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

 

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.'

Suggested Topics
Sport
formula oneLive lap-by-lap coverage of championship decider
News
Lily Allen performs on stage at Splendour In the Grass 2014 on 27 July, 2014, in Byron Bay, Australia
people
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Arts and Entertainment
tvStrictly presenter returns to screens after Halloween accident
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
video
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
Sport
Manny Pacquiao lands a blow on Chris Algieri
Pacquiao retains WBO welterweight title – and says he wants Mayweather next
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
News
i100
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin