The past week’s Middle East peace talks in West Virginia went a long way to ease decades of distrust and hostility on the part of Syria not toward its negotiating partner, Israel, but toward the United States.
Little progress was made in the initial round of negotiations that ended with the two delegations flying home on Monday, but the Syrians left expressing gratitude for the American participation and commitment to the process.
“Without this very serious [American] attempt to resume these meetings, there would have been no resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria,” said a member of the Syrian delegation who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
“Talks with Americans as a go-between have been as valuable as [direct] talks in the working committees,” said the delegate. He added that his team was encouraged by the fact that President Clinton made five trips to Shepherdstown, W.Va., during seven days of talks there.
The Syrian conceded that U.S.-Syrian relations have long been characterized by deep distrust and hostility. Syria bought its weapons from the Soviet Union and fought three wars against America’s close ally, Israel, in 1948, 1967 and 1973.
Israel battle-tested America’s top-of-the-line fighters and missiles against Soviet weapons in the hands of the Syrians.
Syria also continues to host Palestinian groups labeled as terrorist by the State Department and is therefore barred from receiving U.S. aid.
And in Lebanon, controlled by 30,000 Syrian troops, Syria allows the operation of a Hezbollah guerrilla faction funded by Iran and headed by the man who blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in 1982, killing over 200 Marines.
But, said the Syrian official, the world has changed.
“The United States was our adversary in the past, and we know it was the ally of Israel,” he said. “But now it is the only superpower in the world, and it is acting responsibly in this role mediating disputes and serving as an honest broker.”
Syria and Israel are to return to their peace talks Jan. 19 in the Washington area, and all sides say they believe the early posturing, designed to assuage the opponents of peace at home, may give way to more rapid progress.
There are several reasons for Syria’s decision to seek a deal with Israel at this time for the return of the Golan Heights, something it believes it can achieve only with U.S. mediation:
* Syrian President Hafez Assad, who is aging and somewhat weak, wants to get back the Golan Heights before handing power to his son Beshar.
* Israel has threatened to pull out of its self-declared security zone in Lebanon this year, removing its troops from Hezbollah gunsights and ending one source of Syrian leverage over Israel.
* Israel wants to move for peace with Syria and the Palestinians at the same time, to pressure each side to make concessions.
As part of any deal with Israel, Syria can be expected to end its support for Hezbollah and take other steps to get off the U.S. terrorism list so that it can become eligible for American aid.
That would severely strain Syria’s close relations with Iran, forged out of mutual fear of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and a need to pacify the Shi’ite Muslims in Lebanon.
Iran remains adamantly opposed to the peace process, criticizing any Muslim who strikes a peace deal with Israel, including the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt.
Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval yesterday rejected what he called “rather half-baked theories that peace between Israel and Syria would automatically bring about the lessening of Iran’s anti-peace and anti-Israel stance.”
Rather, he told reporters at the National Press Club: “The opposite may actually be true… . Stability in the region and reconciliation do not necessarily fit in with Iran’s overall strategic purposes.”
Mr. Shoval, a Likud Party appointee who will soon return to Israel, said a peace treaty with Syria “would help move things further along” but seemed less than enthusiastic about the talks.
“Syria no longer holds a stranglehold [on the peace process], and in any case, comprehensive peace is not all that comprehensive, looking at Iran or Iraq in the not-too-distant neighborhood,” he said.