Bashar al-Assad rushes to hug Washington

MOSCOW. (Andrei Murtazin, RIA Novosti) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unveiled some details of his game plan for the Middle East.

In an interview with Qatar's Al-Watan, he said that the main role in the Middle East peace process belongs to the United States rather than Russia. He added that the same was true during Soviet times, when the United States played a decisive role in the peace process owing to its special relations with Israel. Al-Assad emphasized that Russia cannot exert pressure on Israel, nor could it do so in the past.

This interview was published in full by the Syrian government newspaper Tishreen, which means that it reflects the Syrian government's official position.

For the first time in the history of Russian-Syrian relations, al-Assad openly expressed his attitude toward Russia as a participant in the Middle East Quartet, which also includes the United States, the UN and the European Union. Needless to say, it was nothing new. He simply explained Syria's approach to the Middle East peace process. Damascus has long adopted this strategy but has never been open about it. Now the major stake in the peace process is exclusively on the United States, and the Russians may be forgotten.

Indeed, after the Soviet Union's collapse, Syria lost its main ally in the fight against Israel. The leaders of the ruling Ba'ath Party perceived the restoration of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel as "betrayal of Arab interests," and "conspiracy of global Zionism." This is what Syria thought 17 years ago, and still thinks the same. But before, such ideas were expressed by officials in the lobby, and were never published.

Now the Rubicon has been crossed. In effect, Syria has said an official "no" to Moscow's mediation in the Middle East. But is Damascus hoping to be hugged by Washington?

Maybe, this is possible but not in the immediate future. To achieve this, al-Assad will have to give up his current principles. As proof of loyalty, Washington will demand a whole number of political and economic concessions from Syria. It will tell Damascus to follow Muammar Qaddafi's example and discontinue its nuclear program, the existence of which Syria denies; renounce interference in Lebanese affairs, that is, covert and overt support for Hezbollah; establish tough control at the border of Iraq to prevent militants from getting into its territory; liberalize the economy and proclaim a policy of open doors, like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did after Abdel Nasser's death in the 1970s; free the political system and eliminate the Ba'ath monopoly on power. And there will probably be even more demands.

Peace costs a lot of money. History knows only one example of a lasting Arab-Israeli peace treaty. It was concluded by Egypt and Israel under the aegis of the United States, and on its money. For the sake of peace in the Middle East, the United States pledged to extend a $3.5 billion interest-free credit a year to Israel for the purchase of American weapons; Egypt received $1.5 billion on the same terms. Soon, the latter sum was increased to $2.2 billion a year. But this pattern of financial and political reconciliation is not likely to be applied to today's Syria.

Twelve years ago, the doves of Israeli policy - the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and later Shimon Perez - admitted a possibility of returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Israel even quoted the sum required for resettling the Israeli residents of the Golan Heights - $17 billion. But this will not be enough today.

The main resource of the Golan Heights is Lake Tiberius (Kenneret). After the 1967 Six-Day War, Damascus lost not only this territory but also access to its water resources. But a shortage of water is a much bigger problem for tiny Israel than for Syria, and it is not clear what compensation Israel will require for the lake.

Moreover, if Israel agrees to sign a peace treaty with Syria, it will demand Washington's guarantee for the security of its northern borders, that is, tranquility in the south of Lebanon. But Syria is unlikely to provide this. One will have to ask Iran for such guarantees - it is Tehran that is lavishly and openly funding Hezbollah and Damascus.

In 1978, the Soviet Union and Syria resolutely condemned the Camp David Accords as a "separate deal." Almost all Arab nations severed diplomatic relations with Egypt, and the headquarters of the Arab League were moved from Cairo to Tunis. Hafez al-Assad even initiated the formation of the so-called Rejectionist Front uniting Algeria, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

To offset the Camp David Accords, in 1980 the Soviet Union signed a Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation with Syria, which envisaged large-scale arms supplies to Damascus. Syria received huge arms supplies until 1991. But the Soviet Union's collapse ended its global confrontation with the United States, and Syria's hopes for Moscow went up in smoke.

As distinct from his father that turned Syria into a fortress of resistance to the United States and Israel, Bashar al-Assad is rushing to hug Washington, virtually following Sadat's road to Camp David. Sometimes, children redress the mistakes of their fathers. Let's see what Uncle Sam says.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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