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October 21, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8981

Arab Papers Report That Efforts Are Underway To Promote Syrian Peace Agreement With Israel; Syria Denies Reports

October 21, 2020
Syria | Special Dispatch No. 8981

In the wake of the normalization agreements signed by the UAE and Bahrain with Israel, several Arab media outlets, most of them opposed to the Syrian regime, have been discussing the possible renewal of peace negotiations between Syria and Israel, and have reported that diplomatic efforts to promote this goal are underway. For example, in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, senior analyst Ibrahim Hamidi assessed that secret negotiations between Syria and Israel may already be taking place, and that one of the issues addressed may be the Iranian presence in Syria.  The Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, known for its support of the pro-Saudi and anti-Iranian camp, claimed that the U.S. and Russia have reached understandings regarding the need to promote a settlement between Syria and Israel, and that Arab countries were interested in advancing this issue was well. The articles stressed that the Syrian regime may currently be motivated to resume peace talks with Israel in order to break out of its international isolation and guarantee its survival.

As stated, these articles were published in papers opposed to the Syrian regime, and therefore the reliability of their claims regarding possible negotiations between Syria and Israel is unclear. The articles may represent an effort by opponents of the Assad regime, some of whom support normalization with Israel, to spark a media debate on this issue and investigate the reactions to it.

The Syrian regime, for its part, denied the reports and clarified that it opposes any agreement with the Israeli enemy. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad stated reiterated that Syria will not normalize relations with Israel until it withdraws from the Syrian territories it is occupying, adding that Israel has given no sign of being willing to do so.

This document reviews some of the reports on possible Syria-Israel rapprochement and the reactions of the Syrian regime to these reports.

Arab Media: Secret Talks Between Israel And Syria, Backed By The U.S. And Russia, May Be Taking Place

A report headed "Will Syrian-Israeli Negotiations Resume?", posted September 27, 2020 on the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, claimed that diplomatic circles are once again discussing the issue of negotiations between the two countries, the terms each side will accept, and the position of the U.S. and Russia on this. The paper theorized that, whenever the Syrian regime faces a major transformation or the danger of international isolation, its only way out is to resume negotiations with Israel, based on the assumption that "the way to Washington passes through Tel Aviv." It speculated further that, given the international isolation of Syria, and given that the U.S. is leading this policy of isolation, the Assad regime might once again take this path in order to overcome its plight, and raised the possibility that secret negotiations between Syria and Israel are already taking place.

The daily added that talks between Syria and Israel cannot be sponsored by the U.S. alone, but that Russia will have to be involved as well, given its presence in Syria and its robust relations with both the Syrian regime and Israel. Furthermore, the talks will have to address the issue of Iran's presence in Syria, since the U.S., Russia and Israel agree that the Assad regime must sever its ties with the Iranian regime and Hizbullah. In this context, the article wondered whether Syria is currently willing, or even able, to give up its alliance with Iran, which has infiltrated all the power centers in Syria, whether Russia can arrange such an agreement, and whether the agreement will include only the withdrawal of the Iranians from Syria, or of all the foreign forces.[1] 

The Lebanese daily Al-Nahar reported, on October 4, 2020, that high-level contacts between the U.S. and Russia in September had yielded understandings regarding the need to make progress on the conflict between Syria and Israel. The daily added that Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, were pressing the U.S. and Russia to promote the issue of Syrian normalization with Israel, in the wake of the normalization agreements signed with Israel by the UAE and Bahrain. It speculated that the Syrian regime in fact needs a settlement with Israel, given the chaos that reigns in many areas under its control, and given that it has failed to translate its military victory in many parts of Syria into diplomatic achievements. Embarking on negotiations with Israel, the daily theorized, may help Syria out of its plight by returning it to the fold of the international community and prompting the superpowers to keep it in power and meet its needs. As for Israel, the daily speculated that it too may be amenable to making progress on the Syrian front, since an agreement with Syria will help it realize the goal of keeping Iran away from its borders.[2]

The Assad Regime Has Not Condemned The Normalization Agreements With Israel

As evidence for their claims regarding a possible Syrian warming towards Israel, both dailies noted that the Assad regime has refrained from commenting officially on the normalization agreements between Israel and the Gulf states.[3] However, this decision is most likely motivated by the regime's good relations with the UAE and Bahrain, especially considering that that the UAE renewed its diplomatic relations with Syria and reopened its embassy in Damascus already in December 2018,[4] and Bahrain simultaneously announced that its embassy in Damascus was still operating. [5]

Concurrently with these press articles, a video was circulated on social media in which a senior member of the Ba'th Party in Syria, former communications minister Mahdi Dakhlallah, says that, if the U.S. and Russia reach understandings on the establishment of a Palestinian state and the restoration of the Golan Heights to Syria, the resistance axis will have achieved its goals and Syria will withdraw from it, and that this may in fact happen soon.[6] The video triggered speculation on social media that Syria was gravitating towards an agreement with Israel. In response to these claims, Dakhlallah published  a firm article in the government Syrian daily Al-Ba'th, in which he clarified that his remarks had been taken out of context. He explained that that the statements had been made in a 2017 interview, and that the makers of the video edited them in a misleading way so as to create the impression that the Ba'th party is currently leaning towards normalization with Israel. He added that the statements did not originally refer to normalization at all.[7]   

Syrian Regime: Peace With Israel Will Only Be Possible Once We Regain The Golan

Responding to the speculations regarding possible rapprochement between Syria and Israel, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad addressed the issue in an October 8, 2020 interview with the Russian news agency. He denied that negotiations with Israel were taking place, and added: "Our position has been very clear since the beginning of the peace talks in the 1990s, namely three decades ago. We said that, as far as Syria is concerned, peace is connected to rights, and we have a right to our land. Normal relations with Israel will only be possible once we regain our land. This is very simple, and [peace] will therefore be possible once Israel becomes willing, but it is not willing and never will be. We have not seen a single official of the Israeli regime who is willing to take a single step towards peace. So peace is theoretically possible, but in practical terms the answer is no. "[8]

On October 1, 2020 a senior source in the Syrian foreign ministry reiterated Syria's "permanent position that is based on adherence to the land and to rights and opposes concessions and separate agreements [between individual Arab states with Israel], no matter what kind [of agreements they are] and what their content is. Syria underscores that it rejected and continues to reject any agreement or alliance with the Israeli enemy, based on its firm position that such agreements harm Arab causes in general and the Palestinian cause in particular. Past experience shows that normalization, alliances and agreements with this enemy only make it bolder and more stubborn, [while] weakening and dividing the Arabs… Syria clarifies that its position was and continues to be  one of opposing anyone who has signed or will sign in the future any agreement with the Israeli enemy that does not [include] the restoration of the rights and occupied lands. [Syria also] emphasizes that its war against terror, and all the suffering that this war and its ramifications are causing it to this very day, only intensify its commitment to its principles of rejecting normalization and seeking a just and comprehensive peace that restores the rights to their owners, in accordance with the [international] laws and the clear and explicit UN resolutions."[9]

Syrian Journalist: There Is No Point In Negotiations Between Syria And Israel; Mutual Understanding Between Them Already Exists

In his weekly column in the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily, Syrian publicist Akram Al-Bunni, who has done time in Syrian prison on more than one occasion due to his opposition to the Assad regime, wondered, in the wake of the reports about Syria-Israel relations, what need there is for an agreement between the two countries in the current circumstances. He wrote, "The mutual interests [between Syria and Israel] are clear and there is no doubt or lack of clarity, and [they rest on] a Syrian gamble or could it be that this is an old Syrian regime tendency to [try to] please Israel to ensure its survival and continued existence, while selling itself as the best possible protector of the stability on the border? This would prevent all-out war [with Israel] which is likely to weaken its military and security support. And because it understands that Israel's rulers take precautions with respect to every change in Syria that is likely to threaten their interests or their security… Conversely, Israel's leaders accepted the Syrian regime in the best possible way, as it is an experienced regime which has preserved the Golan front in a state of safety and stability for decades and specifically since the Separation of Forces Agreement in 1974…

There's no smoke without fire, and it may be that the report about the existence of secret negotiations between Israel and Syria or about the existence of Russian pressure on Syria to broach the subject of negotiations with Israel, is true. It also may be that today more than ever the weak and besieged Syrian regime needs to come knocking on Israel's door, which is a direct and secure gateway to an easing of the siege and a paving of the way to the West and to re-approving [the Syrian regime's] inclusion in the international arena. However, it is also true that in light of the weakness and dependency [of the Syrian regime] it still requires national demagoguery to market itself to its people and to explain its suspicious position as it stands by Iran, and the despicable crimes it perpetrated against the Syrian people. This explains the triggering of its propaganda wars against separate arrangements [with Israel] and the new emphasis on the comprehensive solution and the principle of land for peace as a condition for normalization.

Everyone understands that there is no arrangement in sight that will return the Golan to Syria. For Israel will not give the weak regime [now] what it was wouldn't hand over to it when it was at the height of its power. Moreover, its inclination to normalize relations with it when it was the gateway to the Arab world has currently lost much of its allure, following the decision about starting to draft a border with Lebanon. If we add to this the fact that there is nothing which indicates that any change is likely in the agreements alluded to or in the mutual interests of the rulers in Damascus and the leaders in Tel Aviv, then whoever asks: What, then, is the point of negotiations between Syria and Israel?! would not be stretching the truth."[10]

 

 

 

[1]  Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 27, 2020.

[2] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), October 4, 2020.

[3]  The Syrian regime sufficed with statements of condemnation by the leadership of the ruling Ba'th party. (Facebook.com/al.baath.party.in.syria2013, August 13, 15, 2020).

[4]  Beta.alarabiya.net, December 27, 2018. According to many reports the relations between the two countries were good even before this.

[5] Mofa.gov.bh, December 28, 2018.

[6]  Snacksyrian.com, September 19, 2020.

[7]  Al-Ba'th (Syria), October 1, 2020.

[8]  Sana.sy, October 8, 2020.

[9]  Sana.sy, October 1, 2020.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 16, 2020.

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