The Syrian vision of peace

This is not a just peace, or one that the Arabs will accept, but they will be blamed for its failure
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Every few months in the Middle East, the Chamberlain bell is rung: "Peace in Our Time", it tolls. And anxious not to be blamed for its failure, the Arabs and Israelis leap to express their support. The moment Ehud Barak was elected prime minister of Israel, we heard President Hafez el- Assad of Syria announce that Barak was an honest and strong man. Note the word "strong". A man with real power, a man with whom the Arabs could - in words made immortal by the Americans when they were dealing with dictators like Saddam Hussein (before 1991) and Slobodan Milosevic (before 1999) - "do business".

And no sooner does Ehud Barak sit down with Bill Clinton in Washington than the satellite television boys tell us that this is the moment when "peace" - and let's keep the quotation marks around the word - is "back on track". It's odd how the networks use this tired old phrase. BBC World Service was trumpeting the cliche in its headlines yesterday. As if "peace" was to be found on a supermarket shelf, to be put "back on track" when all the Israeli signals were green. Woe betide anyone - any Arab - who suggested that the toy train should not be put back on the railway line.

And given the royal treatment of Barak in Washington - not a single critical voice asking why he would need 50 more F-16 fighter bombers if he was so keen on peace - it's not difficult to see why the Arabs are fearful of being left out. In 1991, Assad - though he has not yet chosen to reveal the document in public - received a letter from then US Secretary of State, James Baker. Baker promised that if Syria took part in the Madrid Middle East peace conference, "peace" would be founded on UN Security Council Resolution 242, which demands, specifically, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Arab land in return for the security of all states (including Israel) in the region. Having watched the Palestinians writhe under their 1993 Oslo agreement - which let the Israelis renegotiate 242, deciding which bits of occupied Palestinian land they would give back and which they would not - Assad has understood the need to keep to the original text. He wants the return of Golan - all of Syrian Golan - in return for peace.

And when Barak is being feted in Washington as the man who will fulfill the promises of peace, the Syrian leader is not going to be left out. Hence the Syrian press (government controlled, let us not forget) praises Washington's peace-making. Hence President Assad's enthusiasm to restart negotiations. Even though he knows that Mr Barak is offering little more than Mr Netanyahu, he doesn't want Syria to be blamed for the collapse of the "peace process".

Be sure that if the world - for which read the White House, CNN and the European Union (newly grateful for America's participation in the Yugoslav war) - regards Barak as the man who can make peace, Assad does not want to be the man blamed for its failure. Frustrated by Henry Kissinger's highly partial (i.e. pro-Israeli) negotiations in 1975, the Syrian president said then that "for our part we look upon peace in its true sense... a peace without occupation, without destitute peoples, and without citizens whose homeland is denied them... we say now, as we have always said - that peace should be based on complete withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967, and on the full restoration of the rights of the Palestinian people."

But it is already clear that Mr Barak's vision of peace is mightily different from this. He wants to merge the Wye agreement - which would give Yassir Arafat 13 per cent of the West Bank - with "final status" negotiations which include the future of Jerusalem; Jewish settlements on Arab land; and the Palestinian refugees of 1948, that should have been completed three years ago. And already Mr Barak has made it clear that Israel is not going to concede on any of these critical issues. Jerusalem, he's said, must remain the united and eternal capital of Israel, major Jewish settlements will remain, and Palestinian refugees and their descendants obviously cannot be expected to return to the Arab villages (many destroyed by the Israelis in the years after 1948) which they left, or from which they were driven, in 1948. So what is there left to discuss?

I well remember the day President Clinton travelled to meet President Assad in Damascus during the last Israeli Labour government. Israel wanted peace, CNN announced, and Assad was "the spanner in the works" who was preventing this much desired denoument. The Syrians, it turned out - the pesky Syrians who could never be trusted - wanted the return of all of Golan under UN resolution 242, the foundation (so Assad believed) to the peace process.

Why wouldn't he accept just a bit of Golan? Or Golan plus Jewish settlements? Or part of Golan, plus an unknown number of Israeli troops to man early warning stations? The Syrians had "threatened" Israel from Golan before 1967 - a claim thrown into doubt, by the way, by Moshe Dayan's own files - so why should Israel risk the same again? Nobody asked why Assad should accept the Israeli "threat" to Golan posed by the early warning stations on Golan from which Israeli troops could physically see the minarets of Damascus, the capital of Syria.

But President Assad can read what Barak is saying - and he cannot like it. The Israeli prime minister wants a resumption of peace talks "on all tracks" - i.e. with Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese together - but he speaks of "a difficult and painful compromise" with Syria. Mr Assad is not expecting any compromises, of course; merely an Israeli withdrawal from Golan, after which the prerequisites of peace - diplomatic relations, trade co-operation, security agreements, however painful - can be agreed.

This is not the order of events that Mr Barak is thinking about. In Washington, he announced - on CNN, of course: "We must solve all the problems on the table: Lebanon, water, the opening of borders, embassies, security arrangements, early warning systems, some elements of economic co-operation - when all these matters have been cleared up, we must then see the extent of territorial compromise (sic) ... I think this is a good time, that it's the time to make peace."

Now this is not what President Assad has in mind at all. The idea that you open diplomatic relations and economic links with Israel and then - and only then - find out how much of Golan Israel is prepared to return is not the Syrian idea of peace. President Assad has watched how Yassir Arafat accepted this equation - only to find that having recognised Israel and compromised the very idea of statehood, Israel would decide Palestine's future. When President Clinton announced that this moment was a "golden opportunity" for Syria to make peace with Israel, one can only imagine what Assad thought.

It's a Pandora's box. Accept Israel's version of peace, and Syria may be overwhelmed by conditions she cannot possibly meet. Refuse, and Syria will be blamed for opposing peace and become an enemy of peace and - ergo - an enemy of the United States. Now, so we hear, Mr Barak wants the US to play a lesser role in peace-making - thus depriving the Palestinians and the other Arabs of the only nation, however pro-Israeli, that might ensure a Middle East peace involved justice as well as compromise.

It's not difficult to see how the Arabs feel. President Assad would like to see his nation at peace before he dies, to bequeath to his son Bashar a country with a secure future. Sick and frail, Arafat would like to do the same for Palestine. Vulnerable as ever, Lebanon would like to complete its post-civil war reconstruction without Israeli air attacks on its highways, bridges and power plants. But Mr Barak is already telling them what this "peace" will involve. He is setting the terms, and President Clinton is happy to stand back and let him do it.

This may be the basis for "peace", but not a just peace. Nor is it likely to be a "peace" that the Arabs will accept. But they - the Arabs - will be blamed for its failure, as surely as Mr Barak will be eulogised as its apostle.