The Lion of Damascus and the Star of David

In Damascus, Israel has disappeared from the maps of Palestine. It is difficult to foresee what kind of relations these two major Middle East antagonists will be able to establish if the conflict is ever settled. The United States was also an enemy, and now it seems to be a saviour.  (Read more…)

James Baker (left), George HW Bush’s Secretary of State, managed to convince then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to send a delegation to the Madrid Conference in 1991

If, after more than 40 years [in 1991] of hostility, distrust and suspicion, a settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict were to be reached, what kind of relations would Syria be prepared to establish with State that defines itself as Jewish?

Nasser Kaddour, State Minister of Foreign Affairs, did not hesitate for a second when I made this question. It was if he knew in advance what to reply, and the answer was extremely short: “Syria accepts all provisions and consequences of United Nations Resolution 242. It is not appropriate to exceed the limits before everything has been defined.”

The second most important man of Damascus diplomacy [after Farouk al-Sharaa, who was Foreign Minister from 1984 until 2006, when he became Vice-President] was speaking during a meeting, in his office, in the Syrian capital, with European journalists invited by the United Nations.

In a country where the maps of Palestine remain unchanged, as if Israel does not exist since 1948, where the neighbor country is presented as the most sinister of enemies, where children wear military uniforms in schools where they learn to hate the “Zionist entity”, it is difficult to foresee how and when these two enemies will be able to maintain normal relations.

Some analysts admit a future cooperation at a regional level; others anticipate a kind of “cold peace” which has defined the links between Egypt and Israel; and there are others who evoke the possible replacement of the current “state of war” by a “state of non-belligerence”.

Kaddour insists that Israel must accept the principle of “land for peace” before its recognition, and his demand makes sense. Israel has not yet accepted the United Nations Resolution 242 – a number that is certainly a magic formula here, in Damascus.

Farouk al-Sharaa, the former Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministers in the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991. He caused an uproar when he exhibited a picture showing the then Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, when he was on a wanted terrorist list of the British Mandate authorities of Palestine. @All Rights Reserved

Farouk al-Sharaa, then Syrian Foreign Affairs Minister, in the Madrid Peace Conference. He caused an uproar when he exhibited a paper showing a photo of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, in a list of terrorists that the British Mandate authorities wanted to capture in Palestine

All that Syria can give or refuse in the peace process is in the 242 Resolution, the one that deliberate as inadmissible the occupation of territories by force and that affirms the right of every State in the region to live within secure borders.

“If Israel wishes to have peace, and if the Arabs want Syria to participate in multilateral talks, it is fitting that the Israelis should first make a commitment regarding Resolution 242, or agree to withdraw from he occupied territories, recognizing the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”, Kaddour said.

According to chief diplomat in Damascus, “a promise from Israel is sufficient – together with guarantees from the United States and the USSR  – for Syria to move ahead with the peace process”.

Unless Israel makes a clear commitment, Kaddour warned, “Syria will not participate I multilateral talks even if other Arab parties decide to do so.” In his view, it makes no sense for a country to discuss economic aid and ecological issues if its territory remained occupied.

“What point is there for the Arabs to discuss regional problems if there is no defined geography, if borders are not demarcated?” This was a question previously raised by Mohammed Saleman, the Syrian Minister of Information.

All Syrian officials use the same words, the same slogans and the same clichés. No one can conjecture what lies behind such “esoteric” language.

1987: A Syrian army checkpoint in front of the Commodore Hotel in Beirut. In 1991, the United States did not oppose Syria’s influence in Lebanon and so President Hafez al-Assad agreed to participate in the Madrid Conference
© Kamel Lamaa | AFP | Getty Images |

If Israel remains uncompromising, will the Syrians carry on the bilateral talks? “Well, everything depends on the Americans”, Kaddour said, confidant that like all his other governmental colleagues that the United States will aplly tremendous pressure on Israel to bring to an end the task which it began.

“The Present American Administration [of President George H. W. Bush] has a serious and genuine interest in bringing peace to the region; that was the reason for our favorable response to the United States initiative”, the Syrian Minister remarked.

[Syria accepted the invitation to be present in the 1991 October Madrid Conference after the US blessed his involvement in Lebanon in exchange for Damascus military participation in the Gulf War that forced Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait, invaded in 1990].

Actually, whereas Resolution 242 seems to be the Bible, or rather the Koran (the majority of Syria population is Muslim), Bush is regarded almost as a god to whom sacrifice must be made but who will ultimately know how to reward the “good guys”.

The “bad” ones are the Israelis who are building settlements in occupied territories and bombarding villages in South Lebanon while proclaiming peace.

That is why Kaddour finds it unfair to speak of extremists among the Palestinians and the Lebanese, because, in his opinion, it is “the aggressive actions” of Israel that encourage the radicals.

nstability in Lebanon has drawn in soldiers from neighbouring Israel and Syria at various points in the country's history. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon in a push to destroy the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). Israel kept troops in the south until 2000. In 2005 Syria withdrew troops that initially arrived in 1976. @CNN

Instability in Lebanon has drawn in soldiers from neighbouring Israel and Syria at various points in the country’s history. In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon in a push to destroy the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation). Israel kept troops in the south until 2000. In 2005 Syria withdrew troops that initially arrived in 1976

So long as Israel occupies the so-called “security belt” in South Lebanon, there will be no peace, the Syrian Minister said. And this is the Syrian and Iran’s position, both being the main poles of influence in Beirut.

Whereas Kaddour assured that Syria is incapable of controlling the Lebanese forces fighting against Israel, the Minister of Information, Mohammed Saleman has a different opinion. He believes that it is possible to sway “the Palestinian extremist elements” opposed to the peace talks, thanks to a recent agreement between Damascus and the PLO.

Some of these radical groups hostile to Yasser Arafat, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), of Ahmed Jibril, or As-Sai’qa, have their headquarters in Damascus. They formed the National Salvation Front, an alliance outside the PLO.

Syria, under Hafez al-Assad, always used the different Palestinian factions one against the other, with the purpose of destroying Yasser Arafat, his main political rival. @All Rights Reserved @Al-Akhbar - Marwan Tahtah)

In refugee camps, like this one in Lebanon, Hafez al-Assad always used different Palestinian factions to fight each other, with the purpose of destroying Yasser Arafat, his main political rival 
© Marwan Tahtah | Al-Akhbar

“Syria has never had problems with the PLO”, said Kaddour (even though it encouraged rebellions, such as the 1984-1989 “War of the Camps” in Lebanon – besieged by the Shi’ite militia Amal; declared Yasser Arafat persona no grata in 1984; and confiscated the assets of the Palestinian National Fund). “The disagreements only involved the several factions of the organization”.

The ongoing reconciliation and coordination efforts with the PLO are part of a Syrian strategy to prevent any Arab delegation from trying to sign a separate peace treaty with Israel, similar to that of Egypt in 1979.

The omnipresent (his picture is everywhere) and almighty (his spies watch every movement) President Hafez al-Assad, know as “The Lion of Damascus, made clear that he can “wait for more than 100 years for the Golan Heights”, lost when he was minister of Defense in the 1967 war.

The Syrians find it difficult to promote their own message. However relevant it might be, it is seldom well received, mainly in the West. In this country there is [in 1991] a great scarcity of communication technicians.

A foreigner arriving in Damascus has beautiful things to appreciate, from a dazzling bazaar to historical monuments, relics of the Ottoman Empire or of the Umayyad Dynasty. He lives in the past, but feels isolated from the real world.

The city has good roads, modern houses (some with no signal of traditional Arab architecture), private schools and clinics, and luxury cars. However, international telephone lines are painfully slow. Only state television is allowed to operate. The local press is censored. Fax machines only exist in ministries, and official statements are pure propaganda.

The Damascus authorities may have to learn, like actors in a play, what I was told in the occupied are of the Golan Heights. It is said that, when they have nothing to do, Israeli soldiers communicate with their Syria counterparts on the other side of the plateau by using Playboy.

They open the magazine at the pages with photos of naked women, and the Syrians apparently enjoy the show with their long-distance binoculars. They thank the enemy by means of signals that both sides understand.

Apparently, what separated them is a psychological wall, so difficult to pass through.

An Israeli soldier stands guard at a checkpoint near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon October 8, 2014
© Baz Ratner | Reuters

This article, now revised and updated, was originally published in the Portuguese newspaper PÚBLICO on November 13, 1991 – the translation, slightly changed here, was published in a UN special edition called “Peace in the News”

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