'The Syrians Aren't Eager to Arm Hezbollah'

Miguel Moratinos undoubtedly holds the world record for the foreign statesman who has spent the most time dealing with Israel, the Palestinians, Syria and the 'peace process.'

Miguel Moratinos undoubtedly holds the world record for the foreign statesman who has spent the most time dealing with Israel, the Palestinians, Syria and the "peace process." Since the Madrid summit, which took place 15 years ago next month, Moratinos has been a frequent flier to the capitals of the Middle East. First as a senior official in the Spanish Foreign Ministry, then as Spain's ambassador to Israel, later as a delegate of the European Union to the region, and lastly as Spain's foreign minister (since 2004.)

On Sunday evening, between a meeting with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and a discussion with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Moratinos said he had never felt such profound anxiety over the fate of the region. He emphasized that never before, in the entire period he was involved in efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, had the situation been so serious and the horizon so depressing.

Since U.S. President George W. Bush placed Syria on the list of countries that support terror and French President Jacques Chirac placed Syrian President Bashar Assad at the top of the list of suspects in the murder of his Lebanese friend Rafik Hariri, Moratinos has in effect been the liaison officer between the West and Damascus.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who arrived in the region at the end of August, cancelled his visit to Syria to protest Assad's speech following the second Lebanon war. Moratinos came to Jerusalem this week after another series of meetings with the Syrian leadership - a second wave of meetings in less than three months. His critics accuse him of a somewhat naive attitude to the songs of peace he is hearing from the heads of the pro-Iranian regime in Damascus.

Only a political solution

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said this week in an interview with Haaretz that Iran and Syria are pulling the strings of the conflict between the moderate and the extremist factors in the region. Moratinos exercises diplomatic tact to avoid the direct question of whether he agrees with Blair.

"My conclusion from the Lebanon War is that there is no military solution to the regional conflict, but only a political solution," he says. "We in Spain are trying to pull strings to guide developments in the Middle East away from the direction of terror and nuclear armament. We are trying to get all the sides to join a political process that will lead to an overall solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict."

He goes on to address Damascus. "In my meetings with President Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, I found a desire to join this process in a constructive manner. Of course they are concerned about their status in the world and are trying to win the attention of the international community and be rescued from the isolation in which they find themselves since the assassination of Hariri. The Syrians are interested in being part of the regional political and security structure, and understand that in order to be rescued from the policy of isolation that the United States is imposing on them they must demonstrate a positive attitude and good will. I believe that we have to have a certain amount of trust in them. I have a feeling that we are approaching positive Syrian involvement in creating a new future. They are willing to begin contacts with Israel immediately. They continue to envision the return of the Golan Heights, and I believe that in return for that it will be possible to achieve a peace agreement between the two countries."

Moratinos does not have to think twice when asked to discuss former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk's assessment that it was a waste of time trying to distance Syria from Iran, because relations with Tehran were of strategic interest to Damascus.

"I don't agree with him," he says. "We have to separate the handling of Syria from the handling of the Iranian nuclear problem in the diplomatic manner adopted by the EU."

Moratinos detected the first difference between Iran and Syria in the latter's attitude toward UN Security Council Resolution 1701. "I have a positive response from Damascus to the principle of maintaining Lebanese sovereignty and implementing Security Council Resolution 1701." He suggests a different interpretation of the Syrian statement condemning the deployment of UNIFIL forces on its border with Lebanon: "Syria does not oppose the deployment of forces along the border and even informed the UN secretary-general that it would deploy a brigade of soldiers of its own to prevent the smuggling of arms to Hezbollah. It is only opposed to having a UNIFIL force isolate Syria."

The Spanish foreign minister says that a decision is being formulated to have Spain's UNIFIL force be deployed near the border area. "We have a commitment to preventing the transfer of illegal weapons." He promises that "if our soldiers encounter a weapons truck from Syria on its way to Hezbollah warehouses, there is no question that they will prevent it from continuing on its way." However, it is important to him to clarify that the Spanish soldiers were not sent to Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah. This assignment belongs to the Lebanese government, which will have to deal with the Shi'ite organization through political means.

Moratinos heard of the attempted terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus, which was prevented by Syrian security forces, while he was on his way from Gaza to Ben-Gurion International Airport. This was additional proof, in his opinion, for the need and the opportunity to remove Syria from the circle of terror and bring it into the circle of peace. "This incident demonstrates to the Syrians that they, too, can fall victim to extremism and extremists," says Moratinos.

Unilateralism is not a solution

Moratinos was the first foreign statesman to receive a copy of the coalition agreement between Fatah and Hamas from Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in Gaza. In a phone conversation, he enthusiastically reads the sections in which Hamas promises to accept the Arab peace initiative mentioned in the road map, to honor the agreements between the Palestinine Liberation Organization and Israel, and to cooperate with Abu Mazen in negotiations with Israel. However, Moratinos is very careful not to see it as a fait accompli or to urge Israel to demonstrate a positive attitude towards the new government that is being formed, and makes do with diplomatic language: "This is a positive step, but we have to examine the new document thoroughly and bring it for discussion in European forums."

Only a year ago, Moratinos was among the many European statesmen who were captives of Sharon's unilateral disengagement, who kept their distance from Hamas as from fire, and remained on the sidelines when Abu Mazen's status deteriorated. Now he agrees that "unilateralism doesn't work," and is convinced that an international conference will be convened sooner or later. However, he has reservations about an "instant conference."

"There is need for preparatory work and a careful choice of the desirable time and place. At present I don't see the critical mass necessary for convening such a conference. First of all, we have to reach the leading players involved in the conflict. The lesson from the Lebanon war is that time is pressing and the entire international community, not only the United States and Europe but the entire world, and first and foremost the Arab world, must enlist in the effort without delay.

"We have before us the chronicle of a predictable tragedy," says Martinos. "If we don't all make an effort, we are marching directly to catastrophe. Therefore I often break the rules of political correctness and express myself in strong language. The risk that I'm taking on myself is nothing compared to the dangers lying in wait for you."

The Spanish foreign minister does not reject the possibility that the Lebanese model, of deploying an international force in a sensitive region, can eventually, after the establishment of a Palestinian state and at the request of the sides, serve to maintain peace in the territories as well. He recalls that in the Taba talks in 2001, which he summarized in a document that bears his name, there is a paragraph regarding the deployment of a peace force in the areas that Israel would evacuate.