Thursday, February 10, 2005

Squeezing Syria

February 10 2005

Squeezing Syria

pv vivekanand

THE US and Israel are engaged in an effort to strip Syria of what it considers as its strategic assets and bargaining chips in regaining its Golan Heights from Israeli occupation and affirming its role as a key regional player. Obviously, Damascus is resisting the pressure because it is aware that meeting the American/Israeli demands would leave it vulnerable and force it to accept Israeli terms for "peace" that would not involve the return of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty. At the same time, Syria is willing to meet the demands half-way at this point, with the other half being met only in the context of a firm and irreversible peace deal that ensures the return of the Golan Heights and preserves Arab national dignity. That Syrian position clashes head on with the American/Israeli determination to deprive Damascus of negotiating strengths before trying to force down its throat the Israeli version of a deal for peace. As such, it is unlikely that any moves would materialise soon to bring Israel and Syria to the negotiating table.

Hopes were raised that moves would be made towards reviving Syrian-Israeli peace talks along with the effort to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at the Sharm Al Sheikh summit on Tuesday. However, instead of responding positively to Syrian calls for resumption of talks, the US has opted to tighten pressure on Damascus by insisting that it is supporting "terrorism" and "destabilising" the region. The Middle East does not need to be told whose actions have destabilised and continue to destabilise the region; all it needs is a look at Iraq, but then that is only part of the scenario. People in this region know that Syria is serious in its efforts to engage Israel in genuine negotiations and secure the return of the Golan Heights, which the Jewish state occupied in the 1967 war. The US also knows Damascus is serious, but Washington is playing to the tunes of Israel, which is not interested in talks with Syria until it becomes clear that the return of the Golan is not central to making peace. In simple terms, Israel wants Syria to come to the negotiating table without demanding the return of the Golan and then the mighty Jewish state might consider making peace on its own terms. This is the equation today.

Meeting requirements

The pattern of Syrian moves and public statements clearly establishes that Damascus is trying to meet the basic American-dictated requirements for resumption of talks, but it finds some of those demands as part of the American/Israeli agenda to weaken it. These include:

-- Suspending alleged support for groups and individuals waging the guerrilla war in Iraq across the border. The problem here is that the US has not been specific in pinpointing the groups and alleged groups and individuals it says are based in Syria. Media reports in the US have named some, but it has not been established that those people are indeed present in Syria. Indeed, some of them have been proved to be based in Europe. But the same media organisations which carried the initial allegation are not willing to acknowledge it. Furthermore, it goes against the Arab nationalist grain of Syria to launch a crackdown on Iraqis present in the country and hand over suspects to the US as Washington demands. Obviously Damascus believes that doing so would deprive it of the image it has built for itself as a staunch defender of Arab rights, which Arab nationalists see as at stake in Iraq under American occupation. Complying with the American demand would mean, in Syria's eyes as well as those of a majority in the Arab World, that Damascus is co-operating with plots that aim at establishing American/Israeli superiority in the region.

Backing talks

-- Supporting the ongoing moves to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Syria has already affirmed its backing for the moves and implicitly expressed hope that they would lead to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Leaders of Palestinian groups waging armed resistance in the occupied territories and opposing the US-sponsored peace talks are indeed present in Syrian territory, but there is little substance to American and Israeli contentions that they are behind the actual resistance operations, which Washington and Tel Aviv describe as terrorism (Incidentally, Syria has for long been calling for an international definition of "terrorism" and set a clear line between acts of legitimate resistance and terrorist actions and the US has always stonewalled the Syrian call).

-- Withdrawing Syrian soldiers from Lebanon and stop "meddling" in Lebanese affairs. Syria has already pulled back part of its 15,000-strong unit deployed in Lebanon and is expected to complete the pullback by the end of this year. However, the second part of the American demand is difficult to be met, given the traditionally strong links between Syria and Lebanon. Damascus considers its influence in Lebanon as natural and its right as a regional player, but it would be ready to scale it down in the context of a peace agreement with Israel. Again, the problem here is that the US wants it the other way around.

-- Withdrawing support for groups such as Lebanon's Hizbollah. Again, contrary of the blanket American and Israeli assertion that Damascus pulls the Hizbollah strings, people in this region know that the Syrian-Hizbollah link is very delicate. Hizbollah leaders would listen to Syria only as far as it suits their thinking and what they consider as their interests, and the equation would be scrambled if Damascus tried to twist their arms.

In that hypothesis, Hizbollah could threaten Syrian interests in Lebanon and, obviously, Damascus fails to see why it should initiate moves in that direction at this point in time.

Similarly, Syria would not stand in the way of Iranian-Hizbollah relations because of the alliance between Damascus and Tehran, the two capitals which are being targeted by the US after ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The impression that one gets is clear: Syria is ready to do what it takes for peace and stability in the region, but the US and Israel want to strip Damascus of what it considers as its strategic assets that strengthen its position in negotiations with Israel. Syria might indeed be amenable to adjusting its positions but these could come only after a peace agreement is worked out with Israel based on Syria's legitimate political and territorial rights.

That brings up the key question whether Israel would ever respect the Syrian rights?

Source of water

One thing is clear: Israel has no intention of returning the Golan Heights to Syria, not because of the "strategic military value" of the plateau that overlooks northern Israel but because it is the main source of water for the Jewish state.

Given the scarcity of water in the region and its paranoia of being hemmed in by upstream neighbour Syria, Israel would never give up the Golan. At best, it might be willing to make a face-saving compromise for Syria by returning part of the Golan and would never agree to return the whole of the strategic Heights, which overlook the See of Galilee in northern Israel.

Israeli paranoia

Israel argues that since the Golan overlooks northern Israeli towns a withdrawal from the Heights would leave northern Israeli towns vulnerable to Syrian missile and infantry attacks. Given that Syria possesses missiles capable of hitting almost everywhere in Israel, the "security" claim has always sounded hollow.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has consistently opposed a withdrawal from the Syrian plateau. Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, offered to withdraw from parts of the Heights in 2000, but insisted on retaining some of the territory. Syria insisted on the entire area be returned to it.

Notwithstanding the Israeli posture in the negotiations, it was clear that it was only seeking to put up insurmountable hurdles in the Syrian quest for the return of the Golan.

An Israeli army general said in August last year that his country does not need to keep the Golan Heights under occupation in what was seen as boasting by the Israeli military that it is capable of "defending" Israel without having military forces present on the Heights.

The general's statement was only an affirmation that retaining the Golan Heights is not central to Israeli security and was not seen as an indication that Israel might consider returning to Syria.

That water plays the central role in the Israeli posture is clear.

Sharon, a military general who has also served as Israel's minister of defence as well as of water, could not but be acutely aware of the importance of the Golan Heights for his country's paranoia and preoccupation with securing water sources.

The Golan is the source for more than 55 per cent of Israel's fresh water needs.

Given the scarcity of water in the region, Israel would never give up the Golan. At best, it might be willing to make a face-saving compromise by returning part of the Golan but would never agree to return the whole of the Heights.

Securing water sources has been an Israeli priority since its founding in 1948 and it remains a preoccupation today; the per capita consumption of water in Israel is eight times that of the Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, which accounts for 18 per cent of Israel's needs of drinking water.

In 1950, the then Israeli prime minister, Ben Gurion, declared that Jews were fighting a "battle for water" and that the Jewish existence in Palestine was contingent on the outcome of such a battle.

Some 20,000 Jewish settlers live on the Golan Heights and Israel has launched expansion projects on the Heights.

Seen in light of these realities, it is not surprising that the US-Israeli camp is stepping up pressure on Syria. It is highly unlikely that there would be any positive response to the Syrian overtures for peace talks until the US and Israel are convinced that they would be able to twist the Syrian arm into accepting a deal that excludes the return of the Golan Heights in a manner that satisfies the Syrians.