Syria accepts invitation to Annapolis Conference

Haaretz has just reported “Government sources in Damascus said Sunday that the Syrian government will send its deputy foreign minister [Faysal Mekdad] to the Annapolis peace conference this week”. The Haaretz report is here.

The Jerusalem Post reported that “in recent days the Annapolis conference has also turned into a meeting that is to a large degree about Syria”. The JPost article added that “While there is no love lost in Washington for Syrian President Bashar Assad, Syria’s presence at the meeting is something that in a matter of months has gone from something that the US indicated it would tolerate, to something that the US now wants badly. And not only the US. Jordan’s King Abdullah II made a rare trip to Damascus Sunday to try and get Assad on board. As odd as it may sound, Syria is the prize. The US wants to see Syria at Annapolis because its presence there will be proof that it may very well be possible to peel Syria out of Iran’s orbit and into the warm embrace of the ‘normative’ Arab world … Washington is so keen on seeing some kind of Syrian presence at Annapolis that it has apparently given assurances that “Syrian issues” will be addressed there in some fashion. And Syrian issues in this context means only one thing: the Golan Heights. Syria has made it clear that it would not show up in Maryland unless the Golan was on the agenda … Assad has a price for his attendance and for moving away from Iran, a price that – sooner or later – Israel will be asked to pay”.  The JPost commentary on Syria’s just-confirmed participation in the Annapolis event is here.

The Associated Press is reporting that “On the plane carrying [Israeli FM Tzipi] Livni and [Israeli PM Ehud] Olmert to the U.S., Livni suggested that a lack of Arab backing contributed to the failure of the last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which broke down in bloodshed in early 2001. The Arab world, she said, ‘should stop sitting on the fence’. ‘There isn’t a single Palestinian who can reach an agreement without Arab support’, she said. ‘That’s one of the lessons we learned seven years ago’.”  The AP report is here.

But, a commentator in Haaretz said, “Saud al-Faisal and his colleagues should treat Olmert like Sadat treated Begin in 1977 – not like Farouk al-Shara treated Ehud Barak in Shepherdstown in 2000”.  The then-Syrian Foreign Minister refused to shake hands with the then-Israeli Prime Minister. The commentator added that “the Arab guests at the summit must break their psychological barriers. If the stances taken (or orchestrated) at the summit succeed in shaking the lack of confidence the Israeli public has in the intentions of the Palestinians and the Arab states, its opinion may change. In this respect, it is disappointing to hear the announcement of the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia that he is traveling to the U.S., but does not intend to take part “in this theatrical gesture of shaking hands.” The behavior of the Arab foreign ministers toward the Israeli delegation to Annapolis will press a sensitive point among Israelis – their fear that they may be seen as suckers”.  The commentary in Haaretz is published here.

The political crisis in Lebanon is another a very important reason that everyone, in the end, desperately wanted Syria to attend [See our earlier posts, here, and here].

And, the Lebanese acting foreign minister [Tarek Mitri] has also just arrived in the U.S. to attend the Annapolis conference (though Hizbollah has protested this.)

Robert Fisk: Everyone is frightened

Robert Fisk, unrivaled correspondent in Beirut for The Independent newspaper, wrote on Saturday: “I am talking into blackness because there is no electricity in Beirut. And everyone, of course, is frightened. A president was supposed to be elected today. He [n.b., and why not she? The Lebanese constitution says the president must be a Maronite, but not that the president must be a man!] was not elected. The corniche outside my home is empty. No one wants to walk beside the sea … We are all afraid … It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to be in a country that sits on plate glass. It is impossible to be certain if the glass will break. When a constitution breaks – as it is beginning to break in Lebanon – you never know when the glass will give way. People are moving out of their homes, just as they have moved out of their homes in Baghdad … So what can a Middle East correspondent write on a Saturday morning except that the world in the Middle East is growing darker and darker by the hour. Pakistan. Afghanistan. Iraq. ‘Palestine’. Lebanon. From the borders of Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean, we – we Westerners that is – are creating (as I have said before) a hell disaster. Next week, we are supposed to believe in peace in Annapolis, between the colourless American apparatchik and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister who has no more interest in a Palestinian state than his predecessor Ariel Sharon. [n.b., Fisk may not be right on this. Remember Azmi Bishara wrote in 1999 that a two-state solution is becoming an Israeli demand — basically, to preserve a Jewish majority in Israel.] …
Robert Fisk’s latest essay reporting from Lebanon is here.

A month ago, Fisk reported that arms were pouring into Lebanon — a sure sign of an impending fight: “Lebanon is peopled with ghosts. But the phantoms now returning to haunt this damaged country –the militias which tore it apart more than 30 years ago – are real. Guns are flooding back into the country – $800 for an AK-47, $3,700 for a brand-new French Famas – as Lebanon security apparatus hunt desperately for the leadership of the new and secret armies … What now worries the Lebanese authorities, however, is the sheer scale of weaponry arriving in Lebanon. It appears to include new Glock pistols (asking price $1,000). There are growing fears, moreover, that many of these guns are from the vast stock of 190,000 rifles and pistols which the US military ‘lost’ when they handed them out to Iraqi police officers without registering their numbers or destination. The American weapons included 125,000 Glock pistols. The Lebanese-Iraqi connection is anyway well established. A growing number of suicide bombers in Iraq come from the Lebanese cities of Tripoli and Sidon. Fouad Siniora’s Lebanese government – supplied by the US with recent shipments of new weapons for the official Lebanese army – has now admitted that militias are also being created among Muslim pro-government groups. Widespread reports that Saad Hariri – son of the assassinated ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri – has himself created an embryo militia have been officially denied. But a number of armed Hariri supporters initially opened fire into the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian camp after its takeover by pro-Al-Qaida gunmen last April. Hariri’s men also have forces in Beirut (supposedly unarmed) and again this is denied. The Fatah Al-Islam rebels who took over Nahr el-Bared last April – 400 died in the 206-day siege by the army, 168 of them soldiers – also used new weapons, including sniper rifles. In a gloomy ceremony last week, the military buried 98 of the 222 Muslim fighters who died, in a mass grave in Tripoli. They included Palestinians but also men from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Tunis and Algeria … Siniora’s government is well aware of the dangers that these new developments represent – ‘such a situation could lead to a new civil war’, one minister said of the military training taking place in Lebanon – in a country in which only the Hezbollah militia, classed as a ‘resistance’ movement, hitherto had permission to bear arms. [n.b., the UN Security Council Resolution 1701 tried to put a stop to that.] But Hezbollah too has been re-arming; not only with rockets but with small arms that could only be used in street fighting … Military outposts manned by Palestinian gunmen loyal to Syria have reappeared in the Bekaa, closely watched by a Lebanese army which was severely blooded in the Nahr El-Bared fighting. Sayed Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah, one of the most senior – and wisest – Shi’ite clerics in Lebanon, warned last Friday: ‘Rearming as well as the tense and sectarianism-loaded political rhetoric, all threaten Lebanon’s diversity and expose Lebanon to divisions’. Fadlallah stated that the US – which supports Hariri – wished to divide the country. The American plan to chop up Iraq, it seems, is another ghost that has crept silently into Lebanon. Robert Fisk’s report in The Independent on 19 October is here.

All this reinforces suspicions, again, that the situation in Lebanon, and with Syria, may overshadow the (faltering) Israeli-Palestinian talks that are supposed to start in a day or two in Annapolis.

UN now has a "provisional" geographical definition of Shebaa Farms

A small corner of land that belongs either to Syria or to Lebanon is a real problem that many grown men have not been able to solve. It is the Shebaa Farms.

The United Nations took the position a few years ago that it belonged to Syria — and it just so happens that that part of Syria is occupied and has been “annexed” by Israel, though this annexation has been declared “null and void” by the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly.

Syria and Lebanon wrote letters to the United Nations saying that the Shebaa Farms belongs to Lebanon — but the UN says that Syria did not provide enough documentation.

Hizballah, formed to resist the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, says that its mission will not be accomplished until the Shebaa Farms is returned to Lebanon.

And, an Israeli reserve Brigadier General told a group of journalists during a very recent tour of the Golan Heights that of course the Shebaa Farms is Lebanese. What, the journalists asked, is the problem then. But, he says, Hizballah is on the case, and the Lebanese Government does not want anything to do with Hizballah. So, the matter will stay as it is.

Israel invaded south Lebanon in 1972 because of Palestinian cross-border attacks. It withdrew unilaterally, after years of fighting Hizballah, in May 2000. Since then, Hizballah has insisted that its resistance will continue, because Israel’s withdrawal was not complete. The UN was asked to physically demarcate the Israeli-Lebanese border on the ground, and it more or less did so, with blue pillars, and painting stones blue — making the Blue Line. The UN relied on documents from the period of the French Mandate that ruled Syria, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire that was defeated during the First World War. The UN did not take Hizballah’s side.

Last summer, Israel went to war with Lebanon after Hizballah attacked a small group of Israeli soldiers near the Shebaa Farms, and seized two of them, who are still being held captive without any contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross. (Lebanese detainees are being held by Israel and Hizballah wants them returned to Lebanon.)

Yesterday, according to Haaretz, UNSG BAN Ki-moon “released the findings of cartographer Miklos Pinter, whose assignment had been to determine the borders of the disputed area. ‘I am pleased to report that, based on the best available information, the senior cartographer has arrived at a provisional definition of the Shaba Farms area’, writes the Secretary General. He also points out that ‘this exercise has not been aimed to delineate international boundaries as regards to the Shaba Farms, but should assist Lebanon and Syria in their efforts to agree upon their common border’. According to Pinter’s findings, the territory in question includes many IDF military positions, and serves as a strategic crossroads between the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel.

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