Syria seeks a path to peace amid the ghosts of Golan: Damascus wants its land back from Israel but is unsure about the price, writes Robert Fisk in Kuneitra


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The Independent Online

All night it had rained. The downpour flooded the overgrown tank revetments and trenches of the Golan plateau. 'The thunder and lightning went on all night,' the Syrian security man complained as he stood bedraggled on the muddy road amid the wind-thrashed trees, Kalashnikov draped over his leather jacket. 'We got no sleep last night.'

But who could sleep amid these ghosts? The grass-covered earthworks of Golan, pushed up by bulldozers and tanks and infantry in the wars of 1967 and 1973 are today the remnants of some prehistoric civilisation, the crumbling Syrian look-out posts the tumuli of a forgotten war. Even the Syrian army trucks with their smashed tailboards and grating engines, rumbling up the broken road to Kuneitra, would look more in place on a scratched monochrome film of Stalingrad. No wonder Mouafaq al-Allaf, Syria's genteel negotiator, is discussing this windswept land at the Washington peace talks. There will be no more wars for Golan.

Syrian officials still offer the same weary propaganda trip around the devastated capital of the Golan province, cut off from its hinterland by more than a quarter-century of Israeli occupation, vandalised and then destroyed by Israeli troops before they pulled out of this small edge of Golan in 1974. But to find out why Mr Allaf is in Washington, you should visit the museum of the Golan governor. Take Jamal Salem with you, a local poet from the Israeli-occupied village of Ein Fit - one of 152 villages, all destroyed by Israel in 1967 - and the governor's exponent extraordinaire of why there has got to be peace.

The museum is damp. On one side is a large scale model of Kuneitra before its destruction, a litter of cardboard buildings and roads boldly marked with little arrows. 'Lebanon,' it says above one arrow. 'Palestine' above another. And suddenly you realise that the bumpy, puddled old road outside will one day - if Mr Allaf gets his way - be the main road from Damascus to Jerusalem.

But look at the opposite wall. There, in old glass cases, lie the clues to peace. Soviet government friendship leagues, East German military delegations, the Kiev women's handball team, the Romanian Agricultural Union, have all left behind a bronze shield, a red pennant, statues of muscular workers, to remind the Syrians of their undying, unending support for the recovery of Golan. Mr Salem is uneasy as he sees his visitors studying the refuse of dead hopes.

Does he miss the old Soviet Union? 'Not much,' he replies and points to the dust-covered exhibition. 'National War College, USA,' it says beneath a lone picture of Washington's defence academy. The Americans visited Kuneitra in 1991, the year of the Madrid peace conference. By then, there were no more fraternal delegations to mourn the loss of Golan. So Mr Salem puts all his trust in the peace talks.

Why, that very morning the Damascus press, in its dispatches from the United States, was regaling readers with Mr Allaf's hopes of progress. Land for peace. A full Israeli withdrawal from Golan before detailed discussion of peace. And, of course, no return of Golan before a comprehensive settlement. Syria will never betray the Palestinians by concluding a separate deal with Israel; so Syria's President Hafez Assad has many times insisted. 'The Syrian people would never settle for less than Golan,' a government official had assured us only hours before. 'But they would never settle for a separate peace apart from the other Arabs.'

An interesting equation. Syrian statistics show that Israel currently holds 1,250 sq km (483 sq miles) of Golan, building 38 Jewish settlements across the fertile south of the plateau, which it annexed from Syria against all international law. More than 16,000 Syrians remain there, resisting Israeli citizenship. The survivors and families of those who were deported by Israel - 400,000 of them according to the Syrians - now live in Damascus, with another 50,000 refugees in the 1974 strip of 'liberated' Golan. Mr Salem is one of them.

The lost land produces oranges, lemons, bananas, apples, cherries and grapes in the foothills of ice-covered Hermon, from where the Israeli army still looks out across the plains of Damascus - a fruitful little Stalingrad of orchards and snow that Mr Assad dearly wants back. He has promised Syrians that they will have it back. But at what price?

Mr Salem, puffing his cigarette through a long black holder, watching for the usual journalistic traps, understands the question all too well. 'We lost the '67 war because the Arabs were divided,' he says. 'But we can see in the peace process that there is one Arab opinion. Israel is trying to deal with Syria and the Palestinians in isolation. But we want a comprehensive peace. Look what happened with Egypt. They got a separate peace but that didn't stop Israel invading Lebanon a few months later.'

True enough. But Mr Assad is now talking of more than one 'track' to the 'peace process'. The talks over Golan might move faster than those on Palestine. In Washington this week, the Israelis and Syrians are discussing the preamble of a joint statement that will explain what each side means by land-for-peace - the problem being Syria wants its land before peace and Israel its peace before returning Syria's land. Yet, supposing they are successful, would Mr Assad really risk losing the return of Golan if Yasser Arafat suddenly withdrew his delegation from the peace talks if, for example, Israel deported another 400 Palestinians? Or if Israel decided to stay in southern Lebanon?

One answer lay on a map, heavy with fingerprints, at the back of the museum. There lay the brown mass of Mount Hermon and, just to the west, the Syrian-Lebanese border, both sides of which are in Israeli hands. If the Israelis gave back Golan but stayed in Lebanon, Israeli troops would still be north of the Syrians, able to fire their artillery from the other side of the Syrian-Lebanese border, from miles behind Syrian lines.

For the chain-smoking Mr Salem, this is all a little too much. 'We've got to do this together,' he says. 'But once we're committed to a peace treaty, we'll stick to it. And if there's peace, then Israel will not be an enemy. I'm going to visit Jerusalem and Jaffa and Haifa. Britain fought Germany once but now you can visit Berlin, can't you?'

Yes indeed - but would he regard Jaffa and Haifa as part of Palestine or part of Israel? With care, Mr Salem replies: 'We've never gone back on what we've signed.'