Syrian dynamism

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

The visit of Pope John Paul II to Syria provides an occasion to focus on the important role the country plays in maintaining stability in the region.

JOHN CHERIAN in Damascus and Quneitra

SYRIA has acquired a new dynamism after Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidency last year. Under Bashar, the country's foreign policy is firmly anchored to the guidelines drawn by the late leader and Bashar's father, General Hafez al-Assad. The young President has visited several Arab and European countries to put forward the Syrian and Arab viewpoint on the dangerous turn of events in West Asia. The historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Syria in the first week of May brought into focus the key role Syria has been playing in the region. The Pope made a fervent appeal to Muslims, Christians and Jews to strive for peace in the region, when he visited the 8th century Omayyad Mosque located in the heart of Damascus. He became the first pontiff to enter a mosque.

But ancient schisms have yet to be bridged. A scheduled joint Muslim-Christian prayer meeting was cancelled at the eleventh hour. Evidently, influential sections of the Muslim clergy still harbour doubts about the papal agenda. Prominent bishops of the Orthodox Church based in Lebanon also did not show up in Damascus during the papal visit.

Welcoming the Pope, Bashar said that a comprehensive peace in the region would be achievable only after "the land is returned to its original owners, and the return of refugees and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

The Pope's visit to the devastated city of Quneitra was of great symbolic importance. Quneitra was the capital of the Syrian province of Golan. The fact that the Pope chose to include Quneitra in his itinerary was a recognition of the suffering of the people of the city. After offering prayers for peace at the devastated Orthodox Church in Quneitra, the pontiff planted an olive tree.

Israeli occupation forces had captured significant portions of the Golan province, including Quneitra, in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Golan region, with abundant water resources, is considered the most fertile area in Syria. It is said that on a single day, a traveller crossing the Golan can taste the fruits of the four seasons. Syrian forces succeeded in recapturing a sizable chunk of the province during the 1971 war against Israel. Israel, however, proved to be rapacious in defeat, and Quneitra bears testimony to this. The withdrawing Israeli troops systematically flattened the town. Churches, hospitals and mosques were blown up or bulldozed.

The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on November 29, 1974, endorsing the report of a U.N. Special Committee sent to investigate the happenings in Quneitra city, which was inhabited by more than 50,000 people before the Israeli occupation. About 153,000 residents of the province were expelled by the Israelis. The Committee concluded that Israeli forces and the Israeli occupation authorities were responsible for "the deliberate and total devastation of Quneitra". Every year a U.N. fact-finding committee visits Quneitra.

After the city was restored to Syria, Damascus decided to let it remain in its devastated state as a symbol of Israel's inhumanity.

A short distance from Quneitra are the Golan Heights, the return of which is Syria's main condition for peace with Israel. Israel occupies 1,260 sq km of the Golan. The issue is not only the Golan Heights, which Israel pretends is of great strategic importance to it; 23,000 Syrians still live in five villages under Israeli occupation. Some 60,000 refugees have been resettled in the area retaken by Syria, but the overwhelming majority of the people are still internal refugees in Golan. Some 400,000 people have been forced to live in other parts of Syria. Israel's attempt to focus only on the so-called strategic importance of the Golan Heights is a ploy to divert attention from the plight of the people it has uprooted. Hundreds of Golan residents are in Israeli jails for resisting occupation.

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, who was personally involved in peace negotiations for 10 years since the Madrid talks in 1990, emphasised that Syria remained committed to a "just and comprehensive peace that must result in the recovery of every inch of Syrian land". Syria is for a settlement of all outstanding issues, including those involving Palestine and Lebanon. It is against the separate peace which the Palestinians negotiated with Israel in Oslo. The Syrian government argues that only a comprehensive peace agreement based on mutual deterrence will succeed.

Moualem, who until recently was Syria's Permanent Representative at the U.N., said that the "prospects for peace in the region are gloomy, especially now with Ariel Sharon heading the Israeli government". Sharon's game plan seems to be to expand the conflict to involve Syria. The deliberate targeting by the Israelis in April of Syrian soldiers stationed in Lebanon is an attempt to escalate the conflict and get other parties involved militarily. Moualem says that the record of Sharon speaks for itself. Sharon would like nothing better than completing the task he had set out to accomplish in Lebanon in 1982. The new administration in Washington is still trying to formulate its policy on West Asia. But Arab nations have noted that President George W. Bush gave a red-carpet welcome to Ariel Sharon despite the de facto declaration of war by Israel on the Palestinian people.

Since the new Palestinian intifada began, relations between Arafat and Damascus have warmed considerably. The Palestinians are now waging a virtual guerilla war against the Israeli troops and settlers in the occupied territories. The gut feeling in Damascus and elsewhere is that the Israelis will finally wilt, as they did in Lebanon against the sustained guerilla tactics of the Shiite Hezbollah group. There is cautious optimism in Arab circles that finally Israel will have to return to its 1967 borders. The current Israeli plan is to give Palestinians less than 50 per cent of their territory, and that too overgrown with Israeli settlements. Besides the American peace initiative seems to have come to an irrevocable halt. U.S. policy in West Asia and the Gulf is in tatters. Anti-American feeling is running high on Arab streets. The October 12, 2000 attack on USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, was symptomatic of these feelings.

Moualem is of the view that given the fast-changing situation it is essential for countries like India to forge close links with the Arab world. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh was in Damascus earlier in the year. But the official Indian response after the Israeli attack on a Syrian position in Lebanon, which resulted in the death of three soldiers, was lukewarm. There was no condemnation of the attack. According to Syrian Deputy Information Minister Deeb Ghanam, it is the responsibility of the international community to ensure peace in the region. "It will otherwise have an impact on the rest of the world. Those who support Israel will have to bear the responsibility," he said.

The Syrian presence in Lebanon is a stabilising factor. According to senior Syrian officials, the presence of the Syrian troops (necessitated by Israel's invasion of the mountainous regions of southern Lebanon in 1981 and also by inter-denominational strife) has constitutional, legal and political validity. In recent months, a vocal minority consisting mainly of some Christian and Druze leaders has called for an eventual Syrian withdrawal. The government in Beirut and Lebanese public opinion still favour the Syrian presence, which has guaranteed political and military stability in the country. Although the Israelis were forced into a humiliating withdrawal from most of Lebanon last year, they still retain a foothold. Israel refuses to vacate the disputed Sheb'a Farms area in south Lebanon. Hence, Ghanam feels Syria must not withdraw its troops now.

The dramatic improvement in relations between Syria and Iraq in the last two years is another significant development. Although full diplomatic relations have not been formalised, high-ranking diplomats are stationed in each other's capitals. Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz was in Syria four times since Bashar became President. Syrian ports have become the main conduits for Iraqi supplies. Baghdad and Damascus have once again been re-connected by rail. The oil pipeline between Kirkuk in Iraq and Banias in Syria has become operational.

Moualem told this correspondent that the pipeline was closed in the early 1980s when Iraq and Iran started their eight-year long war. There are plans to build another pipeline to carry Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean coast. The two countries have also signed a free trade agreement. "It is time to lift the sanctions (U.N. sanctions) on Iraq. We are playing our part to end the suffering of the Iraqi people and the establishment of normal relations between Iraq and its neighbours. The Arab world is united in its call for an end to the sanctions regime," Moualem said.

SYRIA'S relations with Iran remain strong. Iran was the first non-Arab country Bashar chose to visit in January this year. A trained ophthalmologist, Bashar has strategic vision. He has already set in motion changes that have the potential to revitalise Syrian political institutions. Young blood is being infused into the government and the Baa'th Party. Bashar has indicated that he would not like to be the only political candidate for the 2008 presidential elections.

Bashar has allowed freedom of the media. Independent newspapers are published, and there are plans to allow a non-government television channel to start broadcasting. Although posters and portraits of Hafez al-Assad flanked by sons Bashar and Basil are plastered all along the streets of Damascus, the President has let it be known that personality cult must be played down. Basil was groomed to succeed his father but he died in a car accident in 1994.

Bashar has ambitious plans to reform the government. He has issued dozens of decrees aimed at accelerating the pace of reforms. The main thrust is to realise the country's potential in the energy sector, tourism and agriculture sectors. The education system is being overhauled with the focus on science and technology. Government salaries have been raised by 25 per cent and many government servants have been dismissed on charges of corruption. Several prominent Syrian intellectuals, under the banner of Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, have signed a document calling for widespread political reforms.

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