Chris Phillips
The Guardian
November 24, 2009 - 1:00am

A glimmer of hope in the moribund Middle East peace process surfaced in Paris recently when Nicolas Sarkozy separately hosted both the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Reports suggested that Netanyahu passed on a message to his Syrian counterpart about reopening peace negotiations. Though both leaders were quick to play down any talk of detente, recent announcements in both Tel Aviv and Damascus suggest that talks "without preconditions" may not be far off. With US-led Israeli-Palestinian negotiations stillborn because of Netanyahu's intransigence on settlement freezes, could a French-mediated opening of the Syrian track provide an alternative avenue for peace?

On the one hand, there is no reason to get excited yet. The fanfare around these visits owes more to Sarkozy's desire for France and the EU to appear involved in the Middle East than to any political breakthrough. Moreover, expressing a desire for negotiations is not the same as their taking place. Though both sides now seem willing to countenance talks without "preconditions" this hasn't made the demands of the past 40 years evaporate overnight. Speaking in Istanbul recently, Assad said: "We have no preconditions for peace, but we cannot ignore our rights." These "rights" are a full return of the occupied Golan Heights, something Netanyahu swore in May that he would never do. Similarly, Israel's desire to end Syrian support for Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas in return for peace contradicts Assad's hopes to position himself as a bridge between the west and these rejectionist elements. The new rhetoric of "no preconditions" is therefore a misnomer as neither side is actually offering anything different.

However, though talks may eventually break down on these intractable points, both leaders see the value of speaking the language of peace for short-term gain. For Netanyahu, negotiations with Syria offer more tangible benefits than the convoluted process with the Palestinian Authority. Syria represents a negotiating partner that can actually deliver, unlike the fractured and divided Palestinians. Similarly, Assad wields far more influence over Hezbollah and Hamas than the beleaguered Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Even if negotiations with Syria fail, Israel might expect a period of limited Iranian influence and comparative calm from Damascus's militant allies while they are in process.

Moreover, Netanyahu is under American pressure to make concessions after his successful wrecking of Obama's attempt to reinvigorate the Palestinian peace process. Having forced the White House to back down on the West Bank settlement freeze, Bibi might see opening the Syrian track as a way of appeasing an Obama administration keen for results in the Middle East. Though the details of the recent Netanyahu-Obama meeting were not disclosed, the fact that the Syria issue was raised almost immediately afterwards in Paris would prompt speculation that Washington approved it.

Ostensibly Syria is not under the same pressure, reflected by Assad's stated preference of slow indirect talks as opposed to Netanyahu's proposed face-to-face negotiations. The Syrian president is in a position of comparative strength, having successfully returned from the diplomatic isolation imposed by the Bush White House. A new alliance with Turkey has been forged, strained relations with Saudi Arabia eased and ties with Sarkozy's France strengthened, all while maintaining its links with Iran. Furthermore, the recent formation of a government in Lebanon after months of deliberation has secured Damascus's allies in key roles and cemented its privileged position in Beirut.

Yet beneath the diplomatic successes lie economic headaches for Assad. Years of drought have crippled Syria's vital agricultural sector and oil supplies continue to diminish. The economy is struggling to adapt to recent free trade agreements with Arab states and Turkey, prompting some to wonder if this is the real reason for delays in ratifying an association agreement with the EU. While some analysts relish Syria's opening up to the global market, Damascus fears the US sanctions still in place after the Bush years may stifle foreign investment. Even if negotiations with Israel fail, Assad must be banking on the goodwill capital they could generate to persuade Washington to ease these restrictions. While in Paris, Assad called for greater engagement from the US, specifically citing the sanctions as an obstacle to peace.

Opening negotiations is therefore an end unto itself for both leaders, even if neither has any intent to make real concessions. If Netanyahu turns to the Syrian track it will be more a consequence of failures with the Palestinians than a genuine desire to move forward with Damascus, as highlighted by his immediate denial that talks might involve returning the Golan.

Netanyahu has perfected the art of procrastination and distraction and will happily accept plaudits for sitting down with the Syrians while openly defying Obama by expanding settlements in the West Bank. Assad, in the meantime, knowing his population would never accept a separate peace that sells out the Palestinians, would hope for economic benefits just for beginning negotiations even if they were ultimately doomed in this form.

There is a danger, though, that France, the US and the international community will allow the reopening of the Syria track to distract them. But after the abysmal failure to apply real pressure on Israel over negotiations with the Palestinians, is another bilateral distraction really better than an engaged drive for a comprehensive peace?


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