Bashar Assad, never a man to accept conditions, is nevertheless imposing some of his own on the United States. In an interview with the BBC earlier this week, the Syrian president said he would only attend a conference on Middle East peace scheduled for November in Annapolis, Maryland, if the issue of the Golan Heights were discussed. "It should be about comprehensive peace, and Syria is part of this comprehensive peace. Without that, we shouldn't go, we wouldn't go," Assad said.
Assad's position is understandable. The idea of inviting Syria to the conference as a member of an Arab League committee dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was never going to float in Damascus. On the other hand, Washington was never going to regard as a priority Syria's interest in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which governs the status of the occupied Golan Heights, when Assad's regime is briskly undermining UN resolutions on Lebanon and other regional conflicts. However, from Lebanon's perspective, and despite Syria's destructiveness in the country, is there an advantage in seeing Assad locked into a negotiation process with Israel?
The question may be badly posed.
Ultimately, if the November conference turns into a success, it might be impossible to prevent Syria from elbowing its way onto the table. There are several reasons for this, not least that Israel might have an incentive in resurrecting its Syrian track in order to play it off against the Palestinian track, as it did throughout the 1990s. The fact that Syria might be interested far more in a negotiating process than in a peace settlement would only interest the Israelis more.
It is equally likely that the Saudis, whose relations with Syria have descended to subterranean levels, would nonetheless encourage a Syrian track. This makes sense because King Abdullah's peace plan will not go very far if Syria and Hamas, instead of being in the room, are actively working to scuttle it from the outside. The Saudis also realize that if Syria is a full participant, this will make it much more difficult for other Arab states to oppose negotiations. Saudi Arabia would therefore gain latitude to make possible dramatic moves of its own in its dealings with Israel.
More generally, there are those who believe that unless Syria is offered something serious, it will continue to try imposing its writ on Lebanon. There is skepticism, even cynicism, in Beirut when it comes to such an argument. After all, the Syrians throughout the 1990s viewed their talks with Israel as just another opportunity to further tighten their hold over the Lebanese. The late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, implicitly recognized that link when he famously remarked that he preferred Syrian soldiers in Lebanon than on the Golan Heights. The reality at the time, however, was that the international community readily pushed the Lebanese track to the backburner, awaiting a resolution, first, of the Syrian-Israeli conflict. In other words Syrian President Hafez Assad, until the Syrian-Israeli track broke down in March 2000, was on the verge of having his soldiers deployed both on the Golan and in Lebanon.
If Syria's entry into the Annapolis process - assuming there is such a process - is inevitable, then Lebanon and its friends must ensure that what Syria gains on the Golan it surrenders in Lebanon. One way to do so is to use the November conference as leverage to secure formal Syrian approval of all UN resolutions and statements relating to Lebanese matters, particularly Resolutions 1559 and 1701, as well as statements calling on Damascus to delineate its border with Lebanon in the Shebaa Farms area. Lebanon should be invited as a full participant at the conference. It should use the event to reaffirm its respect for UN resolutions and possibly to put a mechanism in motion to update the 1949 Armistice Agreement, whose implementation was part of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's seven-point plan endorsed by the government last year.
How would Syria respond to delineating the Shebaa border? In late September, the Syrians told Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos that they were willing to transfer the Shebaa Farms to UN custody. Moratinos, who has been overly alert to Syrian anxieties despite the attack that killed six troops of the Spanish contingent in South Lebanon last June, recently sent a letter to this effect to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The seriousness of the offer bears scrutiny. As is often the case, it was not the Syrians making the announcement but someone speaking in their name, affording Assad deniability. That said, bringing up the Syrian offer in the context of the November conference could put Damascus on the spot, forcing it to reveal its true intentions.
They're not difficult to deduce. Syria had always described the farms as Lebanese. Moratinos' letter suggests Damascus believes they belong to Syria. The practical result of this is that any delineation of borders still requires a Lebanese-Syrian agreement, which the Syrians refuse to discuss while Shebaa remains occupied. The Syrians sold Moratinos a bogus concession, so the Shebaa deadlock continues. Yet it is still possible that a Syrian track with Israel would force Syria to inject some clarity into the Lebanese track, particularly on the Shebaa Farms.
All this will not prevent Syria from pursuing its destabilization of Lebanon and trying to reassert its hegemony over the country. Indeed, if a negotiating process buys the Syrian regime breathing space and international goodwill, this may have terrible consequences for Lebanon and for the Hariri tribunal. However, if Syrian participation in the Annapolis meeting cannot be avoided, if Syria uses the gathering to jumpstart talks with Israel, then Lebanon and those who want to see UN resolutions pertaining to Lebanese issues implemented have to be prepared. And that means showing Syria that its track with Israel can only move forward once Damascus complies with the Lebanon resolutions.