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August 21, 2003 Edition 7

Until someone sees the light
an interview with Rime Allaf

BI: It has been said that since the invasion of Iraq and a more aggressive United States policy towards Damascus, Syria is in a period of contemplation about how to best meet the new realities. Do you agree that this is true and are their any signs as to what Syria is deciding?

Articles in this edition
Syria and Lebanon: the missing links to peace - by Edward S. Walker, Jr.
Prospects for renewed Syrian-Israeli negotiations - by Itamar Rabinovich
Until someone sees the light - an interview with Rime Allaf
Lebanon and Syria: searching for a map? - by As`ad AbuKhalil
Allaf: Like any other country that is being relentlessly attacked, if only verbally, by very right-wing segments of the American administration, Syria is thinking very seriously about how to offer a different picture to the US administration. I don’t think that Syria has really considered changing the fundamentals of its position with regards to the Middle East conflict, because it keeps on repeating what it has been repeating since 1967, and keeps trying to bring the track back to where it was in 2000.

Syria does understand that there is a new situation, but as in one example just days ago, like other Arab League members, Syria said that it does not recognize the legality of the new council in Iraq, but is willing to play along and see what happens.

BI: Your father took part in previous Syrian-Israeli negotiations. What did Syria learn from the experience of those talks?

Allaf: Quite frankly, what I think Syria learned from these talks is that you cannot always trust what is being said. After the invasion of Kuwait, [US] President George Bush Sr. was trying to gather the Arab states’ approval for the liberation of Kuwait. He said, “We will deal with Kuwait, but we will also deal with your conflict,” and then he launched the peace conference and the famous “land for peace” equation.

But, in spite of [Syria’s] trying to stick to the original fundamentals of the peace conference and negotiations--United Nations resolutions 242, 338 and “land for peace”--nothing happened. Syria agreed to numerous meetings at the highest level, the last one being in March 2000 between the Syrian and American presidents, thinking that something new was coming. But the Americans had misled the Syrians. They implied that there was a new Israeli offer on the Sea of Galilee, but the Syrians arrived to find that the Americans were hoping only to sweet-talk them into agreeing to something. What is interesting is that several people, [former US secretary of state] Warren Christopher among them, have admitted that [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin already promised in 1993 to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which is the only reason Syria was interested in continuing the talks with Israel.

It is very interesting that we should be speaking this week about the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, which have always been so closely related. Only a few days ago, [Palestinian foreign minister] Nabil Shaath suggested that there be a troika--Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority--dealing with the Israelis on the peace process. Syria has in fact always tried to have a united Arab front.

So Syria is basically sitting and waiting for the American administration to come back to its track and pick up the pieces where they left off. We have already agreed that the bases for negotiations are the Golan Heights and the Lebanese and Palestinian occupied lands.

BI: How has the intifada affected the Syrian-Israeli peace process?

Allaf: The intifada, with the help of satellite television, has brought the Palestinian tragedy back into the lives of everyday Arabs. If anything, the intifada has helped the Arab street to become more adamant in asking more of its governments: do not give too much to Israel.

From the Atlantic to the Gulf, the countries where the largest demonstrations happened were the countries where a certain level of diplomatic relations had been achieved with Israel. In Egypt, the population was outraged by the intifada and particularly by the Israeli response to the protests, and this is where one million people came out to a demonstration.

In Syria, I don’t think much has changed. What has been said is that we are still glad that there is no Israeli flag in Damascus and that we will be the last country to have that flag.

BI: How does Lebanon fit into this picture?

Allaf: The Lebanese and Syrian tracks have been very, very closely coordinated for the last 20 or 30 years and at least since the launch of the peace process. But even the United Nations secretariat is caving in to requests to break this last united front by saying that Israel has left Lebanese land and that the [Israeli-occupied] Shabaa farms have nothing to do with Lebanon, even though both Syria and Lebanon have said that this land is Lebanese. The UN secretary general had a very unfortunate role in this in that he first agreed with the Syrian and Lebanese position, and then a few days later came back and said that, actually, [the farms] are Syrian.

This is a consistent and tireless attempt to break the cake into many pieces and make it more manageable. Now the Palestinians are realizing what a big mistake this was. Unfortunately, it may be a bit too late because the Syrian track is all but dead at the moment.

BI: You are there in Damascus now. Are people angry after the invasion of Iraq?

Allaf: What I am hearing and have been hearing for the last few months is that the US and Great Britain have dared to use United Nations resolutions to invade an Arab country when the Arabs have been demanding for years that [the US and Britain] go back to the resolutions they voted for and make Israel abide by them. There is a sense of outrage, of anger, of bitterness, of disappointment that the double standard has been so blatant, especially after the immense suffering of the Palestinians.

Syrians are outraged about the recent aggressions against Lebanon; they are very angry that the western world would see only the Arab response and be surprised by it. People are very supportive of a hard line and are happy to remain that way until someone sees the light.-Published 21/8/03©bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.

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