The Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted a policy forum luncheon in conjunction with Search for Common Ground on July 23, 2008, entitled “Engaging Syria: New Negotiations, Old Challenges.” The Saban Center welcomed three members of Search for Common Ground’s US-Syria Working Group, including featured speaker Ahmad Samir al-Taki, director of the Orient Center for International Studies in Damascus and consultant to the Syrian Prime Minister. Also participating in the discussion were Samir Seifan, a Syrian economist and managing partner of ADC Consulting and president of the Syrian Management Consultants Association, and Sami Moubayed, a Damascus-based scholar and author of several books, including Steel and Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria, 1900-2000. The US-Syria Working Group was introduced by Tom Dine, Senior Advisor for Search for Common Ground’s US-Syria Program. Saban Center Director Martin Indyk moderated the event.
In light of the negotiations – via the intermediation of Turkey – currently being undertaken by Syria and Israel for the first time in eight years, the Syrian experts were invited to reveal their insight on the prospects for peace between the two nations and in the Middle East in general. They were in the midst of a weeklong visit to Washington to meet with figures from the US government, think tanks, and the media, among other organizations, with the goal of improving the state of US-Syrian relations in the absence of direct talks between the two nations’ governments.
In his prepared remarks, prefaced by the caveat that he was speaking his own opinions and that his comments did not necessarily represent the Syrian Government, Al-Taki asserted that Damascus’s recent positive disposition toward negotiations stem from the belief that the US was encouraging Israel to pursue peace unilaterally. The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the construction of the separation wall, and the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 were all seen as a move toward a Western-accepted de facto “peace à l’israélienne” which did not address the concerns of Syria or other Arab neighbors via a peace process. Given the continued presence of Israeli forces in the Golan Heights – the return of which constitutes the most critical part of any Syrian demands in peace negotiations – constantly visible even from parts of Damascus, Al-Taki argued that it was unacceptable for Syria not to be involved in Israel’s peace plans.
In addition, Al-Taki saw the Bush Administration’s Middle East policy as responsible for increasing the number of collapsing states in the region and sparking the rise of non-state actors and asymmetric warfare, necessitating renewed efforts by states such as Syria to engage in discussions with the goal of avoiding further degeneration of Middle Eastern states. He asserted that, with increased fractionalization leading to a rise in the number of parties in regional disputes and the persistence of conflicts over ethnicity, history, and resources, it would be impossible to maintain peace in the region without active internationally supported discussions. He recognized that Syria’s reputation provides some world actors with pause, but argued that Syria would be ready to be a partner in peace and a provider of solutions if the demonization of Damascus, “which has been very much fabricated,” were to cease.
When asked about Syria’s relationships with entities exhibiting visible enmity toward the West, such as Iran and Hezbollah, Al-Taki showed mixed views. In spite of the divergent public statements vis-à-vis Israel made by Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he refused to suggest that Syria’s alliance with Iran might end, instead asserting that if Damascus found peace with Israel, its alliance with Tehran would simply take a different form and might cease to be military in nature. Al-Taki took a firm stance defending Hezbollah. While noting that a non-state actor like the Lebanese organization does not have the ability to achieve a total victory and can at best only bring its enemy to the table, he suggested that the asymmetric war waged by Hezbollah was an appropriate response to what he sees as the massive imbalance of force in Israel’s favor. Saying that Syria “is not a puppet to anybody” and “is loyal to its alliances”, he argued that it would not be in Syria’s interest to disarm Hezbollah until a strong peace agreement has been secured. The status of Hezbollah was described as primarily a Lebanese issue, and Al-Taki argued that when Lebanon deemed it fit for Hezbollah to be incorporated into the regular national army, Syria would most likely be cooperative.
Al-Taki also saw the biggest crisis facing Syria’s immediate neighborhood as Iraq. Arguing that it would quite possibly end up as a weak federal confessional state along the lines of Lebanon, he called for all of Iraq’s neighbors to work together to strengthen the state and to counter the divisions in internal Iraqi politics. When questioned about foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria, he argued that while Damascus has not been able to entirely stop the flow of would-be insurgents and terrorists into Iraqi territory, Syria had been making great efforts, installing over 500 army posts on the southern border for this purpose. Also, he drew attention to the difficulties that the strain of an estimated 1,500,000 Iraqi refugees had put on Syria’s infrastructure, and worried that Syria’s positive actions vis-à-vis Iraq were being ignored.
In spite of his perception that there existed deep differences of opinion and great misunderstanding between Syria and much of the international community, Al-Taki expressed great hope that the peace process would come to fruition with an acceptable deal. When asked about the current political uncertainty in Israel, he argued that it was not a one-man quest on Ehud Olmert’s part to pursue the negotiations with Damascus, and that even an abrupt change in leadership would not derail the talks. He suggested that Israel would realize that, in spite of its building of the wall and its military strength, it could not live without neighbors, and that Syria would be willing to be a trustworthy neighbor.
Near the end of the session, Moubayed spoke briefly, arguing that in spite of Syria’s reputation as an “agent of destabilization”, it is by default an agent of stabilization by virtue of its location and its alliances. He argued that it has an extraordinary ability to serve as an intermediary in difficult conflicts and that Damascus was instrumental both in the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, taken prisoner in Gaza, as well as the fifteen British sailors taken prisoner by Iran. Also, he noted that Baathist Syria, in spite of its ideological differences with the al-Maliki government, had been very helpful in extending support and legitimacy to Baghdad and in paying for the expenses related to all the Iraqi refugees in Syria. Seifan, the last to speak, ended the session hopefully, adding that his nation believed that six decades of conflict was enough, and that the world would see that Syria was serious in its desire to sign a peace agreement.