Books on Syria
No: 073 - (21/01/10)
or Peace on the Horizon?
France’s president Sarkozy - said the Arab ‘al-Hayat’ newspaper - believes that
there may be another war in the Middle East in 2010. The fact that Sarkozy was
speaking to Lebanese prime minister Hariri, when he proffered the gloomy
prospect, suggests that Lebanon, and possibly Syria may be involved while the
trigger will be Iran, as Israel may attempt to destroy its nuclear facilities in
a pre-emptive strike. Should Israel go ahead with this alleged plan, the
Lebanese Hezbollah militia and Syria might be drawn into the conflict as well.
The Israeli minister without portfolio, Yossi Peled, an army general, believes
that it is only a matter of time before Israel and Hezbollah resume hostilities.
Peled advised that in case a conflict does break out; Israel would hold both
“Lebanon and Syria as responsible”. The direct result of this statement has been
that Lebanon and Syria have been on ‘high alert”. The Israeli prime minister,
Benjamin Netanyahu, has not corroborated Peled’s comments, stating, “Israel is
not seeking any conflict with Lebanon,". Some Israeli analysts suggest that
waging a war against Hezbollah without striking Syria as well would ensure
another loss – as it was in 2006. Israel wants to control Hezbollah’s lines of
supply, which it alleges are in Syria. An Israeli military analyst told the
Jerusalem Post’: “Any future strike at Hezbollah that does not take into account
its status as a client of Syria is unlikely to land a decisive blow,” implying
that Syria supplied weapons to Hezbollah during the 2006 war.
How will the United States react to these musings?
The stall in peace talks, whether over Palestine or Syria, has been one of the
biggest disappointments of the Obama administration so far. After the fanfare of
the speech at Cairo’s al-Azhar university last spring, Israel has been able to
continue its settlement policy unabated, despite occasional very weak calls for
a hiatus in construction of new settlements, from the prime minister’s office,
which are never enforced. As for Syria, the Obama administration has improved
ties, but it still maintains it on the list of terror sponsoring countries.
Moreover, the State Department has taken far too long to appoint an ambassador
to Syria. Ironically, just as Peled was discussing the high potential for war
with Lebanon and Syria in 2010, the United States remembered its diplomatic
commitment to Syria.
Five years after president G.W. Bush recalled its ambassador to Syria after
Syria became the prime suspect for the murder of former prime minister Rafiq
al-Hariri in February 2005; the White House has finally appointed a new
ambassador to Syria. The special US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has
already discussed the appointment with president Bashar Asad during a visit to
Damascus in mid January. Syria has not formally accepted the appointment yet,
but rumors suggest the new ambassador to Damascus will be Robert Stephen Ford,
who has until now served at the US embassy in Baghdad as deputy ambassador.
Ford’s appointment is timely and it suggests that the Obama administration may
be ready to start pulling some diplomatic levers to re-launch Middle East peace
talks in which Syria will have an important role. Ford is said to be an expert
in Middle East issues and he speaks Arabic; he has also served in Algeria before
Suggestions of wars involving Israel and Syria, and the complete normalization
of US-Syrian diplomatic relations may finally help bring the United States to
put its weight behind an Israeli-Syrian dialogue.
In 2008, Syria and Israel held talks brokered by Turkey, but the Bush
administration did not push the process, which waned after the election of
Benjamin Netanyahu who trashed the talks, centred on the return of the Golan
Heights. The Israeli ‘Cast Lead’ offensive in Gaza in early 2009, hardly made
the atmosphere for reconciliation more conducive.
The US special envoy George Mitchell has certainly hinted that the Obama
administration has become more interested in promoting a process leading to the
normalization of relations between Israel and Syria. Mitchell is not going to
‘revolutionize’ the approach; he promotes reviving the Turkish mediated talks,
and also spread some of the responsibility for ending hostilities on Israel
itself; Mitchell said that Israel has to "declare frankly" its intention to
pursue peace. It is a seemingly mild request, but it suggests that the US
intends to pursue a more balanced course of action. Nevertheless, over the
course of 2009, Turkey has made important moves in spreading its influence
throughout the Middle East. Apparently, tired of waiting for the EU to open its
doors, Turkey has discovered a ‘Young Turk’-like nationalist feeling bent on
promoting its influence and ties in the areas that once made up the Ottoman
Syria has strengthened ties with Turkey, taking advantage of the rapidly eroding
‘friendship’ between Israel under Netanyahu, and Turkey in 2009. Turkey’s prime
minister Erdogan has criticized Israeli policy openly and warned Israel that it
should be careful about rescinding an ally such as Turkey in the Middle East.
Therefore, even as Israel may reject Turkish mediation, the United States has
arrived in Syria just in time to all but impose the talks and Turkey, as their
mediator. Syria has conditions for resuming the talks; it demands Israel’s
commitment to relinquish all of the Golan in accordance with the relevant UN
resolution 497, which rejects Israel’s forcible acquisition of the land. Israel,
meanwhile, might resume talks without preconditions. There are some major
obstacles to the resumption of talks in the Israeli cabinet; the minister of
foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, said he would reject Turkey’s mediation,
because of the latter country’s strong criticism of Israeli actions against
Palestinians in Gaza and in the ‘settlements’. Lieberman went so far as to ask
Netanyahu to recall the Israeli envoy to Ankara. Of course, Syria understands
that the US offer of support means that it may have to re-consider the scope of
its ties to Iran and Hezbollah.
It is unlikely that president Asad would cut all ties to Teheran; in fact, there
are no indications he is ready to cut any ties, certainly not before Syria has
managed to secure the entire Golan back. While Asad is president, there are
powerful political and military interests that demand nothing less than the full
return of the Golan. However, Syria has already started to show that it is
willing to make some concessions to the Americans. Syrian security forces have
arrested two Syrians charged with having conducted or organized attacks in Iraq.
Iraqi media reported that the two men were caught “while trying to supply bombs
to an armed group” in Iraq. Ever since the first weeks of the US invasion of
Iraq, Syria has faced allegations of failing to control the flow of people at
the border, which the United States has often accused of being too porous. In
the last months of 2009, Iraqi government officials accused Syria of backing the
terrorists who organized simultaneous attacks in Baghdad last December 8,
killing 127 people.
Financial Sector Reforms
The diplomatic momentum in Syria could be matched by some significant financial
and economic reforms. In January, Syria’s central bank took steps to promote
foreign banks investing and announced two key financial sector reforms intended
to encourage large foreign banks to investing in the country by raising the
amount of non-Syrian share ownership of local banks from 49 to 60%. The central
Bank also wants private banks to raise their minimum capital almost tenfold. The
government wants money to vastly improve its capacity to finance infrastructure
improvements and other projects. While the latter requirement will prompt some
banks to shut down, it will enable the world’s largest banks to enter the Syrian
market. Citibank and HSBC are among the banks that have or could establish
branches in Syria, though the minimum capital requirements may make that
proposition riskier. Moreover, President Asad appointed a new minister of the
economy, Lamia Assi, a woman who has spent much time in the Far East and who has
developed an appreciation for the more free-market style policies of the Far
Eastern emerging economies.