December 16, 1999
Seale on Syria
Patrick Seale, President Hafez al-Assad's official biographer, predicted this week that Syria and Israel would conclude a comprehensive peace agreement within one year. Since Ehud Barak was elected six months ago, the veteran British Middle-East journalist has played a key role as the nearest to a Syrian emissary shuttling between the chronically hostile capitals of Damascus and Jerusalem.
If Seale interviews the Israeli Prime Minister, he does so as a sounding board for Assad. If he publishes secret documents purporting to show that previous Israeli leaders promised to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights, he does so because Syria wants the letters leaked. If he is optimistic about the outcome of the talks launched by Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara, so in all probability is Assad.
Interviewed on the eve of the resumed negotiations -- the first between political leaders in the 51-year history of the Israeli-Syrian conflict, and the first at any level for almost four years -- Seale suggested that Damascus would be least flexible on the territorial question. Assad wants Israel to pull back to the line of June 4, 1967, the day before the war in which Israel conquered the Golan. And, despite Israeli protestations to the contrary, he is convinced that the plateau was promised to him in its entirety.
Israel takes as its benchmark the international border, drawn between the British and French territories of Palestine and Syria in 1923. The difference between the two is geographically minuscule, but politically enormous. During and after the 1948 war, Syria edged 10 meters forward across the 1923 line to the north-eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main fresh-water reservoir.
Assad wants to return to the shore. Barak wants to keep the lake exclusively in Israeli hands -- and he knows that a retreat to the 1967 line would make it infinitely harder for him to sell a Golan evacuation to Israeli voters in a promised referendum. The nearest to flexibility hinted at by Seale lies in the fact that there is no map of the 1967 line. It has yet to be drawn.
Seale believed that Assad would be more forthcoming in meeting Israel's security needs, an indispensable condition for any withdrawal. There too, however, he argued that the Syrians would resist any Israeli presence, in their own or anyone else's early-warning ground stations on the heights.
"That," Seale contended, "is a sticking point with Assad. The Israeli look-out on Mount Hermon is hated by all Syrians. There it is, bang, on top of the mountain looking right down on the Damascus plain, listening to every telephone conversation in Damascus. They know who is sleeping with whom. That has to go. But the Syrians are saying you can have a perfectly adequate early warning with satellites, with aerial reconnaissance, with side-looking radar, with an international force positioned between the two parties."
I began the half-hour interview by asking why Assad had suddenly decided to return to the negotiating table.
In the previous negotiations, during the premierships of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Seale said, Assad believed Israel had agreed to withdraw to the 1967 line and to the terms of a non-binding, American-brokered paper setting out the "aims and principles" of mutual security arrangements.
Assad was disappointed when Binyamin Netanyahu came to power in 1996 and repudiated both. His initial hopes, when Barak announced that he would follow in Rabin's footsteps, were also dashed when the new Labor leader seemed to be repudiating the two points Assad thought were settled. "Assad got very angry," Seale testified.
Hence the stalemate, which was broken last week when Washington came up with a new formula: The talks would resume "where they left off." This, as Assad sees it, means back to the 1967 line. Barak may have a different interpretation. "Creative ambiguity" is the stuff of diplomacy. What matters is that both leaders were looking for a way to talk.
"The Syrians," Seale insisted, "don't recognize the 1923 frontier, and they say they have to be back on the lake." That was particularly so if Israel wanted continued access to Golan water sources, another Barak condition for peace. "They want water from the Golan," Seale said, "therefore they have to let the Syrians be up on the lake. There's no way they can get one without the other."
How much of a part did Barak's intention of evacuating Israel troops from South Lebanon, unilaterally if need be, by next July play in bringing Assad back to the table?
"It was an enormous factor in bringing Israel to the negotiating table," Seale replied. "Barak's credibility is at stake because of the pledge he gave to the Israeli electorate. And he knows very well that the risks of unilateral withdrawal are very great."
And Assad, who maintains thousands of Syrian troops in North-Eastern Lebanon and treats his weak neighbor as a Syrian province?
"Syria's nightmare," Seale conceded, "was that Israel would withdraw from Lebanon, but stay on the Golan. The Syrians would lose the point of leverage which South Lebanon is for them. So what's been happening in recent months is that each side was threatening the other. Israel was threatening Syria with a unilateral withdrawal.
"The Syrians were reactivating the Palestinian Islamic jihad and the Shi'ite Hizbollah, saying to the Israelis that if they pulled out they were going to have trouble. And every Israeli knows that if they were to pull out, then hostile forces would move right up to the frontier and be able to reach points of Israel hitherto immune, and that Israel would have to respond. There would be escalation, and perhaps even war. Barak certainly didn't want that.
"The breakthrough came when, in a very statesmanlike fashion, Barak said a few days ago, let's leave discussion about South Lebanon to at least April. That was a very important signal to the Syrians to say let's stop threatening each other, let's reach a deal."Could the Syrians swallow full diplomatic relations, with borders open to tourism and trade?
"Of course," Seale said. "But if you ask whether it will be a cold peace or a warm peace, that's where the link with the Palestinian track will become evident. If the Palestinians are not given a fair deal -- for instance, if West Bank settlement continues, if confiscation of land continues, if the refugee problem is not tackled in a realistic way -- then it's hard to imagine Israeli tourists being welcome in Damascus.