November 26, 2007

What role will Syria play at peace conference?

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What role will Syria play at peace conference?
Francona: Iran may not be there, but its interests will be represented

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

Now that the Arab League has agreed to attend this week’s Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., many of the major players have the fig leaf required to send their delegations. With the blessing of the pan-Arab organization, states like Saudi Arabia and Syria can attend while expressing the obligatory reluctance.

For its part, Syria has stated that it will not attend unless the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is on the agenda. That’s always the bottom line for Syria, although it has been unsuccessful in this effort since the Israelis took the area in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it. Syria tried to take the Golan Heights back using force by launching the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and failed. Subsequent diplomatic efforts have come close on occasion, but have ultimately failed. The return of the Golan Heights remains a hot button issue for the Syrians.

The conference highlights the difference between Israeli and Syrian approaches to Middle East peace. Israel has sought to make peace with the Arab states in a series of individual treaties, a “divide and conquer” strategy. They did this successfully with Egypt and Jordan, and for a short time in 1982, Lebanon.

The Syrians, on the other hand, have always insisted that peace should be a comprehensive arrangement between Israel and the Arab states as a whole, addressing all of the outstanding issues, primarily Israeli occupation of Arab lands. The Syrian press constantly demands a “comprehensive and just” settlement.

Damascus has paid a price for this stance over the years. Syria had hoped the united stance of the Arab states would result in the return of Arab lands occupied since 1967, the Sinai and the Gaza Strip back to Egypt, the West Bank back to Jordan and the Golan Heights back to itself. Unfortunately for Syria, it did not turn out that way. Both Egypt and Jordan renounced their claims to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, declaring these territories to be Palestinian and not their problems. Ultimately both countries signed separate peace treaties with Israel. Egypt settled its disputes with Israel in 1979, regaining the Sinai peninsula in the process. This left Syria on its own with little leverage to regain the Golan Heights. This will be the mindset of the Syrian representatives as Israel and the Arab states meet in Annapolis this week.

There is, however, a key regional player who was not invited to the conference: Iran. Although not an Arab state and not officially involved in the Palestinian track of the Middle East peace process, Iran’s influence and intervention in the Middle East, including with the Palestinians, cannot be ignored. It is a major supporter of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both Palestinian groups whose charters call for the destruction of the state of Israel, to be replaced by an Islamist Palestinian state. Iran’s support is not only ideological, but tangible in the form of money, weapons and training. Most if not all of that support is funneled through Iran’s seemingly only ally in the Arab world, Syria.

Will Syria represent Iranian interests at the conference?

Syria will represent its own interests, of course, but those interests dovetail nicely with those of Tehran. Iran wants to maintain pressure on Israel via the Palestinian opposition groups in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and via its other client terrorist organization, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Syria knows that without continued pressure from these organizations, there is no motivation for Israel to strike a deal with either the Palestinians or with Damascus.

There is an old Middle East adage: “There can be no war without Egypt, and no peace without Syria.” Without a guarantee of the return of the Golan Heights, it is unlikely that Syria will be helpful in any resolution of issues between the Israelis and Palestinians at this or any other peace conference.

So what will come out of this week’s conference? Probably not a lot, but the fact that the Arab League has agreed that its members should sit down with the Israelis is de facto if not de jure recognition of the Jewish state. However, as long as the mullahs in Tehran are pulling the strings that control the dictator in Damascus, Syria will continue to play the spoiler.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive