Across the Bay

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Syria and the Arab Peace Initiative

Since there's much talk now about the revived Arab peace initiative, I thought I'd dig up Gary Gambill's excellent analysis of the history and development of this initiative, and the history of Syria's sabotage of it, as a follow-up on my piece in The Daily Star.

Some key graphs:

Assad relentlessly worked to sabotage the proposal through the most intensive flurry of Syrian diplomatic activity in recent memory. Syrian officials fanned out across the Middle East in advance of the March 27-28 Arab League summit in Beirut, pressing other Arab states to water down the promise of normalization, add explicit conditions to it that virtually no Israelis are willing to contemplate and simultaneously declare their support for the suicide bombings taking place in the Jewish state.
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The proposal outraged the Syrians for several reasons. First, although Syrian relations with the kingdom have been close over the last decade, Abdullah did not consult or even inform Damascus about the proposal beforehand. Indeed, the Saudis may have chosen the unusual, indirect manner in which the proposal was released so as to avoid prior coordination with Syria. Second, Abdullah did not specifically mention the Golan Heights. The fact that Jerusalem was mentioned, while Syrian territorial claims were not, implicitly gave priority to the Palestinian track of the peace process.

So what were the amendments that the Syrians sought to introduce to the then-Crown Prince Abdullah initiative?

Although the Syrians made no official comment on Abdullah's proposal for over two weeks, efforts to undermine it were soon evident. On March 3, Assad made the first official visit to Beirut by a Syrian head of state in over fifty years [see Assad in Beirut in the current issue of MEIB] in an apparent effort to solidify Lebanon's continued deference to Syria on foreign policy. During his visit, Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud released a joint statement which, while not mentioning the proposal, emphasized that a comprehensive settlement with Israel must allow the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel and require the removal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza (neither of which was mentioned by Abdullah).
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The Syrians quickly realized that weakening the reference to normalization could doom the initiative and began openly lobbying for it. In a series of interviews, Syrian Information Minister Adnan Omran repeatedly declared that the Saudi peace plan does not offer Israel "normalization" of relations, a term he called "an Israeli invention" designed to "gain advantages and privileges meant to make the Arab side feel beaten and defeated." He added that, when Assad flew to Saudi Arabia to seek clarification on this matter, the Crown Prince "assured our leader . . . that the plan stipulates a total Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories in return for peaceful relations, not normalization." Omran even went so far as to deny that Abdullah ever mentioned the phrase "normalization of relations" in his discussion with Friedman. "The plan or, let me call it ideas, were twisted by the newspaper."
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However, Syria's pre-summit efforts to convince Arab governments to officially reject the concept of normalization generated mixed results. Not surprisingly, Iraq and Libya backed Syria's position, but the Jordanians were insistent that the Arab League officially endorse the term, arguing that this "magic phrase" would moderate Israeli public opinion - a view shared by the Saudis. The Egyptians, whose diplomatic clout derives largely from the absence of a broader Arab-Israeli settlement, felt upstaged by the Saudi peace initiative and were more ambivalent.

Just three days before the summit, the Syrians orchestrated a massive demonstration against normalization with Israel, apparently designed to signal to other Arab leaders the depth of popular opposition to the vision of peace proposed by the Saudis. The demonstration, which drew hundreds of thousands of protestors into the streets of Damascus, was a rather unusual spectacle in the Syrian capital, where even state-sponsored rallies have been relatively modest in size since the ascension of President Bashar Assad, for fear that they will morph into anti-regime protests. On this occasion, however, the regime shut down all government offices in Damascus so that employees in the bloated civil service could attend en masse and closed all schools to encourage student participation. Thousands of riot police were stationed around Umayyad Square to ensure that the crowds remained focused on officially-sanctioned targets of indignation.

The result of the Beirut summit, which as Gary points out, was a Syrian (and indeed Syrian-orchestrated) summit (which is why not too many leaders showed up), was the following:

The Arab League summit transformed Abdullah's simple declaration of principles into a more convoluted resolution that is less likely to achieve a breakthrough with Israel. Although Syrian efforts to replace the term "full normalization" with "complete peace" were unsuccessful, they were able to reduce it to the watered-down phrase "normal relations" (alaqat tab'iyya), which carries a very different connotation in Arabic - meaning the establishment of relations that are not unusual, rather than a process of improving political, economic, and cultural ties.

A far more critical amendment to the Saudi proposal concerns the status of Palestinian refugees from within Israel's pre-1967 borders. The resolution added the demand for a "just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194" and, at the insistence of Syrian and Lebanese delegates, a phrase affirming "the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries." The reason for this added amendment was that Resolution 194 refers to compensation for refugees "choosing not to return," implying that they should be given a choice. The phrase "special circumstances" refers to the Lebanese constitution, which bans the patriation of refugees. Thus, with respect to the 350,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the Arab League resolution calls not for their "right of return" (as the Palestinian delegation lobbied for), but mandates that they must be settled in Israel.

So, Syria sought to kill the initiative by watering down the clause on normalization and by trying to insert maximalist conditions on the refugees.

It only partially succeeded (enough to kill any Israeli interest at the time). Gary's last sentence about the initiative saying the Palestinian refugees have to be settled in Israel is not entirely accurate.

Here's what the text actually said:

2. b. Reaching a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees to be agreed to according to UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

As you may know, this (non-binding) resolution has been notoriously interpreted in different ways, as its language is ambiguous enough to allow it. So in theory, there is room for maneuverability. Even on the Syrian-added clause about patriation (specifically in Lebanon, where it's in the constitution), there's enough wiggle room.

The Syrians realized this at the current summit, and once again sought to introduce hard-line maximalist language on both these issues to sabotage it yet again, and make sure to finish the job they tried to do in 2002!

On Thursday, the Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat leaked the following story (emphasis mine):

According to Arab sources, during the preparatory ministerial meeting, Syria sought to introduce certain amendments to the draft resolution on the Arab peace initiative, which was adopted in the Beirut summit of 2002, in order to clarify the articles of the initiative regarding the right of return, the refugees, patriation, and Jerusalem.

The Arab foreign ministers rejected the Syrian proposal, according to the same sources, and one of the Arab ministers said: the initiative is clear and there's no ambiguity requiring specifying or hardening the language regarding the refugees, Jerusalem, and patriation.

These leaks come despite the assurances made by Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem, upon his arrival in Riyadh to participate in the preparatory meetings with his Arab counterparts, that his country is against amending the Arab peace initiative, and that it supported it in its current format.

So it was clear that there was Arab fear of a Syrian attempt to once again do what it did in 2002. In fact, it was leaked before the summit that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia sent a message to Bashar that they will not tolerate him using the summit as a podium to deliver one of his typically long and rambling ideological screeds to lecture the Arab leaders.

Why was Moallem worried about amendments? Because there was chatter that there might be "updates" to the initiative that would make it more appealing. The Syrians wanted none of that. In fact, the Syrians told the regime's man in al-Hayat, Ibrahim Hamidi, that Syria rejected any "normalizing movement" or visits to Israel (aimed at marketing the initiative) by any Arab state that hasn't signed a peace with Israel. They insisted that any communication with Israel be done exclusively through Jordan, Egypt and Mahmoud Abbas.

So once again, the Syrians sought to kill normalization and to introduce maximalist amendments on the refugees, both designed to ensure an Israeli rejection. Once again, their success is mixed.

No additional clauses on the refugees were introduced in the final statement. The Syrians had to make do with flooding the media (for example the Syrian-Iranian tool Azmi Bishara was all over the Arabic satellites bashing the initiative) and with rhetorical bluster at the summit, through their allies and proxies. So while Assad was apparently instructed to put a cork in it (indeed, the multiple leaks said that his meeting with King Abdullah was "heated" and "confrontational"), he delegated obstructionist and rhetorical duties to his puppet, Emile Lahoud, who indeed made bombastic statements on the refugees issue. Also, the hard-line interpretation of the refugees issue was handed out by Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh (who stressed to the press that he was pleased the right of return was asserted, even when the text made no reference to it).

Neither Hamas nor Syria has any interest in seeing this initiative succeed, of course. Furthermore, Syria wants to ensure that it gives absolutely nothing, but gain the dividends anyway. This was, after all, the Syrian modus operandi throughout the "peace talks" in the 90's. Moreover, Syria wants to make sure that the Palestinian (and Saudi) track is as unattractive as possible for Israel, in the hope that Israel might decide that it would be easier to try Assad instead, thereby throwing him the life rope he so desperately needs and has been trying to snatch in order to lock himself in a process, break his isolation, and work to re-establish control over Lebanon and terminate the Hariri tribunal. After all, Assad is not after the Golan. He's after Lebanon. The Golan is a bonus at best.

Unfortunately for Assad, the Israelis see his ploy for what it is and have no interest to start talks. Witness this interview with Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland:

"Does Israel need to reach an agreement with Syria now? The answer is no. Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for partial normalization and insufficient security arrangements is not in Israel's national interest.... Israel has serious reasons why it should not make a deal with Syria today: an Israel-Syria agreement does not solve the problem of a nuclear Iran...and unlike in the past, such an agreement would not solve the problem of Hizbullah, which today takes direction from Iran. In addition, the U.S., Israel's major ally, cares little for the idea."
Eiland also believes that an agreement with Israel would lead the Sunni majority in Syria to challenge the current regime led by the Alawite minority, so the duration of any agreement with Assad would not be assured. "Beyond all future considerations, the bottom line is that there are no security arrangements that would compensate for giving up the Golan Heights. And I say this as someone with deep knowledge of the security arrangements discussion with the Syrians seven years ago." (Source: Makor Rishon-Hebrew, 3/23/07)

What Saudi Arabia is interested in is to cut off the road for Iran on the Palestinian issue, by taking control of that file and by shutting down Hezbollah in Lebanon so as not to repeat this past summer's misadventure. In other words, Saudi Arabia (and Egypt and Jordan) cannot afford to allow Iran (and its sidekick Syria, and their proxies) to control the decision of war with Israel. The move is to neutralize that option. And since Israel shares that same interest, the thinking is that perhaps they might go along (and indeed, the various, if uncomfortable, murmurs in Israel indicate that the Israelis realize this. Which is probably why Egypt's Abul Gheit made sure to state that the Arabs don't view Israel's rejection as final.)

This is not to say that the Arab initiative will succeed. It's unlikely to, and it probably will end up being theater, as Martin Kramer noted. (Hamas is already shooting it down and upping the maximalist rhetoric. So there's little to talk about. And there won't be talks with Syria either, which shares and encourages Hamas's maximalism and rejectionism.) So in the end, Syria et al. will do their best to use it, but also make sure it fails, just like they did in 2002.

Addendum: It turns out Mamoun Fandy had made a similar remark on the eve of the summit, in an article in Asharq al-Awsat. Memri translated excerpts from it. Here's the relevant graph:

"It was King 'Abdullah Bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz alone who proposed [this] earnest initiative at the Beirut summit in 2002, and it was the start of an earnest dialogue to resolve the issue of Palestine. But the 'rock crowd' added to it the issue of the return of the Palestinian refugees, in order to change it from an earnest initiative suitable for a comprehensive solution, that made the most of the existing realities, into an initiative that was impossible to implement, [and] not much different than the unimplemented Security Council resolutions. In so doing, they emptied the Saudi initiative of its content, and left the Palestine issue as a rock, so that they can carry the lanterns that light up the sign hung on the rock, and so they can shout at us, 'Careful of the rock!'

"[When] the initiative is proposed again now in Riyadh, it must be a courageous proposal that does not bow to the 'rock lobby.'