The Blog

The Taming of the Lion

Syria claims that Israel has made an offer to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace deal with Damascus. This is particularly intriguing.
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This week, Syria made news headlines not once...but twice. One headline implicated it in enriching uranium and involved the CIA confirming to Congress that the target of a mysterious Israeli air raid in northern Syria on Sept. 6, 2007 was a reactor built with North Korean help.

The second headline, which in my opinion is the most intriguing one, was about a claim recently made by the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad that Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, has made an offer to withdraw from Syria's Golan Heights in exchange for a peace deal with Damascus.

Direct and indirect peace negotiations between Syria and Israel are not something new. In 1991, Syrian and Israeli officials confronted each other at the Madrid Peace conference, exchanging charges and accusations. Then there were the formal U.S.-sponsored Israel-Syria talks which nearly resulted in an agreement in 2000, but broke down over final border and peace arrangements. But what's different about these new peace overtures is the fact that they are being done through the media.

First, the Syrian president appeared on Syrian national television hinting about talks taking place through a third party. Shortly after, the Syrian newspaper al-Watan reports that the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and informed him of Olmert's willingness to fully withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement. A day later, Buthaina Shaaban, Syria's minister for expatriate affairs, spoke about the offer on Al Jazeera.

If you are familiar with Syrian media like I am, you may worry about what the Syrian government might have omitted or censored, but in this case they have been going out of their way to leak news of Ankara's efforts to facilitate a deal on the Golan. Does Assad want to distract the world from revelations in Washington about his ties to North Korea? Was the mysterious liquidation of Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus Assad's way of signaling a readiness to break with Hassan Nasrallah and Iran? Or was it the utter failure of the Arab Summit which was marked by snubs by leaders of regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Egypt?

I believe it is the latter. Al Assad -- or "The Lion" in English -- has decided to follow the route of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and play it solo away from those who have shunned and isolated him. The only obstacle is Iran -- but again following Sadat's model it seems that Bashar Al Assad is willing to join the American camp in the Middle East by talking to Turkey and Israel. Will Assad forsake his benefactor, Iran?

Watch the Syrian Denial: Who's telling the Truth?