Damascus aims to please Washington
Since June, Syria has been making a major effort to win points from the United States. It is fed up with being included on the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism. This week it will also host the conference of Arab foreign ministers on the Arab peace initiative.
The mutual trust that Hamas and Fatah have for each other is comparable only to the trust that Israel places in both of them. In fact, Israel regards Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad - which carried out the attack in Hebron Friday evening - as a single terrorist bloc.
Thus, when Fatah and Hamas suddenly reach an understanding, without the Islamic Jihad organization, the Israeli side is both intrigued and suspicious, and rightly so. Are they trying to influence the elections in Israel? Probably not. The Palestinians are well aware of the opinion polls in Israel. Are they perhaps trying to promote the talks held by the Quartet in Amman? Or seeking a favorable nod from the White House? But if those are the reasons, why did Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat refuse to send Abu Mazen to Egypt? Maybe we should look for the reason somewhere else altogether.
For example, how is that Hamas leaders, who are headquartered in Damascus, hold open talks on Egyptian soil with Fatah, which is led by Arafat (whom Syria abhors) and yet Syria remains silent. Moreover, in the same week Syria voted in favor of the United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq, and representatives of Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese group, refused to meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, who was visiting Beirut. True, Hezbollah has an old score to settle with Iraq because of its war against Iran. But Lebanese leaders also shunned Sabri last week, and when that happens, we should think in terms of a message from Damascus.
Since June, Syria has been making a major effort to win points from the United States. Syria is fed up with being included on the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism, it wants to block the passage of a bill put forward by two Republican Congressmen that would allow the president to impose additional sanctions, and its representatives are conducting "academic" talks with the Americans on the future of the relations between the two countries. This week Syria will also host the conference of Arab foreign ministers on the Arab peace initiative.
In September, David Satterfield, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, testifying before the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia of the House International Relations Committee, stated, "We do not believe this is the right time for legislative initiatives that could complicate or even undermine our efforts. The imposition of new sanctions on Syria would severely limit our ability to address a range of important issues directly with the highest levels of the Syrian government."
The important issues he was referring to are the war against terrorism and the advancement of the peace process. Satterfield cited the contribution by Syria, which "has been substantial and has helped save American lives." In June, Syria made it clear to the leaderships of Hamas and Islamic Jihad that they should lower the profile of their political activity on Syrian soil, and now Syria is tacitly consenting to the talks these two organizations are holding with Fatah, in which one of the subjects is the possibility of putting a halt to terrorist attacks against Israel.
According to Egyptian sources, the talks could not have taken place without the agreement of the Syrian authorities. The sources also noted the contribution being made by Saudi pressure and, of course, the important Egyptian auspices for the talks. The Syrians have yet to comment on the latest attack in Hebron.
To paraphrase an old Israeli slogan, "the Arab states are trying to advance the political process as though there are no Israeli attacks on the Palestinians." In other words, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and apparently Syria as well are trying to move ahead with the American "road map" in spite of Israel, in order to demonstrate Arab, and especially Palestinian, agreement, which even if it will not help persuade a right-wing Israeli government to change its direction, will at least show that the Arab states are acting alongside America to achieve peace.
The Arab states are trying, in this move, to score points for making an effort, even if it is not fruitful. After all, they too understand that they are not capable of controlling every explosives expert wandering around in the territories. But they can definitely take advantage of the political vacuum that the Sharon-Ben-Eliezer government created during the two years of the intifada. Syria, at any rate, is accumulating political capital in Washington, which may well get Damascus a place on the side of the good guys in the division of the world into the supporters and the opponents of terrorism.