Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Israel and Syria in talks

The cloak and dagger antics that have characterised Israeli Syrian relations took another twist today as it was revealed that the two nations are engaging in peace negotiations in Turkey. What has prompted these negotiations is very difficult to call as the world has largely been kept in the dark in recent times as to the nature of Damascus Jerusalem contact but many will speculate that there is a connection between this latest development and last Septembers raid by the Israeli Air Force on Syria. As of yet the location and the objective of the raid has still not become public knowledge. Some speculate that the target in this bizarre attack, which may have included the use of ground forces and that both sides have barely acknowledged even occurred, was a North Korean built nuclear reactor. Others claim it was against Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programme that was transferred to Syria just prior to the US invasion of 2003. Either way today's revelation will no doubt allow the Israeli right to claim that they have bombed the Syrians to the negotiation table. So what do both sides want from these negotiations ?

Both sides are claiming that the aim of the talks is to achieve a "comprehensive peace", but why now? It is clear that Israel today is feeling more under siege than anytime since the 1967-73 period when outright destruction seemed a real possibility. Back then the threat came from the Arab nations, mainly Egypt Jordan and Syria. However successive peace agreements, Egypt 1979, Jordan 1994 have left Syria as the only Arab nation with a traditional territorial dispute with Israel. It is therefor natural to assume that a standard land for peace agreement may be on the cards. The disputed land in question is the Golan Heights (pictured), occupied by Israel since 1967. The Israelis have been reluctant to give it up in the past as it contains valuable water resources, the sea of Galilee (a popular tourist attraction), 18,000 Jewish settlers and is strategically important as it overlooks North East Israel and parts of Syria and Jordan. However today Israels much greater enemy is the Iran Hezbollah Hamas axis. This unofficial alliance crosses the Sunni Shia sectarian divide and is based on a belief that adherence to Islamic principles, not secular nationalism is the best way to oppose Israel. Syria is part of this alliance but unnaturally so. It is coming under increasing pressure from its fellow Arab nations to oppose the Iranian expansion of influence that we are currently seeing throughout the Middle East. And from an Israeli point of view, they would love nothing more than to be able to take Syria out of the equation whilst calculating how to best confront the Iranian threat. No doubt some of Syria's supporters will urge them to resist whatever carrot is dangled in front of them, likening it to the peace agreement signed between Egypt and Israel at Camp David in 1979 which many believed freed up Israel to Invade the Lebanon in 1982. For this reason the carrot will have to be quiet large. If Syria is going to turn its back on Iran in order to curb their influence in the Lebanon, they will need more than the Golan heights in exchange. This is where the US comes in in the form of massive investment.
Perhaps I am getting too much ahead of myself. Maybe the negotiations will not last just as in 2000. Perhaps, but without a doubt the incentive is there for all as the region teeters on the brink.

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