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Books on Syria

Update No: 046 - (27/11/07)

Prospects for a Peace Conference amid Threat of Civil War in Lebanon
The Annapolis peace conference, set to begin on November 27, represents a last attempt by the increasingly 'realist' faction of this US administration represented by Condoleeza Rice, to revive the Middle East peace process. The United States has invited about 40 countries and international organizations, including Saudi Arabia and Syria which have no relations with Israel, to the meeting it hopes will launch negotiations to end the six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the Washington neo-conservative establishment close to Dick Cheney, David Wurmser and the leader of Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu, are worried that Israel may be asked to negotiate, this very concern suggests that at least Ms. Rice and the realists - basically the State Department (perhaps even President Bush) are ready, if for no other reason than to leave a Middle East legacy that is not limited to the Iraq quagmire, to steer the conference into a direction that would force Israel to make some important concessions. Indeed, the US secretary of state is rumored to have consulted with former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter - vilified by the neo-conservatives (and of course the US Israel lobby), for having written 'Palestine, Peace not Apartheid' - in planning the Conference. 

Moreover, the fact that Syria, the international isolation of which has been encouraged by the US administration, has also been asked to participate at Annapolis, is also a sign that some members of the American administration are interested in even the slightest chance of a breakthrough for Middle East peace. Nevertheless, while the aims of the Conference are commendable, the prospects for its success are minimal at best. As for Syria, invited as one of the states behind the Arab peace initiative, its participation at the Annapolis conference remains highly doubtful. The Arab peace initiative calls for Israeli withdrawal from all Arab land, including the Golan Heights. Peace talks between Syria and Israel, centered on normal ties in return for the Golan, collapsed in 2000. 'Al Hayat' indicated that power brokers in Damascus are still waiting to hear whether or not the issue of the Golan Heights shall be discussed during the meeting. Syria has declared (in the past) that it would only take part in the peace conference if the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from it in the 1967 Six-Day War, is on the agenda. 

"There will be no peace without the Golan, the refugees' right of return and a sovereign Palestinian state" said Mohsen Bilal, minister of information. Syrian authorities are waiting to learn the views of the Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo before issuing (or not) a formal rejection to attend Annapolis. 'Al-Hayat's opinion is that Syria at the conclusion of the meeting on Thursday, will officially announce its intention not to attend the summit.
Of course, the US has framed Syria's - widely anticipated rejection - of the invitation in such a way that it would be seen as the uncompromising party. US diplomats said that the there would be a session in the conference on comprehensive Middle East peace (which is what Syria wants to discuss as part of the Golan problem) and Syria if a no-show, would be seen as deliberately trying to spoil Annapolis by not attending.

Nevertheless, Syria is using its ambiguity on Annapolis as a diplomatic lever. Syria is under international pressure to attend. Russia and pro-U.S. Arab governments such as those of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are asking Damascus to attend the conference. Even Israel said it was in favor of Syria taking part and Jordan's King Abdullah tried to convince President Bashir al-Asad to send a delegation. Both Jordan and Egypt have quietly backed the US position on Lebanon at Syria's expense in the wake of the investigation into the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Damascus is therefore, in a position to regain regional prestige - especially after the failure of the Palestinian government of national unity, which it helped broker in Mecca last January - through a calculated indecisiveness. 

Syria is sending a message to show Arab neighbors and world powers alike that Syria should not be isolated and that Annapolis or US diplomatic efforts in the region would not achieve its goals without Syria. It is in a sense, what the Iraq Study Group (ISG) tried to convey almost a year ago, again showing that Washington now has two separate foreign policy currents vis--vis Syria. The US State Department is quietly reworking the suggestions presented by the ISG. A major problem for Syria, or rather obstacle, is that by attending Annapolis it might compromise the position of Hamas even further - at a time when Israel is laying nothing short of a siege of Gaza, and could even risk alienating Iran (though if the ISG approach has finally crept its way to Washington corridors, Iran would also benefit, by conveying its positions through Syria). Alternatively, the price for some of the US concessions to bring Syria to Annapolis might include overt or covert attempts to lure Syria away from Iran's influence. Moreover, could present a significant diplomatic breakthrough if it managed to shift Syria more toward the Saudi orbit. Such a de-coupling would also imply that Syria reduces its links with Hezbollah in Lebanon. That of course would imply some rather significant concessions on the Golan, which Israel appears to be nowhere near considering. 

Hamas, whose leader is based in Damascus, has dismissed the conference as lacking seriousness, describing it as 'stillborn' and only aiming at covering up a future American attack against Iran. There are neocons in the US who would agree with that as being the main purpose of this gathering. History has shown that Syria has not been afraid to adopt positions that counter those of its neighbors. Syria supported revolutionary Iran against Saddam Hussain's Baathists and Iran is still crucial player in the region with many well-educated people and many resources. It is difficult to envisage a break-up of this alliance, unless Annapolis creates concrete opportunities (which would inevitably also play in favor of Iran). 

Lebanon Anxieties
Therefore, significant obstacles to securing Syrian backing for any initiative emerging from Annapolis that does not include the principle of a full restitution of the Golan to Syria. However, it should also be noted that the United States may also need Syria's presence in order to help contain a looming crisis in Lebanon because of a failure for the opposition and the government to agree on a successor to president Emile Lahoud, whose mandate will have expired before the end of November. All that is known is that the president will have to be chosen from among the ranks of the Christian minority according to the Lebanese constitution. So far the prospect that the two coalitions succeed in reaching an agreement that might spare Lebanon another civil war appear very slim. There is even the likelihood that the government majority may push through a candidate of their own choosing in response to pressure from the United States (among others). Because of numerical superiority, the government could even push through a candidate without the opposition's consensus thanks to the 50% + 1 voting formula. This possibility is also provided for in the Lebanese constitution within ten days from the expiry of the presidential mandate. Such a president would only contribute to the divide. Armed militias connected to political factions have also started to re-appear and there have been clashes reported in recent days connected to the presidential puzzle. 

France, backed by the United States, has contributed to the latter scenario, by persuading the Maronite-Catholic patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir to name the possible presidential candidates from a list chosen by France, so it is accused by the opposition presidential candidate General Michel Aoun. Nabih Berri (Amal, opposition) and Saad Hariri are now consulting the 6-name list. 

Nevertheless, the very influential leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has asked outgoing president Lahoud to form an alternative government to the one now led by Fouad Siniora. Evidently, Syria's diplomatic usefulness to Washington (the realists within it anyway) would be in helping resolve the presidential dispute in Lebanon, less by supporting a candidate favorable to the United States, than by failing to support a pro-opposition candidate. President al-Asad has spoken out against foreign interference in Lebanese matters stressing the need for Lebanon to reach consensus on the presidential election. Of course, it remains impossible to say what will happen in the few days remaining before Lebanon risks collapsing. Despite the mediation and efforts by some parties, there is no apparent solution. The government March 14 coalition and the March 8 opposition have procrastinated on the presidential election on several occasions, and it is as if no progress has been made since the postponed electoral sessions on September 25, October 23, and November 21. There is an opportunity for Syria here to use its influence in Lebanon to help it obtain concessions from the West in return for supporting a consensus president. But the price is likely too high for the West (and Israel) to pay.

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