Posted by: sean | June 14, 2007

UN Middle East envoy on engaging Syria

Alvaro de Soto, the UN special envoy to the Middle East, recently penned a confidential and very frank end of mission report, which was then leaked to the Guardian. Here is the Guardian’s very short summary.

Joshua Landis, for his part, has compiled the parts that deal directly with engaging Syria. Here are some extracts that I found particularly interesting:

4. …Notwithstanding my strenuous efforts, of which there is plenty of evidence in the DPA cables file, I was never authorized to go to Syria. None of my arguments in favour of going were ever refuted, nor was I given any precise reason for denial of the authorization requested. …

99. There is an old saying that in the Middle East you can’t make war without Egypt and you can’t make peace without Syria. The first half is no longer valid, but I sense that the second remains true. For the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, keeping Syria at arm’s length is particularly galling. Those who advocate it seem to believe that it is possible to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian track while isolating Damascus….

100. … I don’t believe they can seriously believe that it is possible to neatly compartmentalize the various fronts and deal with them sequentially, bestowing the favour of attention on well-behaving parties first.

101. In much the same way, does anyone seriously believe that a genuine process between Israel and the Palestinians can progress without Syria being either on board or, at the very least, not opposing it, and without opening some channel for addressing Syria’s grievances? If this should be attempted, we can be sure that a reminder of the Syrian capacity to spoil it wouldn’t be long in arriving.

102. The conventional wisdom is that Israel can’t handle more than one negotiation at a time. As recently as 27 April, in a piece in Haaretz titled “Why Syria must wait”, an Israeli ambassador wrote: “Few would dispute the assertion that the Israeli bridge is incapable of supporting two peace processes, a Syrian and a Palestinian one, at the same time.” I understand the political difficulties involved. But I believe it’s just not possible to completely disaggregate the two, or calmly wait for their turn with the occupier (take a number and have a seat in the waiting room until you are called, please), and that is why the Madrid conference was conceived as it was. This can’t be anything but one more layer of excuses not to negotiate.

These points seem obvious to me. There are those who think that engaging Syria is a waste of time, but one thing they fail to explain is why Damascus should make concessions before negotiating. After all, that’s the whole point of negotiating, isn’t it? From a purely strategic point of view, why would Syria give up its bargaining chips (meddling in Lebanon and supporting Hezbollah and Hamas) before negotiations have even begun? Would anyone ever ask Israel to give up their occupation of the Golan as a measure of good faith before negotiating with Damascus? Of course not. That’s Israel’s bargaining chip, and they’d be silly to give it up before making a deal.

This is not to say that I support Syrian meddling in Lebanon; as someone who lives in Beirut and has to put up with it, quite the opposite is true. But I do understand Lebanon’s strategic importance to Syria, just as I understand its strategic importance to Palestine, Israel, Iran and the US.

So let’s be honest here for a bit. Egypt and Jordan were flukes backed up by US aid money. A real, and just, solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict cannot be piecemeal. There must be a comprehensive peace that includes Palestine, Israel, Syria and Lebanon with the backing of the rest of the Arab states. I’ve already argued before that it’s too late for a two-state solution, so I won’t go into that right now, but maybe a two-state solution could be a stopgap for a long-term solution in the form of a single, democratic, secular binational state. But until the time comes when all sides stop stalling and get ready to deal, things are going to be pretty rough in this neck of the woods…


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