As Syria and Israel resume long-stalled peace talks in Washington, much of the Arab world is hoping that an agreement between the longtime enemies can ease relations throughout the Middle East and allow Syria to take part in trends that are starting to remake the region.
Syria has been so focused on President Hafez Assad's struggle against the "Zionist entity" that its economy and politics have remained static while other Arab and Muslim nations have profited from diplomatic engagement with Israel.
Egypt and then Jordan signed peace treaties with the Jewish state, while the Palestinians have recognized its right to exist and have begun making strides toward establishing a state of their own. Turkey has entered into a close military alliance with Israel, which also has a new an economic relationship with the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, is beginning to follow that path; Algeria has made preliminary contacts; Mauritania has opened full diplomatic ties.
Across the Middle East and Gulf region, the beginnings of a outward-looking and gradually democratizing culture can be seen, part of a generational overhaul that makes a final resolution of conflict between Israelis and Arabs seem not only within reach, but inevitable. Young entrepreneurs say they are tired of the ideological battles of their parents' generation and want the region's energy and resources focused on other issues.
"There is nothing more significant than a breakthrough on the Syrian front; it is the key," said Radwan Abdullah, a Jordanian political analyst. "Syria is a spoiler; they can hinder the peace process and delay and make it harder, but they cannot stop the process altogether. . . . Eventually, the process will materialize. . . . Slow normalization will happen, and in the end Syria would be isolated."
The resumption of talks between the foes has been greeted in the region as a well-timed opportunity to end their 50-year state of war.
At 69 and in ill health, Assad is trying to lay a foundation for his son, Bashar, to succeed him. And the bequest of a country at peace with its neighbors--with the Golan Heights reclaimed from Israeli occupation--could be an important step that allows Bashar, or another leader, to focus on domestic economic reform. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, meanwhile, has staked his political success on resolving all of Israel's outstanding disputes--with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese--quickly and concurrently.
As the Palestinians and Israelis enter final-status discussions, a deal with Syria could solve two problems at once--likely drawing Lebanon, which Syria largely controls, into a treaty as well, and quieting the last active front of Arab military resistance to the Jewish state. Anti-Israeli guerrillas, operating with support from Syria and Iran, use southern Lebanon as a base for attacks on Israeli forces. Lebanese press reports today indicated that the country is lining up its negotiating team.
"The resumption of talks is an important and positive development in itself," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, reflecting a widely held regional view that the willingness of Syria and Israel to negotiate raises the chances of a peace agreement between them. Legendarily opaque in his strategy, with decades of apprehension built up from failed talks with the United States and Israel, Assad, analysts say, would probably not have approved of discussions with Barak if he were not convinced he could regain the Golan region, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.
A Syrian-Israeli peace deal also could open the way for agreements with other Arab states and, more significantly, for the start of more robust regional cooperation. The peace agreements between Israel, Jordan and Egypt, for example, may have helped stop warfare, but they have produced little in the way of neighborly feelings or trade.
"The premise is that within the short run, the core of the problem will be defused: peace treaties with all parties, secure boundaries, borders set, a Palestinian state," said an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official. "It would increase stability in the region, [promote] more economic cooperation. . . . Then we can start multilateral talks" on regional economic, arms control and other agreements.
Such optimism is not universal. As the Syrian-Israeli talks began, leaders of Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon vowed to continue their armed campaign against Israel, and some Arab editorial writers contended that in negotiating with Syria, Israel merely wants to weaken the Palestinians' diplomatic leverage before beginning sensitive discussions with them on such issues as the status of Jerusalem in any future Palestinian state.
In comparison, bartering with Syria over security, water rights, the Golan Heights and other issues "will be easy," wrote Abdelbari Atwan, editor of the daily al-Quds al-Arabi. "But in return, it will complicate the task of the Palestinian negotiators, as well as that of all the future Arab generations that try to regain the rights squandered by their fathers."
Here, however, the government controlled media has begun extolling the virtues of peace and, perhaps more importantly, mentioning Israel by name as a beneficiary. It is not unusual here for government officials, documents and even private interests to avoid direct mention of Israel; visa application forms, for example, ask applicants whether they have ever visited "Occupied Palestine," while some hotel chains black out the names of their Israeli branches from in-house brochures.
According to a report by the Reuters news service this week, however, the head of the English language Syria Times, Fouad Mardoud, noted in an editorial that "peace is for the benefit of all peoples in the region . . . including the Israelis, of course."