peace. When it comes to securing a peace deal in the Middle East, it is ultimately about defending the legitimate interests of the parties involved, which in the case of Syria means the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.

Complex reality

Israel never tires of saying that Syria is more interested in exercising control over Lebanon, from which it had to withdraw its troops in 2005, than in securing a return of the Golan. The reality is, however, much more complex than this. Although Syria is indeed interested in resolving the conflict with Israel, it is not only playing a negative role in the Lebanon, but also doing little to promote a swift solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This policy reflects both the country's strategic interests and the personal motives of its leaders in Damascus.

For Syria's incumbent president, Bashar al-Assad, modernisation of the economy is a top priority. In view of the fact that a stable region would attract more foreign investors and would facilitate the integration of Syria into the global economy, resolving the conflict with Israel would be a wise move in this regard.

Peace between Syria and Israel would make Damascus an acceptable partner for Washington and would bring Syrian policy into line with that of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Above all, peace with Israel would mean the return of the occupied Golan Heights. This would be popular in Syria, would boost the president's standing, and would have another very personal, but politically important aspect, namely that Bashar al-Assad would be able to get back by peaceful means what his father, Hafez al-Assad, lost in the 1967 war.

Peace negotiations without any preconditions

This is why Syria has repeatedly indicated to Israel of late that it is interested in opening peace negotiations without any preconditions. It also explains why Damascus sent a representative to the conference in Annapolis. This representative was instructed to make it clear to those present that peace in the Middle East cannot be secured by solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alone. Damascus is worried that Israel and Palestine could conclude a peace deal without any progress being made on the Syrian-Israeli conflict.

Syrian president Ashar al-Bassad (photo: dpa)
Bashar al-Assad needs peace with Israel for Syria's economic modernisation

​​If such a deal were made, neither Washington nor the Europeans would invest much energy in seeking a solution to the Golan question. This is why Damascus has hinted that it could well imagine Syria and Israel reaching agreement before the conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In other words, Syria does not want to be left out of the peace process. At the same time, it is not averse to demonstrating its potential for causing trouble whenever it senses that its interests are not being taken into account, especially when it comes to Lebanon. In view of the fact that the international commission investigating the murder of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, and a series of other murders has not yet published its final report, it would be premature to pass judgement at this stage.

That being said, most observers in the Arab world are convinced that the Syrian security forces were in some way involved in this crime. Although Damascus does not want to control Lebanon directly, it is trying to retain a kind of power of veto over its allies. At the same time, it is trying to prevent the UN's Hariri tribunal from starting work and possibly demanding the extradition of high-ranking Syrian officials.

Personal motives

To date, Syria has not made any positive gestures regarding Lebanon. Here too, one cannot exclude personal motives. After all, while peace with Israel would allow Bashar al-Assad to win back what his father lost, it has been his own misguided policy that has deprived him of the political influence in Lebanon that his father spent over 25 years building up.

The international community must make it very clear to Damascus that it differentiates between Syria's legitimate interests (with regard to the Golan Heights) and its illegitimate interests (with regard to Lebanon).

Volker Perthes (photo: swp)
Volker Perthes

​​Damascus must be made to understand that a constructive policy towards Lebanon would be rewarded, namely with international support for its legitimate interests in the peace process. At the same time, the message must also be conveyed that the Hariri tribunal will not be used as a means of toppling the regime in Damascus.

Syria's legitimate interests in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict with Israel have much in common with the international community's interest in ending the Middle East conflict as a whole. It is possible that European diplomacy could play a more helpful role in the matter than Moscow, which has announced that it would like to champion the revival of a peace process between Israel and Syria at a follow-up conference to Annapolis.

It must be said that it was only at the persuasion of individual EU states that the US administration invited Syria to Annapolis in the first place and that Damascus actually accepted the invitation following initial reservations. It is likely that European assistance in the difficult process of rapprochement between Israel and Syria would be accepted by both states. That being said, it is hard to imagine such a rapprochement ever taking place without dialogue with Damascus.

Volker Perthes

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / Qantara.de 2008

Volker Perthes is director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. Among other bodies, the institute advises the Federal Government on issues of foreign policy. Volker Perthes is one of the country's most respected Middle East experts.

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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