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August 13, 1999 No.
22

Israel-Syrian Negotiations, Part II: Syrian and Israeli Strategies.

By: Yigal Carmon and Yotam Feldner*

The Syrians feel that they have made a political mistake by responding so enthusiastically to Barak's peace campaign, only to be disappointed by him later. A senior western diplomat in Damascus said the Syrians feel that "they revealed their cards too quickly" and weakened their position.[1]

Syrian Reassessment Following the Crisis

Since July 23, 1999, Syria has pursued three lines of strategy simultaneously.

First, Syria retracted the vague formula Syrian President, Hafez Assad, introduced in order to further enhance the resumption of negotiations "on the basis of what was accomplished in the past." Syria, now, returned to publicly demanding a specific Israeli commitment to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 border as a prerequisite to the resumption of the negotiations. Assad himself demanded it in a joint statement with Jordanian King Abdullah, following their meeting in Damascus.[2] Assad's deputy, Muhammad Zuheir Masharqa, announced - one day after Barak advisor Dani Yatom's July 22 statement - that Syria "insists on an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 border" and that "Syria would not give up a single grain of its occupied soil."[3] Such statements[4] indicate that the Syrian leadership's self restraint has come to an end. Furthermore, on several occasion Syria stated that the "point where the negotiations stopped" does not only include the June 4 borderline, but also an Israeli consent for equal and parallel security arrangements on both sides of the borders.[5]

Second, Syria began calling on the US to intervene and decide in its favor on the dispute over the "point where the negotiations stopped." "The US must intervene, due to its responsibility as the sponsor of the peace process and due to its global responsibility; it must decide the matter and make Barak and Israel comply with the requirements of peace," stated an editorial in the Al-Thawra daily.[6] The Syrians want the American intervention to be effective. Syrian Ambassador to the US, Walid Mu'alem, focused the Syrian demand, telling Middle East Insight: "We need to hear from the Americans that Barak wants to withdraw to the line of June 4, 1967."[7] Moreover, western diplomats in Damascus said that if American Secretary of State, Albright comes to Damascus "she had better come with specific proposals, otherwise she will irritate President Assad."[8]

The third approach adopted by Syria, when it realized that Israel does not intend to abide by Syria's terms, is employing heated rhetoric to attack Israel and Prime Minister Barak. Syrian Foreign Minister, Faruq Al-Shar', for example, threatened that if Israel insists on its refusal to withdraw to the June 4 borderline, "Syria would demand that Israel return one third of its land, [land] that Israel occupied between 1948 and 1976 [which is, in fact, a demand for the borders of the UNGA Partition Resolution 181.]" Al-Shar', reacting to Israeli Minister of Justice, Yossi Beilin's objection to an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4 lines, emphasized that the border Syria claims included Al-Hama and part of the Sea of Galilee shore.[9] It seems that Al-Shar' was personally offended when it was revealed that Barak would not submit to the Syrian demand. According to western diplomatic sources in Damascus, Al-Shar' was central to the positive response to Barak's campaign in the Syrian government[10] and at one point even declared that the resumption of negotiations "is possible within several weeks or months."[11]

The Syrian media followed suit. "We hope that the stench that emits from [Barak's] statements will not spoil the good atmosphere prevailing in the region," the Tishreen daily writes, "We hope that the Barak government does not follow the footsteps of Netanyahu, because it would put the entire region into another cycle of violence, tension, and risk of destructive wars."[12] The Syrian media reiterated that there was a possibility of escalation in the anti-Israeli activity in South Lebanon. "The struggle against occupation is a right established by international legitimacy [i.e. the UN]," stated Damascus Radio.[13]

For a brief time it appeared that Assad was ready to resume negotiations on the basis of such a vague formula. Moreover, Assad himself offered one. But soon it was unveiled that Assad was in fact trying, through the "back door," to compensate himself with an American guarantee, "even a verbal one by President Clinton" that the US would support Syria's position in the dispute. When the US failed to deliver this guarantee, Assad revealed his reluctance to enter negotiations on the basis of "constructive ambiguity."

Underlying Syrian Factors

The Israeli intelligence assessment claims that Assad's succession overshadows the Syrian President's peace strategy. They believe that Assad is more likely to become flexible in order to "clean the table" and bequeath his son, Bashar, a more stable Syria.[14] Western diplomats in Damascus, on the other hand, understand the succession factor differently. Assad wants to forge a settlement with Israel now on his terms only to prevent the possibility that Bashar's weaknes after the succession will result in Bashar making undue compromises with Israel. According to these sources, Assad's interest in peace is not so great that he would be prepared to make "unjustified concessions" in which case, "he would prefer to leave the conflict unresolved." [15]

The Israeli Position

Barak's moves toward Syria, which continued until his return from Washington, were meant, possibly, to pressure the Palestinians to accept his plan to integrate the implementation of the Wye Accord with the Final Status settlement. The implicit threat was that otherwise Israel would focus on the Syrian track. The premise behind this logic is that the Syrian-Lebanese track and the Palestinian track are mutually exclusive. Israel will not implement moves that entail security risks on both fronts simultaneously. Focusing on the Syrian front is likely to neutralize progress on the Palestinian track. However, the Palestinian Authority displayed resolve in the face of this pressure.

In addition to pressuring the Palestinian Authority, Barak's move was also meant to examine the possibility of entering negotiations with Syria on the basis of a vague formula that enables both sides to begin the negotiations without having compromised their positions. By the end of July, President Assad returned to his previous positions, having realized that neither Barak nor the Americans were ready to submit to his demand.

Underlying Israeli Factors

The Israeli position in the peace process is guided, first and foremost, by the need to avoid returning to the June 4, 1967 borders. Barak expressed this position before the elections, when he announced his four "red lines." The importance of Israel's position on the Syrian front exceeds the bounds of the settlement with Syria. It also has implications on the settlement with the Palestinians. An Israeli agreement to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 line on the Syrian border would not only jeopardize Israel's security and water resources, but it would also strengthen the Palestinian demand to return to the pre-1967 borders. This is out of the question from the Israeli perspective. Therefore, such a move on the Syrian front may lead the peace process on the Palestinian track to a dead-end.

Barak, however, continues to strive for the resumption of the talks. On the procedural level, Barak was forthcoming. He gave up the advantage Israel has in the "Christopher Letter," which disproves the Syrian interpretation and offered a vague formula: "the resumption of negotiations from the point were they stopped, [as the Syrians demanded] while each side still comes with its own interpretation." He did it in order to facilitate the resumption of the talks because given the circumstances and the positions of both sides, only an ambiguous formula can bring them together. However, on the substantive level, Barak remains firm that there will be no return to the June 4, 1967 borders, and that the Syrian border will not reach the shores of the Sea of Galilee.[16]

According to both Syrian officials and western diplomats, however, Barak's substantive position is not and will not be accepted by Syria. [17]

Israel-Syrian Negotiations, Part I: From Hope to Impasse


*Yigal Carmon is the President of MEMRI. Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

[1] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 9, 1999

[2] The Jordanian News Agency 'Petra' [The Jordan Times, July 27, 1999]

[3] Al-Hayat (London), July 24, 1999

[4] Syrian Chief of Staff, Ali Aslan in an interview with the Syrian Al-Ba'ath daily [Al-Hayat (London) July 30, 1999]; Syrian Minister of Defense, Mustafa Tlass [Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 31, 1999; and every day in the editorials of the Syrian dailies and Damascus Radio. For example, Damascus Radio, July 26, 1999: "The July 4 border is included in UN Security Council Resolution 242. In addition, Rabin accepted it. The question of the return of the Golan in its entirety is determined and it will not be negotiated further. There is no place for interpretations regarding the point were the negotiations stopped. Before negotiations with Peres were halted in Feb. 1996, [the two parties] conducted negotiations on the basis of an understanding that... the question of the land had been determined. Ceasing the negotiations does not cancel its results..." [Al-Hayat (London), July 27, 1999]

[5] Editorial in Tishreen (Syria), August 7, 1999

[6] Al-Thawra (Syria), July 31, 1999

[7] The New York Times, August 5, 1999

[8] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 9, 1999

[9] Al-Hayat (London), August 6, 1999

[10] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 9, 1999.

[11]Ha'aretz (Israel), July 18, 1999; however, in the same interview, Al-Shar' threatened that if there were any doubts about the Israeli intentions, the Syrian influence over Hizbullah "is expected to be unsuccessful."

[12] Tishreen (Syria), August 1, 1999.

[13] Al-Hayat (London), August 8, 1999

[14] Head of Israeli Military Intelligence, General Amos Malka, Ha'aretz (Israel), July 23, 1999

[15] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 12, 1999

[16] Ma'ariv (Israel), August 9, 1999; and also Ha'aretz (Israel), July 19, 1999

[17] For example, a senior diplomat in Damascus: "If the Israelis think that they could start serious talks about any proposal less than providing guaranties for a full withdrawal from the Golan, they deceive themselves" Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 9, 1999.