Friday, July 25, 2008

Seriously Syria: attempting entente cordiale with the US

Israel and Syria continue to warm up to each other this week if a “fourth round of indirect diplomatic talks” can be said to produce heat. Both parties will meet in Turkey next week to discuss items such as the Golan Heights, water rights along the Jordan River, avoid war with each other, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. No easy tasks, for sure. But Syrian sources quoted in the Washington Post say that agreement is tantalisingly close in three of those areas: borders, waters and security. The last element, normalisation, is the sticking point, as it means normalisation with the US. This will not occur until there is a new occupant in the White House.

Even with a wait of a few months, this is cause for optimism. US-Syrian relations have long been marred by disagreements. In the Cold War era, Syria was considered a Soviet satellite state though its Ba’athist administration kept an eccentrically independent stance. Syria has seen both sides of political violence. In 1986, Syria was the victim of one of the largest terrorist attacks of the 80s when an explosion in Damascus killed 144 people and injured another 149. Syria blamed the attack on Israeli agents, but could provide no proof.

Syria was an active agent of terror too. That same year Syrians were suspected to be involved in the Berlin La Belle Disco attack. Two US servicemen and a Turkish woman died in the incident, for which Libya was blamed and attacked in supposed retaliation. Shaul Bakhash, writing in the New York Review of Books, said there was “persuasive evidence” two Jordanian brothers carried out the attack as Syrian recruits. However the information was not shared with other US media as the truth did not conveniently fit with the demonisation of Gaddafy’s Libya.

The same scenario applied a year earlier when the air terminals in Rome and Vienna were attacked on the same day. The US carried out retaliatory attacks on Libya, killing 100 people. The New York Times editorialised it was justified to “save the next Natasha Simpson” (an 11 year old US victim of the air terminal bombs) but pointed fail to provide any evidence Libya was the culprit. Meanwhile Italian and Austrian authorities said the perpetrators were trained in a Syrian-controlled area of Lebanon and had arrived in Europe via Damascus. When the Italian Interior Minister reiterated his belief Syria was responsible, the New York Times duly reported it without feeling the need to justify their earlier comment about Libya.

But Syria and the US have been allies too. In 1976, Syria entered Lebanon in 1976 with US approval in an attempt to end the Lebanese civil war. Instead the civil war dragged on another 15 years and Syrian troops stayed on in violation of UN Security Council resolution 520. According to Noam Chomsky, Syria help implement such massacres as occurred in the Palestinian refugee camp of Tel Al-Zaater, where thousands died at the hands of Syrian-backed Christian forces armed with Israeli weapons.

Today, the relationship between US and Syria remains ambiguous. While the State Department officially categorises Syria as a sponsor of terror, the US was happy to receive Syrian help about Islamist radicals suspected of having connections with Al Qaeda. Syria has been a willing participant in the US extraordinary rendition program, most notoriously in the case of Canadian IT programmer Maher Arar.

However relations cooled significantly after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told an American audience that Syria had gained membership of the “axis of evil” club in an update of George W. Bush’s tiresome metaphor of 2002. The US also accused Syria of aiding and abetting Iraqi insurgents while its likely involvement in the assassination of Lebanon PM Rafik Hariri also raised US hackles. The Bush administration have since tried and failed to oust the Assad Government by all means short of invasion.

But an Obama or McCain White House will not have the same level of vindictiveness. Syria and Lebanon are finally coming to terms with each other, with successful peace talks brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifah. The reconciliation between Syria and former colonial power France is also significant in geopolitical terms. According to Professor Hilal Khashan, chair of the political science department at the American University of Beirut, Syria is indirectly approaching the US through its talks with France and Israel. "The Damascus regime will only conclude a peace deal with Israel that is overseen by America," he says.

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