BEIRUT - For many Lebanese, Syrian involvement in regional peace negotiations is only desirable if its practical outcome is increased respect for Lebanese sovereignty and independence.
However, the Lebanese are not that optimistic. They fear that once negotiations begin between Syria and Israel, the international community will have little mind to support the international court prosecuting those involved in the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri. Syria remains a prime suspect in that crime and has systematically sought to derail efforts to establish the tribunal in Lebanon. And though the UN Security Council approved the tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, Syria's peace talks with Israel could earn Damascus a reprieve.
Advocates of Syrian-Israeli talks have underlined the importance of a breakthrough, arguing that Syria and Israel are much closer to a settlement than the Palestinians and Israelis, thanks largely to negotiations throughout the 1990's and unofficial agreements reached in recent years. However, these advocates routinely fail to address the possibility that Syria may not be able to afford peace. President Assad's regime may benefit from a negotiating process, but not necessarily from a peace agreement. After all, peace with Israel would oblige the regime to largely dismantle the military and security apparatus used to prop up its authority. Could Assad, who heads a minority regime, accept a peace that would undermine his Arab nationalist credentials domestically and regionally, and also threaten his burgeoning strategic alliance with Iran?
While many maintain that Syria's interest in negotiations with Israel is to reclaim the Golan Heights, its leadership has shown in recent years that its true aim is to preserve control over Lebanon. As the late Yitzhak Rabin once put it, "Better Syrian troops in Lebanon than on the Golan." It was his indirect way of admitting that though Syria was negotiating a return of the Golan, the late Hafez Assad was also keen to ensure that Syria maintained its hold over Lebanon. And in fact, that was exactly what happened. Lebanon's negotiating track with Israel was fully absorbed into the Syrian track, a move approved by the Clinton administration and all of the main Arab and European states.
Lastly, the promoters of a Syrian-Israeli negotiating track have failed to provide options to protect Lebanon from persistent efforts by Damascus to re-impose its hegemony over its smaller neighbour. The Hariri tribunal remains a major obstacle, so that international conflict resolution institutions have offered convoluted solutions that respect the tribunal but also ensure the protection of Syria's leadership. Their casuistry has failed to take into consideration that a thorough and legitimate trial process might very well point the finger at the same Syrian leaders whom the promoters of negotiations want to spare.
Lebanon should not pay the price for a Syrian-Israeli dialogue, nor should Syria be denied an opportunity to talk to Israel in goodwill. That is why the international community should impose certain conditions on regional peace talks, which can test Syrian intentions while also guaranteeing Syria's respect for Lebanese sovereignty and independence.
The first condition for international backing for Syrian-Israeli talks has to be Syria's formal acceptance of all UN resolutions relating to Lebanon, particularly Resolutions 1559 and 1701, which Damascus has repeatedly violated. Syria must specifically agree to end its interference in Lebanon and end its arming of Lebanese parties. It must also agree to open an embassy in Beirut, something it has never done on the grounds that Lebanese and Syrians are "one people in two countries," and it must agree on final borders with Lebanon.
Syria must also make a clear statement that it will collaborate with the Hariri tribunal and send any Syrian suspects to Holland, where the court is to be set up, not try them in Syrian courts, as Syrian officials have repeatedly insisted. These conditions are now part of international legislation, since Chapter VII authority obliges all parties to obey the tribunal's requests.
Once these conditions are met, a Syrian-Israeli peace track would be eminently desirable. But there is no reason for Lebanon to be Syria's ticket to a settlement. Until this issue is resolved, Syria and Israel are likely to tiptoe around without going very far.
* Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service, 20 September 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
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