How does Damascus think?

publisher: البيان AL Bayan

AUTHOR: توفيق ابوبك

Publishing date: 1998-09-05


“I have not desired from the beginning to conduct recorded interviews with the Syrian leaders I met, some of whom I was unable to meet during my recent visit to the Syrian capital. Farouk al-Sharaa had previously declined recording, as providing explicit and convincing answers would necessarily mean opening battles with others at a time when Damascus is working to reshape an Arab position that responds to challenges. Based on previous experience with the leaders of central systems in socialist countries, particularly Moscow, I realized that none of them can offer positions that go beyond what is published and precisely formulated, preserved by those responsible behind closed doors and presented regardless of the nature of the questions and the precision of journalistic craftsmanship.

The Syrian system still retains a degree of centralization despite the existence of forms of liberalism and openness in all areas. At a time when the Israeli press is spreading exaggerations about a tremendous development in the Syrian military and exaggerations about the hawkish team that has risen to lead the army and security in Damascus, and at a time when the Knesset is moving towards legislation, still in its early stages, to prohibit withdrawal from the Golan Heights without a majority vote and a general referendum that may specify a decisive percentage, such as De Gaulle did once when he insisted on a 75% popular mandate, in such circumstances, it may be difficult to assess Syria’s positions in this historical era by hiding behind recorded interviews and receiving answers dripping with caution and generality.”

“For this reason, I had extensive conversations with a number of key Syrian policymakers, especially Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and Minister of Information Dr. Mohammed Salman. I carefully read everything published recently in Western and Israeli memoirs related to negotiations with Syria, especially Rabinovich’s book (‘The Syrian-Israeli Peace Edge’) and Uri Savir’s book (‘The Process’), as well as all that has been published on the other side. This was done to form a picture of what Damascus is thinking, what it perceives in the current reality, and what it expects and works for in the future, both in the medium and long term.

The main topic discussed by the visiting journalist and politician in Damascus must necessarily be the peace process. I said to Professor Abdel Halim Khaddam, who received me late at night in his home located on the heights of the tourist city of Bloudan: ‘Where are we now?’ He replied: ‘We are in Bloudan.’ I said: ‘A beautiful, charming, and breathtaking view of these plains that we see from this balcony. Is the sight of the peace process that we witness in this historical moment something of this beauty that inspires optimism?’

The man spoke at length, providing the most detailed and spontaneously flowing insights. He, who has accompanied Arab political work for more than a quarter of a century, revealed aspects not all fit for publication, including wounds, grievances, and reviews. Despite this, there was a commitment to move beyond what exists toward something better. Perplexing questions were always in my mind, requiring deciphering symbols and reaching convincing answers regarding Syrian politics, still somewhat elusive in penetrating our minds and pens, despite some progress and limited initiatives in recent times. Syrian officials remain cautious in dealing with the media, emphasizing their positions with the greatest concentration and the least amount of calculated words when faced with recorders and cameras.”

“Among these perplexing questions: Why didn’t the Arab states go to the Madrid Conference with a unified Arab delegation? Did Damascus work towards achieving that, and would it have been possible if they had all insisted on it? Could we have witnessed this scene and these settlements if a unified delegation had been achieved, negotiating with one strong Arab force on all issues? Could we have witnessed a different situation now? After dialogues with all parties, it became clear that Syria was keen on achieving this unified delegation, but other Arab parties were not interested. The Palestinians wanted recognition from Israel as an independent party and to negotiate with them on this basis, which eventually happened, but the harvest is still far from meeting the minimum of national aspirations.

Among these perplexing questions: Does Damascus truly want to reach peace, or does it want to maneuver and protect itself, taking into account all the lessons from Iraqi political and military recklessness, while conditions and situations change, and new alignments occur in the region involving Iran and Iraq? Damascus may become the stronger party in negotiations.

Why did Damascus hesitate to declare principles during the era of Yitzhak Rabin and then Shimon Peres, and was that possible? Did Damascus encourage, through allies in Lebanon, the downfall of Peres and the arrival of Netanyahu to ease the pressure on Syria, making it the ball in the court of this extremist Israeli leader? Tough questions, but they are raised in the political arena, and most of them were raised, albeit indirectly, with the Vice President and Minister of Information, Dr. Mohammed Salman, with whom I had a long conversation. He seemed aware of the finer details and policies. Solving the cipher of these complex political questions contributes to clarifying the picture and shedding light on the reality of the positions that have been and continue to be pushed towards agreements with Israel, politically and normalization-wise. This is justified by the argument that Syrians who do not desire, in reality, any settlement at this historical moment cannot wait, according to that logic.”

“I said to one of the senior Palestinian leaders (and very senior indeed): If the wavering and lack of progress in the negotiation process continue, the real solution is not to leap into the air and advance forward by threatening to declare a state. Instead, it lies in returning to integrating paths with Syria and Lebanon and reshaping positions and alliances. It seems to me that the capacity and energy of the momentum in the Palestinian track with national machinery alone are about to reach their end, and the meter is about to sound, signaling the depletion of fuel. He said to me, ‘Are you sure that Damascus genuinely wants a settlement?’

In the same context, some liken Syria’s position on the settlement and its implications to a man who checked into a hotel and, after days, discovered that the bill was significant and he couldn’t pay it. Every new day, the bill increases without him being able to stay or leave, finding himself in a predicament.

Peace has implications and, if achieved, requires the presence of an Israeli embassy in Damascus and tourist groups frequenting Damascus’s restaurants and hotels. This at a time when the Ba’ath and Syrian parties spent half a century mobilizing massively against Israeli presence, and the mobilization continues. In the era of peace, it requires Lebanon to step back, and in this age of peace, it requires accepting a less leadership role than Damascus had during the confrontation with the enemy, a time when it possessed a strong and solid army. It also requires releasing more democratic freedoms after the era of ‘no voice louder than the sound of battle’ comes to an end.

The Minister of Information and Khaddam listened to this thesis with great astonishment. Mr. Farouk al-Sharaa had told me in a previous dialogue that the most harmful thing to Damascus is the repetition of the statement that Syria does not want peace, and all it does is move for the sake of movement. Abdulhaleem Khaddam said that these analyses and comparisons exhibit a high degree of stupidity, to say the least. In all our talks with Israel, and you must have seen everything published by the Israelis, no one has ever presented any of these presumed items for the peace bill to us, and no one dares to do so with us at all. In our talks with the American side, including President Assad’s talks with Bill Clinton in Geneva, we never heard a single word about Lebanon, regional roles, and internal democracy. Syria reclaims its role through its strategic power, not as a grant from anyone. Internal openness is a Syrian internal matter decided by the Syrian people, and it is impossible for us to accept any discussion about it from abroad. The Lebanese-Syrian relations are ultimately a bilateral issue despite their regional entanglements.”

“Before my trip to Damascus, I carefully reviewed what Rabinovich published in his book, ‘The Syrian-Israeli Peace Edge,’ which included the most detailed information about the Syrian-Israeli negotiations led by this professor. He had previously presented a negative study at the Bar Ilan University conference in 1992 on ‘Religious, Sectarian, and Minority Minorities in Syria,’ hinting at the possibility of Israeli exploitation to disintegrate this independent state. I also reviewed what Uri Savir recently published, as well as articles and Israeli studies on Syria and the political settlement. I believe I came close to solving the puzzle: Does Damascus truly want a political settlement?

After all these readings and dialogues, I concluded that Syria desires a fair settlement, relatively speaking, achieving a comprehensive withdrawal from the Golan Heights up to the June 4th borders. This would be in exchange for peaceful and normal relations with Israel, the boundaries of which would be determined by developments and interests, as Walid Muallem stated in his negotiations with the Israelis.

Syrians have been talking for a while about the withdrawal to the June 4th, 1967 borders, which they achieved with the Israeli negotiation team during the days of Yitzhak Rabin. They no longer discuss withdrawal from the Golan because there are those who raise the story of the ‘Palestinian Golan’ and the possibility of Syria accepting a deal around it. However, this is a baseless illusion. When Peres acknowledged Rabin’s commitments on the day of his funeral regarding withdrawal to the June 4th borders, his former intelligence chief despaired: Doesn’t Rabin know that this includes withdrawal from non-Syrian territories, and Syria did not follow these territories during the French mandate? The Minister of Information told me that when he received a question from a foreign journalist about the ‘Palestinian Golan,’ he thought there was a translation error because he knows that the Golan is occupied, and every inch under occupation must return. Through all that is published, it is clear that Yitzhak Rabin preferred reaching an agreement with Syria first. He attempted a breakthrough in the Washington negotiations without achieving any success. The attempt itself accelerated the Palestinians’ steps toward entering Oslo. Savir says that if an agreement had been reached with Syria, we wouldn’t have given the Palestinians anything except Gaza, the place where Shimon Peres dreamed that one day, after a night filled with wine, he would wake up to see Gaza swallowed by the sea.”

“The fear of Syria’s rush to a separate agreement was one of the factors that accelerated the Palestinians’ entry into the beautiful forests and outskirts of Oslo. Alongside the central factor, the most important one, was the fear of the political extinction of the organization’s leadership after its isolation in Tunisia following its mistakes and sins in the Gulf War. They always spoke that Syria wanted the Palestinian, Jordanian, and Lebanese cards to negotiate from a position of strength. It became clear that this analysis and these fears were nothing but a cover for the rush towards bilateral agreements, which the leaders of the Palestinian National Decision believed and still believe is the only way to secure what can be achieved of the rights of the Palestinian people. They may be right, or they may be wrong, and the matter will be finally determined in light of the progress on the Palestinian track.

Through all that is published, especially the negotiations at Wye Plantation between Syria and Israel with the active presence of the American mediator that bothered the Israelis, who want the bilateral power dynamics to define the boundaries of agreements. It is evident without much effort that the Syrians have shown clear flexibility on many issues, but in the ‘Syrian way,’ as Savir says, understanding the ‘Syrian language’ was difficult but the only way to reach middle-ground solutions.

The parties began by showing maximum rigidity. General Ouzei Dayan, who presented a map of the region to Ambassador Walid Muallem, said: ‘Look, Your Excellency, we don’t want any Syrian army between the Golan and here,’ putting his hand on Damascus. Muallem exploded angrily: ‘Take your hand off our capital; don’t touch it again.’ That was the beginning, a logical start for negotiators who were enemies separated by mountains of skulls that reached the sky. It was a radically different beginning from the beginnings of our Palestinian delegation in Oslo, which broke its shackles from its first invasions, demonstrated extreme flexibility, and talked about the Arabs who betrayed us, thus losing its most important negotiating cards, if not its entire strategy. If the world became narrow for us in its vastness, and the foreign soldiers armed with all kinds of destruction wandered in the outskirts of our land in Palestine day and night, and the situation required, so be it, to return to the Arab embrace, whether warm or cold, equally.

However, the course of negotiations between the Syrians and Israelis was full of concessions from both sides, but calculated concessions. If the Syrians did not accept or want any agreement of any kind, they would insist on their maximum positions. Israeli negotiators describe negotiating with the Palestinians as dancing on the same ground, while negotiating with the Syrians is more like playing chess. President Assad is a skillful political chess player, waiting patiently for the Israeli side to move one of its stones before giving the green light to move his own. This is the assessment of Savir, Rabinovich, and others. Former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger, who negotiated with Assad on easing tensions in the Golan Heights in the 1970s, wrote in his published memoirs about Assad’s negotiating style. He emphasized Assad’s caution and reluctance to make any concession before its time. He wrote that in some cases, he felt that Assad wanted to improve his English language skills more than engaging in actual negotiations.”

“In all matters related to negotiations, progress occurred between the two sides: withdrawal, security arrangements, and normal relations. The possibility of reaching a visible agreement emerged. However, Shimon Peres, who seems to have not been portrayed accurately by his advisors, institutions, and research centers, attempted to expedite matters. He requested a meeting with Assad to expedite the negotiations, threatening to move the elections to May of that year (1996) instead of November. President Assad informed the American mediators that he knows a summit-level meeting with Israeli officials will happen one day, but it is still early. The demand itself indicates a glaring ignorance of the personality of the strong Syrian figure.

Nevertheless, my personal belief, aside from everything I heard in Damascus, is that some factions within the Syrian leadership intended to mature matters before the November 1996 elections (their legal date). Shimon Peres, eager to strike a deal with Damascus in the days just before the elections, was sandwiched between those who believed Peres would return to power, giving plenty of time to reach an agreement, and those who thought differently. Political thinking in Syria focused on achieving a peaceful solution, but not just any solution.

Israeli-published information (bearing in mind the bias) suggests that Iran encouraged military operations at the beginning of Shimon Peres’s rule in early 1996 to prevent progress on the Syrian-Israeli negotiation front. However, this misunderstanding between Damascus and Tehran quickly dissipated because both parties needed each other. The situation took a new turn after Peres rushed into the invasion of Lebanon in the “Grapes of Wrath” operation, leading to the Qana massacre. Everything came to a halt, and Peres went to elections where he lost his position, a man who had never known victory and lost with less than one percent of the votes. This was a surprise to everyone.

Any fair and objective reader, considering all the facts that were uncovered and documented in thousands of printed pages in various languages, must conclude that real progress was made in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. It was on the verge of a specific and clear agreement. The Israelis accepted the comprehensive withdrawal to the borders of June 4th (including the strip of Palestinian land that President Arafat used to mention in every meeting with President Assad). This was a significant breakthrough by all standards. The current right-wing movements in Israel aim to roll back that commitment. This commitment led to the birth of a new party in Israel, the “Third Way” party, which split from the Labor Party because it rejected the possibility of descending from the Golan Heights. The Third Way constitutes the “swing vote” in the ruling coalition in Tel Aviv. If it withdraws from the coalition, the government falls.

The Syrians made calculated concessions on issues related to “normal relations,” and Walid Muallem told them, ‘We cannot commit to the prospects and limits of normalization. There will be embassies, and Israelis will leave their narrow borders to drive their cars toward Turkey, for example.’ Muallem commented on the eighteen-point memorandum presented by the Israeli legal advisor regarding future normalization as Israel sees it.

The Syrians were keen throughout the negotiations to keep the American role active because, in the era of peace, they want to receive broad economic assistance commensurate with Damascus’s role, as indicated by the Americans. Contrary to prevailing illusions, this role would be regional.

The Israelis tried in vain to cancel the American role in the negotiations. An Israeli negotiator said to the Syrian negotiator, ‘Why don’t we negotiate without intermediaries?’ Do you know the story of the young man who loved a girl but feared confessing his love to her, so he sent her a message every day with the mailman? After a year, she married the mailman.

I noticed that the Syrian negotiator used the paper that the Palestinian side should have used when he repeatedly clarified to the Israelis during the negotiations that peace with Syria would bring peace with the Arabs, requiring a hefty price. The Oslo agreements helped open Israel to the Arabs, but it was a limited openness represented by a few economic offices in distant capitals, and most of them were opened in response to a Palestinian demand. Oslo helped Jordan reach a peace agreement with the Israelis, which was impossible without the Israeli-Palestinian agreement. However, fundamentally, Oslo helped Israel open up to the world: no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria. This is the fundamental conclusion from the policy path in the region over the past three decades. But the talk in this episode revolves around the past and its affairs and concerns. It is a necessary conversation to understand the positions taken. What about the future? What is Damascus thinking, and does it hope to achieve a political settlement? How does it manage policies towards Baghdad, Iran, Paris, and Washington? This is what we will discuss in the next episode.”