Friday, November 23, 2007

Bringing Syria into the Middle East peace process

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

The nearer the Annapolis conference comes, the less it looks likely to deliver peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The weakness of the key actors and the current conditions on the ground in the Palestinian territories offer little reason for optimism. But there is one thing that could allow Annapolis to make a big difference – bringing Syria into the peace process. And the EU has a special role to play in encouraging this move.

The key actors are too weak to enforce the costly compromises that peace will demand. The end-of-term Bush administration is widely discredited at home and bogged down by other issues in the region – notably Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert is breaking records for low approval ratings at the head of his fragile coalition, and faces allegations of corruption. The most critical shortcomings are on the Palestinian side. Fatah is so divided that the Palestinian Authority's President Mahmoud Abbas can barely claim to speak for the West Bank, still less for the Palestinian territories as a whole. And violent intra-Palestinian feuding worsens every day, as demonstrated most recently by the deadly shooting at the Arafat anniversary rally in sanction-ridden Gaza.

Without an improvement in the political situation on the Palestinian side, there is no chance of progress towards a final peaceful settlement. Israel will never agree to any concessions that could compromise its security if the other side is manifestly incapable of holding up its part of any deal – or worse, is on the brink of civil war.

Unless Gaza and the West Bank can be brought back together under a single and stable government, it is hard to see how sustainable peace is possible. But that objective looks increasingly unattainable. Hamas’ current violence towards other Palestinians is preventing the possibility of any rapprochement with Fatah. Abbas has started openly calling for the Hamas government in Gaza to be toppled, while the Israeli Defence Force is urging wide-scale military intervention in Gaza. But force may not be able to topple Hamas; Israel’s incursion into Lebanon last year showed just how difficult it is to dislodge a group of fighters who can easily blend into the local population. Worse, force could provoke Hamas to destabilise the West Bank, where the movement also has a strong footing.

Outsiders may need to try a tangential approach. Like pieces in a jigsaw, the region’s conflicts are interconnected, and the next step in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may in fact lie in Syria.

Damascus has close ties with Hamas and hosts its leader-in-exile, Khaled Mashaal. At the same time, Syria is wearying of its international diplomatic isolation, and shows signs of wanting to improve relations with Arab nations, the West, and even Israel. It has hinted that it will be willing to attend Annapolis if the agenda includes the Golan Heights. In what looks like a gesture of good will, Damascus has refused to host a ‘spoilers conference’ that Hamas proposed as a foil to the Annapolis conference.

If Syria's relations with the West and Israel improved, Damascus might pressure Hamas to rein in its use of force, and even oblige it to compromise with Fatah. Such a shift in regional balance could also encourage moderate elements within Hamas: fearful of losing a key foreign supporter, they might ease their opposition to Israel, or distance themselves from the more radical elements in Hamas.

Many in the West will find the prospect of working with Syria uncomfortable. There is the suspicion that Syrian agents are linked to the murder of several anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians, and there is concern about a possible nuclear programme. But the idea of using Syria to influence third parties in the Middle East is not new. France cut ties with Damascus after the Hariri murder, but this week controversially sent two top aides of President Nicolas Sarkozy to Damascus. Their task is to woo the sponsors of Hezbollah towards co-operation in the forthcoming Lebanese presidential election.

Going one step further – winning Syrian support for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – could prove to be Annapolis’ success. Syria's presence at Annapolis and its engagement in the peace process would clip the wings of the radical elements in Palestinian politics. At present, Syria's attendance is still uncertain. The US and Israel are focusing only on the Palestinian issue, and are unwilling to address the Golan Heights. There is a role here for the EU, which has so far been conspicuous by its absence in the preparations for the conference. The EU should encourage the US and Israel to widen the focus of the current peace effort and include Syria. An invitation could be accompanied by a conditional offer to Syria: its claims to the Golan Heights could be put on the agenda at Annapolis, in exchange for constructive engagement with Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

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