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Landis: Syria Key to Middle East Peace Process

Interviewee: Joshua Landis, Co-director, Center of Peace Studies, University of Oklahoma
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 5, 2007

Joshua Landis, a leading Syria expert, who publishes “Syria Comment,” says Syria’s surprise attendance at last week’s Annapolis peace conference came after heavy lobbying on Syria by Arab and other nations. He says a preponderance of officials wanted Syria at the conference because “Syria is key to the peace process. If you keep the door closed on Syria, many people believe the peace process can go nowhere.” And he says that the Syrians are willing to deal despite Iran’s objections.

Let’s start with the Annapolis Middle East peace conference last week. I think many people were surprised that Syria showed up, albeit with a deputy foreign minister instead of a foreign minister. How did this happen?

Syria was wooed. There was intense diplomacy prior to Syria’s accepting. The prime minister of Turkey, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, apparently called the Syrian President Bashar Assad four times. The Saudis called him as well. King Abdullah of Jordan visited him. It was the first time he’d done that in years, and he was very solicitous. Various European foreign ministers visited Lebanon and they talked to the Syrians. Everybody was pushing the Syrians to come.

Why?

Because this is a turning point and Syria is key to the peace process. If you keep the door closed on Syria, many people believe the peace process can go nowhere. The Saudis did not want to come and genuflect to the whole peace process if the Syrians were not along, because they needed Arab nationalist cover. And there were two agendas going on here: One agenda was to push the peace process forward and try to get the Bush administration committed to it in a serious way. The other factor on the agenda was to create some sort of Arab community in order to isolate Iran and raise the pressure on Iran, because I think it’s widely understood that the only way you’re going to isolate Iran in the future is to repair the deep schisms and divisions between Arab states—and this schism is primarily between Syria and Saudi Arabia, because Iran’s reach into the Arab world, and its influence, is largely through Syria. Of course it’s through Iraq as well, but we can’t do much about Iraq. The idea of flipping Syria has been on everybody’s lips. If you can draw Syria away from Iran and back towards Saudi Arabia, then arms cannot get to Hezbollah in Lebanon because they go through Syria from Iran. Hamas, in Palestine, also would become much more isolated than it is now. It would have no support within the Arab world.

What actually happened at the conference? Did Syria say much?

They did not say much. They were very quiet, and they were jubilant. What happened at the conference was that, evidently, the Lebanese delegation was blindsided by the announcement that Michel Sulieman, chief of staff of the Lebanese Army, was being put forward as a compromise choice for that country’s new president. This was seen largely, and by the Lebanese delegation, as a victory for Syria and the opposition, Hezbollah, and a defeat for the March 14th group [an anti-Syrian political coalition set up in the wake of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon in 2005]—and for America, which had insisted that there should be no amendments to the Lebanese constitution and that the democratic process should carry forward according to law. In order to have the chief of staff become president, there needs to be an amendment to the constitution, because it is currently illegal.

What’s your opinion? Do you think this is a great defeat for March 14th, or is it a good compromise?

I think it’s an excellent compromise for Lebanon, and I think that many people, even within March 14th, felt that this is the best way forward for Lebanon. Unfortunately, because of the ideological divisions between America and Iran, because of the terrible bad blood between the opposition and the majority, everything is seen in terms of defeat and victory. Unfortunately, that’s where we stand, and it’s not clear that Michel Sulieman will come through this whole process, because there are many jealousies and there is a lot of anger in Lebanon.

So even though France and Egypt, who seem to be the main architects of this compromise, went up to the Lebanese delegation during Annapolis and said, “Congratulations on your new President,” and the March 14th group said, “Yes we will accept this,” it’s not clear that even the opposition had agreed. Because General Michel Aoun [a pro-Syrian Maronite Christian], who wanted to be president, is balking at this. He wants further compromise. There’s still a lot of factualism.

It’s not a deal?

It’s not a done deal. It’s just that France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the outside powers all support it.

I thought Aoun had said he backed it.

Well he’s now saying he would back it, but he said “Yes, but I want to guarantee that I have a position…” There’s a long list of things he wants. And, you know, everybody’s trying to get their last-minute extra. There’s a lot more haggling in Beirut. In a sense, though, this seems to be a major victory for Bashar Assad, because, two years ago, everybody was saying, “He’s on his last leg, he’s weak, and his regime is shuddering, it may fall.”

Syria is key to the peace process. If you keep the door closed on Syria, many people believe the peace process can go nowhere.

The Syrian opposition said, “We’re going to be in Damascus in six months.” The Syrians were anxious. Today, there is no anxiety about this. Now, what do you do with this? A diplomatic victory only takes you so far, and Syria is a poor country, a weak country.  It’s got to turn this upswing into money and a chicken in every Syrian’s pot. The economic question is the big question going forward: can this government carry out economic reforms and really drag Syria into the globalized world?

It would seem to me, as a non-Syrian expert, that a peace agreement with Israel would be the highest priority, because that would open up Syria to outside investments.

It would. That’s what’s dividing Syria from Saudi Arabia, because Saudi Arabia essentially wants to team up with Israel against Iran. That undermines Syria’s position. The more the Arab world forgets about the Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli conflict and teams up with Israel, the less Israel has to care about making peace with Syria, and the less leverage Syria has to get back the Golan heights. So Syria has to keep the Arab-Israeli conflict alive—with Hezbollah, Lebanon, Hamas, or with any proxy it can, because Syria does not have the capability to hurt Israel militarily.

Now let’s talk a bit about the Golan Heights. Back in 2000, Israel and Syria were excruciatingly close to a peace agreement. Can it be revived?

The problem is that Syria is weaker than it was then. You know everyone argues about whether the war in the summer of 2006 was really a win for Hezbollah or a win for Israel. And, in the long-run, although in the short-term it seemed to be a win for Hezbollah, in the long-term Israel has made considerable gains.

What Syria has done is announce that it is willing to bargain. It’s not going to stick with Iran against the United States, come hell or high water.

Hezbollah has had its ears pinned back. It’s now about twelve miles away from the Israeli border, and even though it’s trying to rearm and so forth, it’s not clear that Hezbollah would want to or can carry out another confrontation with Israel.

Israel frightened Hezbollah and set them back, and this was a lesson to Syria. Israel in September carried out this air raid on Syria [against a suspected nuclear plant] without any repercussions, seemingly. It’s very clear that Syria does not have the kind of military option it had before through proxies, when Hamas seemed to be victorious in the occupied territories, and Hezbollah was the greatest power in Lebanon.

You know, it’s interesting, because there’s been a lot of speculation that, because the Palestinians are so divided, with two different Palestinian governments, that it would be easier for Israel to negotiate a deal with Syria.

The trouble is that Syria is too weak.

You mean it can’t give up a strip of land?

Yes, but it’s too weak in a sense that all the Israelis I talk to say, “Syria’s asking too much for the Golan.” In other words, they want too much. They have to make some major concessions. And, most recently, we’ve seen a number of Israeli politicians say, “Well, let’s have a hundred-year lease for the Golan.” That seems to be the starting point for an Israeli negotiation: Let’s roll back to where we were in 2000.” A lease evokes a very different sort of relationship, and this is what the Israelis are putting forward, so it means the Syrians have to negotiate back from this kind of idea. And they, of course, want everything according to international law.

I see. So the Syrians want what the Egyptians got in the 1979 peace treaty with Israel—the return of all the occupied land in the Sinai?

They want everything. They say, “Let’s follow the line, let’s follow international law.” And, even there, international law is a little bit ambiguous, because there are several different lines. There’s the 1923 line, there’s the 1967 armistice line, and they want the one that is the most favorable to them, which is 1967.

Okay, so in your view the likelihood of any negotiations starting is what, slim?

Well for official negotiations, I think it is fairly slim. But on the other hand, everybody wants to keep the door open for a number of reasons. Israel wants the peace process, and not necessarily peace. I know this is the phrase Israel usually uses against the Syrians, but in this case I think it’s been reversed.

Why do they want the process? For two major reasons: One, it means that Hezbollah will stay down in the farm, because as long as Syria is trying to woo Israel, it’s going to put the brakes on any activity from Hezbollah. Secondly, Israel can carry out negotiations with the Palestinians more easily, so long as Syria is being sweet. Because they can always threaten the Palestinians: “Well, if you don’t make a deal with us, we’ll just go off and make a deal with the Syrians and you’ll be totally isolated and we’ll kick you around. We’ll put more pressure on you.” It’s a much better negotiating position for the Israelis, to have both countries.

What does this mean in terms of the Syrian-Iranian relationship?

What Syria has done is announce that it is willing to bargain. It’s not going to stick with Iran against theUnited States, come hell or high water. Over a year ago, Bashar Assad had said if the Golan is on the table, he would put relationships with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas on the table. Everything is on the table. By coming to Annapolis, he upset the Iranians. He upset the Palestinians.

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