Update from AIJAC
July 23, 2007
Number 07/07 #09
Following months of contradictory threats and hints of willingness to open peace talks from Damascus, a few weeks ago, Israel PM Olmert reportedly sent a message to Syrian President Assad offering talks and pledging Israel would evacuate all of the Golan Heights in exchange for comprehensive peace. Syria has now reacted by tightening its military alliance with Iran and setting additional conditions for talks. This Update features two pieces analysing Syria’s latest moves.
First up, Israeli reporter Roee Nahmias, who specialises in Syria and Lebanon, says Assad’s latest deals include a promise to Iran not to move toward peace with Israel, and shows Syria is more interested in preparing for war than peace, and is unlikely to abandon its relationship with Iran for any conceivable deal. Moreover, Assad has reportedly learned from Hezbollah that the main way to confront Israel is with missiles targeting Israel cities. For this useful analysis of Assad’s latest moves and his likely motivations, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Dr. Guy Bechor, an Israeli Middle East specialist, looks in detail at the conditions Assad has placed on any peace talks with Israel and says they are clearly designed to fend off any serious negotiations. Bechor argues that Assad is seeking a peace process as part of a diplomatic effort to fend off the pending international tribunal on the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri, but an actual peace deal with Israel would spell the end of his regime. For his argument that Assad is attempting to look like a peacemaker without making peace, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Turkey held elections yesterday in which the ruling AKP party, which has an Islamic program, was returned to power, and increased its vote, though probably not its parliamentary majority. Analysis of what this result means for Turkey, as well as the controversy over electing a new President that sparked the elections, come from Linda Michaud-Emin and Heymi Bahar, Turkey specialists at the GLORIA centre at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel. For their discussion, CLICK HERE.
Syrian leader makes peace declarations while preparing for war
Had a stranger landed in our region this week, he would have been convinced we’re heading for peace. President Bush called to convene a peace conference in the fall, while his Syrian counterpart followed suit and pled with Israel to embark on open negotiations. Yet in the Middle East, as is usually the case, talk is one thing and deeds are quite another.
Every few weeks Israelis find themselves asking: What’s going through Assad’s mind? After observing his moves and watching his speeches it is unclear whether he knows the answer himself.
On the one hand, he keeps on talking about peace, again and again. On the other hand, he sets conditions which he knows Israel will find difficult to accept, conveys complete distrust in Jerusalem, and most importantly, does not abandon the option of “resistance,” which he keeps on repeating more decisively since the last war.
But he is not merely talking about resistance, he is also preparing for it. While the Syrian ruler delivered speeches about peace, his Iranian counterpart prepared for a “congratulatory visit” to Damascus on the occasion of Bashar’s second term in office. And in line with earlier predictions, Ahmadinejad did not only bring with him good wishes, but also business, and plenty of it.
The two signed a memorandum that would see Tehran transfer a billion dollars to its ally for the purpose of purchasing advanced Russian weapons, while also transferring its own arms and assisting in the establishment of military plants and instructing Syrian army officers.
This came in addition to a significant diplomatic chapter: A pledge by Assad – the same Assad who has been declaring his desire for peace – to refrain from moving forward in the peace process with Israel, in exchange for Iranian diplomatic backing for Syrian interests in Lebanon, that is, first paralyzing the country and then working to topple Siniora’s government.
While in Damascus, the Iranian president also held meetings with Hassan Nasrallah and Khaled Mashaal, whose pockets he also padded with cash, not before praising him for applying Islamic law in Gaza.
Power of missiles
We’re talking about a new phase in the tightening of the relationship between the two countries since Assad Sr joined forces with Iran during its war against Iraq in the 1980s, among other reasons because of his animosity to Saddam Hussein. During Bashar Assad’s era it appears the ties are getting tighter to the point of a strategic alliance where Iran is the senior partner and Syria is the contractor, at best.
In this framework, Bashar Assad has visited Tehran five times in recent years and hosted Ahmadinejad twice since the latter was elected to his post. Last June, the two countries signed a comprehensive security memorandum, and this March the Iranian defense minister declared that his country would make its entire weapons arsenal available to Syria should this become necessary.
Yet it’s not as if Assad is facing a grave situation. Recently it was reported that his country spent in the last year alone the immense sum of $1.5 billion to $2 billion on military acquisitions unrelated to the arms shipments it receives from Iran. This sum is more than Syria spent on military purchases in the last few years combined.
The estimate is that one of the lessons drawn by Damascus in the wake of the last war is that there is no difference between the military front and home front. Therefore, one should equip itself with missiles – many missiles – for the “benefit” of the Israeli front and home front. Ballistic missiles, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, and various types of rockets are replacing the old Syrian combat doctrine. This is apparently the same “resistance” Bashar Assad keeps talking about.
‘Axis of evil party’
What does all of this mean? It means Assad is indeed talking about peace, but at the same time he is mostly vigorously preparing for war. After all, it’s hard to connect his desire for a peace process with Israel to the “axis of evil party” organized in his palace with the participation of Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, Khaled Mashaal, Ramadan Shalah and others. Had he wanted to, he could have insisted not to host the Iranian president a day after his peace speech. But apparently this wasn’t really a burning concern.
Moreover, Israeli sources that have been monitoring Assad are not at all certain he wishes to sacrifice his strategic alliance with Iran in favor of defecting to the western camp in exchange for a peace agreement with Israel. It appears that Tehran provides the Syrian president with a genuine sense of security, diplomatic air to breathe, military procurements, a strategic home front, and mostly, a real alternative.
The situation, it appears, is quite at a dead end on all sides of the triangle – Washington, Syria and Israel – and the breaking of the current freeze is not in sight. Therefore, Assad realizes that with all due respect to peace talk, there are more important things that need to be done, and there are arenas that are no less important than Israel – Lebanon, for example, where some issues have to be finalized in the near future, such as the next president’s identity. With Iran by its side, Syria will certainly feel more confident when it comes to interfering in what’s going on in Beirut.
So what’s to do? Mostly receive much more of the same, that is, growing tension and escalating declarations, talk of resistance and preparations for it. The genuine fear is that someone who talks so much about “resistance” will eventually be tempted to do something – and the missile presented in the first act may end up being launched in the third act.
Each time Israel shows willingness to cede Golan, Syrians shy away
Ynet.com. 07.19.07, 13:59
Basher Assad’s peace declarations publicized in the media over and over again this week may be misleading, and indeed they are designed to mislead.
An examination of Assad’s speech before his parliament few days ago, and a monitoring of the Syrian arena, regretfully shows the opposite. The Syrian president, who was sworn in for a second term in office this week following a staged referendum, is doing all he can to flee any peace negotiations. Similar to the way his father fled when it became clear to him that the other side – then Ehud Barak and currently Ehud Olmert – may indeed cede the Golan Heights.
After all, the entire regime is premised on the animosity and conflict with Israel. If there is no conflict with Israel there will be no minority Alawite regime ruling Syria either.
The Syrian president took a sharp turn and is now hindering any chance of making progress with Israel. The conditions he is demanding make it impossible. Until his address this week, Syria stressed that contrary to the past it was setting no preconditions for engaging in talks with Israel. The Syrians argued that it was in fact Israel that was making such stipulations.
However, the moment the Syrians realized that Olmert could indeed cede the Golan Heights – or at least profess to do so – they went into a state of shock.
In his inauguration speech Assad announced the new conditions for engaging in talks:
• Prime Minister Olmert must transfer “written guarantees” in an official document, according to which Israel is prepared to hand over to Syria all of the Golan Heights up to the borders of July 4th, 1967 without any dispute. Such a document can be public or covert, similar to the one (according to the Syrians) handed over by Yitzhak Rabin. Incidentally, it is high time to put an end to the so-called “Rabin deposit.” Let’s assume there was such a document, why then didn’t they agree to it? Similar to a petty lawyer, Assad is asking for everything to be put in writing.
• At this stage a type of indirect mediation will begin between Israel and Syria by means of a third party, to be agreed upon by both sides. There is no apparatus that can determine who the third party would be and why it is necessary.
• Assuming that all issues are clarified, open and public negotiations will commence.
What is Assad really saying here? That he wants it all. Does he really think that either side would agree to the demands of the other side without actually engaging in talks? And what is he giving in exchange? “We have no faith in the Israelis,” Assad said in his address. Does anyone in the Middle East have faith in him?
Assad’s speech attests to Syria’s existential dilemma. On the one hand, Syria is in need of some kind of process with Israel that would save it from an international tribunal regarding the Rafik Hariri assassination. On the other hand, peace with Israel would mark the end of the regime.
It is astonishing to see how each time an Israeli leader demonstrates a willingness to cede the Golan Heights the Syrians flee as fast as they can. Assad’s new conditions are akin to evasion. When will we finally be able to read the true intentions of the Assad family and the Syrians?
By Linda Michaud-Emin and Heymi Bahar
GLORIA, July 23, 2007
Having won Turkey‚s July 22 parliamentary elections, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is set once again to form a single-party government. This triumph is especially impressive as it is the first time in a half-century that a government party wins reelection. Ironically, this means that while the July 22 elections have taken place amidst so much controversy they are in fact producing the most stable government in many years.
In recent years, the Turkish government has been plagued by an on-going battle between Deniz Baykal’s opposition socialist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the AKP on the issue of secularism. When it was time for parliament to choose a president on April 27, 2007, the AKP selected its number-two leader, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, for the post. In turn, the CHP boycotted the balloting, thus blocking it. As a result, parliamentary elections were moved up to an earlier date. With street demonstrations protesting AKP’s Islam-oriented program, it seemed as if the opposition might seriously challenge the government. Instead, the government did very well.
Still, the probable continuation of an AKP single-party government does not mean there will be no change. The emergence in third place of Turkey‚s far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), as well as an increase in independent members could bring some important changes.
First, the MHP as a second opposition party — after the CHP — with an intensely nationalist ideology could harass the AKP considerably, as well as polarizing the system to a far greater extent. The MHP is particularly hostile to demands for more rights by the Kurdish minority. At the same time, though, Kurds may be more significant because the Kurdish forces ran as independents˜their main party has been banned˜and could sometimes hold the balance of power.
Nevertheless, in September or October the AKP will now probably propose and elect a presidential candidate from its own party which is what led to this whole mess in the first place. It may, however, seek someone less controversial than Gul and try to reach a consensus with the CHP.
The presidency in Turkey up to now has always been a bulwark of the secular system. The president appoints the prime minister, the military’s chief of staff, university rectors, diplomats, and members of the country’s highest court. An AKP presidency coupled with an AKP government can dramatically change the nature of both Turkish politics and society.
Secularists fear that with AKP controlling executive, legislative, and˜by appointing judges–judicial branches of government it would be a point of no return for the country. In 2004, for example, the AKP passed a law lowering the compulsory retirement age as a way of forcing out thousands of civil servants. Many of them were replaced by graduates of the imam hatips, Islamic schools, who might have been less qualified but who were very loyal to the AKP and its policies.
A confident, more assertive AKP has serious ramifications for Turkish foreign policy in terms of its positions on U.S. interests, the West in general, radical Islamist forces, and Israel. Examples include the recent natural gas agreement between Turkey and Iran as well as Turkey’s differences with the United States over Iraq.
While it is possible to exaggerate marginal phenomena or short-term public opinion trends, anti-American and anti-Jewish feelings have been rising in the country since 2002, the year the AKP came to office. The question is to what extent changes in the society are boosting the AKP and a more Islamic approach to issues or whether it is the AKP government that is altering these attitudes.
Linda Michaud-Emin is a research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC). Heymi Bahar is a research associate at the GLORIA Center.