Headlines, Middle East & North Africa | Analysis

MIDEAST: Israel and Syria in Diplomatic Charade

Analysis by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jun 12 2008 (IPS) - After an eight-year hiatus, Israel and Syria have resumed negotiations – albeit via Turkish middlemen – on the issue of the strategic Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. But according to analysts in Cairo, neither side appears entirely genuine in its desire to reach a final settlement.

“Neither Damascus nor Tel Aviv is negotiating over the fate of the Golan, but rather for other reasons,” Abdel-Halim Kandil, political analyst and former editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama, told IPS.

In May, Israeli and Syrian officials announced they had just engaged in several months of indirect – and unpublicised – negotiations. Previous U.S.-sponsored attempts at settlement broke down in 2000 due to a number of sticking points, chief of which was the scope of proposed Israel withdrawal from the territory. At the time, Israel insisted on maintaining shoreline on the Sea of Galilee, the waters of which it claims are vital to its security.

“Earlier talks failed due to a number of stiff Israeli demands,” Ayman Abdelaziz Salaama, professor of international law at Cairo University, told IPS. “These included Israel access to Syrian water resources, the expulsion from Syria of anti-Israel resistance groups and the establishment of a U.S.-run early-warning station – in Syrian territory – to protect Israel from attack.”

According to recent statements, Syria remains adamant that Israel relinquishes all occupied Syrian territory as part of any peace deal. “What is on the agenda is the return of all land,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying last week while in the United Arab Emirates.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, have tied the prospect of a peace deal to demands that Syria distance itself from close ally Iran and sever its longstanding ties with resistance groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

“It’s understood that Syria wants the Golan Heights, and Israel wants a total (Syrian) disassociation from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran,” Tzachi Hanegbi, prominent member of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, was quoted as saying late last month. “It’s a red line, to ensure our security.”

In the more than four decades since the 1967 war, Syria has forged close alliances with regional actors that have, like itself, maintained the front against Israeli occupation of Arab land. These include Iran, a staunch opponent of the Hebrew state since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In the years since 2001, aggressive U.S. policies have further cemented the coalition, which has come to be associated with resistance against U.S. and Israeli designs for the wider Middle East.

Syria, for one, has remained under enormous international pressure – led by Washington – since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Despite the apparent absence of evidence implicating the Syrian regime in the crime, the U.S. has continued to push for a UN tribunal to try the case.

Iran, meanwhile, also faces mounting U.S.-led pressure over its alleged attempts to establish a nuclear weapons programme. Although a U.S. intelligence report concluded last December that Iran halted its weapons programme in 2003, the White House has unremittingly pushed for increasingly strict international sanctions against the Shia Islamic republic. As for Hamas and Hezbollah – which, unlike their state sponsors, have recent experience in military combat with Israel – the U.S. has staunchly adopted the Israeli position, dubbing both as “terrorist organisations.”

But while Israel-Syria talks are scheduled to resume next week, probably in Turkey, some analysts in Cairo say the negotiations represent little more than a tactical ploy by both sides.

“Syria appears to be merely playing along with the talks,” said Kandil. “This way, Damascus hopes to counteract the isolation imposed on it by Washington and prove to the international community that it is interested in peace. Syria also hopes that, by participating, Washington might tone down its support for the regime’s political opponents operating abroad.”

Israel, meanwhile, appears no more sincere about finding a mutually acceptable settlement, analysts say.

“There has been no change in the regional balance of power to force Israeli concessions on the Golan,” said Kandil. “Tel Aviv is only playing the negotiation card to drive a wedge between Damascus and its allies, all of whom staunchly oppose negotiations with Israel.”

“Syria alone doesn’t represent a serious military threat to Israel,” he added. “But its allies – Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – all have the capacity to land a blow against the Zionist state.”

Kandil went on to express doubt that Syria would forsake such strategically vital alliances. “Without Iran or the resistance groups, Syria would lose all means of exerting military pressure on Israel,” he said.

According to Salaama, Syria might consider distancing itself from the resistance factions – but not from Iran. “Syria’s stature in the region is inherently bound up with its close alliance with Iran,” he said.

Sure enough, al-Assad recently dismissed the notion, saying that Syria had every intention of keeping “normal relations” with its Iranian ally. Late last month, Syrian Defence Minister Hassan Turkmani met with his Iranian counterpart to renew a joint defence agreement and discuss military cooperation.

Although both Syria and Israel appear to be exploiting the talks in order to achieve gains elsewhere, Salaama pointed out that a successful outcome was not entirely out of the question.

“The success or failure of the talks will depend on a constructive mediation role by Turkey, the support of the U.S. administration, and a readiness by both sides to make concessions,” he said.

Egyptian analysts expressed little surprise that the two antagonists had chosen Turkey over Egypt – a traditional leader in the region – to mediate the dispute.

“Egypt has lost much of its former diplomatic weight,” said Kandil. “Turkey, meanwhile, has kept up strong relations with both Israel and Syria, and boasts considerable stature – political and economic – in the region.”

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