A momentous trilateral meeting took place in Istanbul on May 9th that brought together Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Syria's detractors in the US were conspicuously silent regarding this trilateral meeting while going to great pains dissecting the significance and implications of the one held several months ago between Presidents Assad and Ahmadinejad, alongside Hezbollah's Secretary General. The reason for this silence is simple. It lies in the fact that although some attempt to naively, or maybe maliciously, simplify Syria's political stances as one dimensional, Syria's regional role is far more nuanced. One cannot fully comprehend Syria's political vision without assessing these two meetings side-by-side. They are a clear indication that while in the absence of peace Syria unequivocally supports resistance, peace remains its strategic choice.
During this meeting in Istanbul, the three sides discussed several important issues. The underlying theme was a vision for peace, stability, and security in the region. Among several topics, they agreed that Iraq's sovereignty must be maintained, and that its future government should espouse a unified Iraq. The three leaders also discussed Gaza and the ongoing, brutal Israeli blockade, as well as the failure of the international community to meet its responsibilities and pledges to the besieged people of Gaza.
However, the most significant outcome of this meeting was Syria reaffirming its commitment to renewing indirect peace talks with Israel, while Turkey reaffirmed its own role as mediator.
Indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel took place under Turkish auspices throughout 2008 and included several rounds. These rounds succeeded in drawing up around 90% of a future peace agreement. However, as the decisive moment approached, instead of returning to Ankara for a historic moment of peace, Israel's then-prime minister launched a vicious offensive on Gaza killing more than 1,400 people. The current Turkish foreign minister, who at the time was lead negotiator between both parties, recently described this incident at a public talk in Washington as a "personal insult" to Turkey.
Still, the leaders of Qatar, Turkey and Syria in their meeting agreed that Israel's record notwithstanding, peace is the optimal means to end the Arab-Israeli conflict and with it, Israeli occupation. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton recently declared that resuming the Syrian-Israeli negotiations was "extremely important" for the EU, and the Obama administration has repeatedly lauded Turkey for its efforts to bring peace to these warring countries.
Yet, the current government in Israel, without equivocation, inexorably rejects these international demands. Their president declared this week from Moscow that a peace agreement with Syria will not include returning the Golan, as his foreign minister echoed: "Syria must be made to understand that it has to relinquish its demand for the Golan Heights." However, UN resolutions, the US, EU, China, Russia, and all relevant parties agree that a final peace is one based on the principle of "land for peace."
Beyond pointing the finger at who is responsible for the absence of peace, this is the moment of truth. Syria is currently sitting on one end of the indirect negotiations table, alongside the Turkish mediator, and behind us are all major world powers that support the talks. The other seat remains empty. Will a partner in peace finally present itself? Moreover, will the world, spearheaded by its superpower, help convince Israel that shear power will never bring her security; rather, only peace will?
These are the questions we must pose in order to address the root cause of our current impasse. Drawing public opinion to the alliances and armaments of the different parties in the region is not only futile, but is a diversion tactic aimed at evading the requirements for peace.