x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Syria's ultimate aim is to win over the West

Bashar Assad called for a French peace initiative to show that Damascus was willing to co-operate with Europe, and Israel was the main impediment to regional stability

DAMASCUS // When Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, asked for increased French efforts to restart the Middle East peace process during his recent visit to Paris, he must have done so knowing there was nothing meaningful France could do.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, had previously met his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, who urged him to convey a message to the Syrians: direct talks could resume immediately as long as no preconditions were attached. It was an offer the Israelis knew to be empty, a matter of public relations rather than substance. For decades Damascus has insisted the only way its continued war with Tel Aviv can end is by a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory occupied and annexed by Israel in breach of international law.

As such, the broad terms of a Syria-Israel peace deal are well known by both sides. The former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, acknowledged as much when he said in 2008 that painful concessions would have to be made for peace, including a return of the occupied Golan. In offering talks without preconditions, Mr Netanyahu was attempting to revise that shared understanding of the unavoidable facts. Had he been taken up on his offer for a personal meeting with the Syrian president, it would have been a headline-grabbing summit between two leaders at war, and a waste of time. Mr Assad would have asked Israel to return Syria's land and Mr Netanyahu would have refused.

Both men would have left with nothing, although the Israeli premier would have won some time in the spotlight in which to portray himself as a man of diplomacy. He could have claimed he had taken part in an historic event and that his generous offer for peace - on Israel's terms of course - had been coldly rejected. Crucially for Syria which, like Israel, is trying to win over international support for its stance, France also seems to understand that the Israeli offer for talks was empty.

Speaking before Mr Netanyahu's trip to Paris, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, warned that under its new hardline administration, Israel appeared to have lost interest in ending its long-running conflicts with the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. "What really hurts me, and this shocks us, is that before there used to be a great peace movement in Israel," said Mr Kouchner, who is to be in the Middle East this week for talks on the peace process. "There was a Left that made itself heard and a real desire for peace. It seems to me, and I hope that I am completely wrong, that this desire has completely vanished, as though people no longer believe in it."

It also increasingly appears, certainly from a Middle Eastern point of view, that America has no interest in peace. The Obama administration pledged to push the matter and, for a time, there were causes for optimism. Then, this month, the US watered down its insistence that Israel halt all construction of illegal settlements on occupied land. President Barack Obama had gone head to head with Mr Netanyahu over this highly symbolic issue and it was the American who flinched. France, however, and the European Union have not joined the US on the matter. Mr Kouchner said Paris continued to demand a freeze on illegal settlement construction.

Just as the Israeli government ignored the United States's initial request to stop building settlements, it will surely pay no attention to France. The US has long been Israel's closet ally, while Tel Aviv's ties with Paris have at times been barely cordial, making it that much easier to ignore. Mr Assad, a canny strategist who has survived numerous crises in what is one of the world's toughest political regions, was certainly not counting on France to work a miracle on this intractable, 61-year-old conflict. His aims were perhaps more realistic and more subtle.

He arrived in France just days after Lebanon finally agreed on a new government. Beirut has long been a major area of foreign policy interest for Paris. Syria, once seen as a malign force there, has, of late, been more constructive. The implied message is that Damascus wants to co-operate with Europe; that it too wants regional stability, security and peace. With the French also hoping Syria can act as a mediator with its ally Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme, Mr Assad has every reason to expect his improved relations with Paris will deepen even further.

What is critical for Syria is not that France has the power to revive a dead peace process - it does not. The important prize is to convince an important European country that Tel Aviv, not Damascus, is the real obstacle to Middle East peace. In the past it always appeared that, in order to enjoy the closer economic and business links with the West it so coveted, Syria would have to abandon its traditional platform of opposition to Israel, and its support for Hamas and Hizbollah, the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements, respectively. That was a trade-off it was not prepared to make.

If this latest round of diplomatic manoeuvrings works out as Syria hopes, however, Damascus may be able to resolve a conundrum that has long eluded solution. It will have improved and cemented its ties with the West while, at the same time, remaining at war with Israel. psands@thenational.ae