Damascus fears deviation on peace road
DAMASCUS - Syria looked on with especial interest as Israeli prime minister-in-waiting Tzipi Livni became the head of the Kadima Party and was asked to form a new cabinet by President Shimon Peres.
Damascus has two theories on how Livni, the former foreign minister, will react to the indirect peace talks currently underway between her country and Syria. Optimists are willing to give Livni the benefit of the doubt, claiming she will uphold the talks begun by her predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Others believe that while trying to form a government, Livni will certainly call off the Syria talks, to get the domestic house in order before returning to the negotiating table. This is despite Livni having sent off several messages to Syria pledging to uphold the talks once elected premier. Livni has just over a month to form a government by winning the support of a majority of the Knesset (parliament).
Syria reacted to Livni's election as Kadima leader at the weekend through a state-run daily, saying, "If she demonstrates a truthful desire to make peace, she will harvest peace. Otherwise, the region will remain in a state of no-war and no-peace and in a tense and unstable climate."
The paper added, "Mrs Livni knows well the requirements of peace and realizes that giving back occupied Arab lands to their real owners is the password to make the hoped-for just and comprehensive peace."
Giving substance to the "breakdown of talks" theory, which says that Livni - a former Mossad spy with plenty of old scores to settle with Syria - will call off talks with Damascus, Israel "postponed" the fifth round, which was scheduled for last week.
The announcement was originally made by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem, rather than Israel, who noted, "It has been postponed at the request of the Israeli side." Speaking at a press conference with his Spanish counterpart, who was visiting Damascus, Mouallem noted, "When Israel is ready to resume the talks, we will be too because we want to build a solid base that will allow the launch of direct negotiations whatever the outcome of the Kadima election in Israel."
The official reason for postponement of the fifth round of talks was the resignation of Yoram Turbowicz, the chief negotiator who also happened to be secretary general to ex-prime minister Olmert.
Efforts are being made to allow him to remain on the Israeli delegation after the downfall of the Olmert government, but "there are logistical problems with the status of Turbowicz", one report said as Livni has still to form a government.
Whether the problem is logistic or political, the Syrians are careful not to trust Israel in the early weeks of a Livni administration. They need a public declaration from the new prime minister that Israel remains committed to peace with Syria.
Speaking to Iranian TV while Livni was taking over Israel, President Bashar al-Assad downplayed the talks. "What is taking place now is not negotiations in the meaning of negotiations ... a Turkish mediator shuttle between Syria and Israel ... the purpose for us is to make sure that the Israel will return the Golan [Heights], or not."
He added that "so far this stage hasn't finished yet, and subsequently I cannot say that Israel is able or has the real intention for peace through returning these lands. We do not trust the Israelis in general because of our experiences with them in the 1990s during the peace negotiations … Unless we see something on the ground ... until this moment we haven't see this ... we won't trust the Israelis until they prove the contrary."
This week, Assad spoke to the National Progress Front, a parliamentary coalition of socialist parties operating under umbrella of the Ba'ath, and noted that the talks lagging in Turkey "may require more time and effort" to lead to direct negotiations.
All of that was seen as preparing the Syrian street for what may be a new Israeli prime minister who is unable or unwilling to deliver peace with Syria, just like all her predecessors since 1990.
The Hamas factor
In another way of putting the breaks on the optimists, Syria has made sure the world realizes it is still committed to working with Hamas in Palestine and that Hamas' political chief, Khaled Meshaal, has not left Damascus, as has been rumored in the Arab press.
Meshaal showed up at a gathering for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Damascus, confirming he had not left Syria, warning the international community, "Do not back Hamas into a corner. Pressure and siege have been tried … and Hamas remained steadfast." He also called for a prisoner swap "as soon as possible" to release "more than 1,000" Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Meshaal also attended a reception on the occasion of the opening of a branch for the Jerusalem International Association in Damascus, at the posh Orient Club in the heart of the Syrian capital. The Syrian press ran front-page photos of him, seated at the same elite table as Buthaina Sha'aban, the media adviser to Assad.
Russia in the wings
Another message coming out of Damascus was the solidifying of a new friendship with Moscow, a follow-up to the high-profile visit made by the Syrian president to Russia during the height of the Russian war in support of the breakaway region of South Ossetia in Georgia.
The Russians warmly greeted their Syrian guest, and beamed at a Syrian delegation attending an arms exhibition in Moscow. The Russians were furious at Israel's role in training the Georgian army for the South Ossetia adventure, an act clearly okayed by the United States.
The Russians found a golden opportunity to express their displeasure with Israel's behavior by cuddling up to the Syrians. For their part, the Syrians used the Russia visit to send a message to Washington that Syria still had "other options" and was not desperate to mend relations with Washington, as long as President George W Bush was still in the White House.
A number of economic agreements had been signed between Syria and Russia during Assad's visit to Moscow in January 2005, one of which was between Syria and a Russian company to explore and develop new oil and gas deposits in Syria. Another contract was signed to construct two US$200 million gas-processing plants and a $160 million gas pipeline.
This week, Information Minister Muhsen Bilal met a Russian delegation visiting Damascus, led by General Valentin Varinikov, head of the Defense of Human Rights and World Heritage Committee in Russia. Valentin praised the Syrians and slammed the US (which made front-page headlines in the Syrian press), and its allies, claiming they were the ones threatening world peace.
Bilal nodded, and praised, the newfound Damascus-Moscow alliance. Shortly afterwards, a vessel from Russia's Black Sea fleet began restoring facilities at the Syrian port city of Tartous, which many speculate will be used by the Russian military. The commander of the Syrian navy landed in Moscow to discuss the "further strengthening of mutual trust and mutual understanding".
On one front, these messages coming out of Damascus are part of a grand strategy, related to Syria's national interests and bargaining cards in the Middle East. They are aimed at the Bush White House, a defiant way of telling this outgoing administration, "All threats at Syria proved to be futile, and Syria continues with its foreign policy, undaunted by everything that has been coming out of Washington since 2005."
The comments are also in response to the victory of Livni and the change of command in Israel, which will directly affect the Turkish-sponsored Syrian-Israeli talks, threatening to bring them down completely.
At one point, peacemakers in Syria and Israel wanted the Americans to endorse these talks, or at least not veto them, so progress could be made in the Middle East. When that happened, mainly due to Syria's attendance of the Annapolis peace conference in the US last year, the goal became to bring the Americans into the room in Turkey, since no peace agreement can be reached without the US.
That was seen as close to impossible, given the American insistence that Syria is more interested in a peace process than a peace treaty to end the US-imposed isolation that started as a result of the Iraq war in 2003.
Now the goal is to keep Israel at the negotiating table in Turkey. Syria would not mind it walking away, as long as it can tell the world, "We tried with them in Turkey; they were the ones who turned down peace, based on UN Security Council resolutions, not us."
The world is drawing parallels between Livni and Golda Meir, Israel's first women prime minister, whom the Syrians remember well for her role in the October War of 1973. Although Meir shook the hands of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat when he visited Jerusalem in 1977 (she was out of office), her heart was never in favor of peace with the Arabs.
In this regard, the Syrians believe Livni walks in Meir's footsteps. That is why they are careful and worried about how the new prime minister will react. When the Syrians get worried and are on the alert, they head towards countries like Russia, and organizations like Hamas. When they feel comfortable, they go for countries like France, Qatar and Turkey.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.