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Syria waits for Egypt to reach out

Syria fears an Islamic emirate in Gaza and "epidemic of self-determination" but expects Iran to enter into talks with the west

Ahmed Eleiba, Monday 20 Dec 2010
Mubarak and Assas
Mubarak, Abdullah, Sabah Al-Ahmad and Al-Assad. Riyadh March 11,2009 (AP)
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A senior Syrian source told Ahram Online that information revealed in Wikileaks documents regarding Cairo and Damascus did not politically embarrass either side. “The Wikileaks documents confirmed that conversations behind closed doors on Cairo-Damascus relations are the same as those made in public,” the source said.

He continued that the moves made by Egyptian Minister of Industry and Trade Rashid Mohamed Rashid towards Qatar can serve as a model for relations between Cairo and Damascus. “I don’t think Damascus is asking President Mubarak to take a plane and go to Damascus,” he stated. “But inviting President Al-Assad to visit Egypt could achieve the same result. And if an invitation is extended, I imagine President Assad would respond positively. President Mubarak is well respected, especially as he was a close friend of the father (late President Hafez Al-Assad).”

The source revealed that Assad’s visit, scheduled during Mubarak’s convalescence last year, was cancelled when Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif called Assad to apologise after Assad’s plane was on standby to go to Sharm El-Sheikh. The Syrian embassy in Cairo had already booked an entire suite for Assad at one of Sharm El-Sheikh’s resorts, even though the president’s itinerary did not include an overnight visit there.

“After the president recovered, there was no opportunity for another visit,” the source continued. “Nonetheless, the calm between Cairo and Damascus is an indicator of where relations are right now; and a boom in bilateral economic ties is also underway.”

On another front, the source revealed that Damascus no longer expects much improvement in relations with the US because of Washington’s weak foreign policies towards the Middle East. “The relationship between Damascus and Washington revolves around the Arab-Israeli struggle,” he said. “The high frequency of US officials visits at the beginning of US President Barak Obama’s tenure has recently ground to a halt. And consequently, any talk by the Americans about activating the Syrian track in the peace process is over.”

The source asserted that Syria does not expect Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet, or any similar government, to conclude a peace agreement with Damascus. He added that Tel Aviv made matters worse by passing a law that requires any agreement to be approved by a referendum. “Unfortunately, the incorrect concept that the scope of negotiations is over land exchange between the two sides has given Israel an opportunity to auction off Arab land, when in fact settlements have been built on Arab land primarily,” he reasoned.

Discussing the possibility of a Palestinian conciliation, the source believes it is unlikely that Fatah and Hamas will come to an agreement. “Both sides are obstructing any agreement which could be agreed upon ideologically or practically,” he revealed. “Both have wasted Cairo’s efforts, and Cairo should have declared that the result, as had Saudi Arabia.”

This harsh tone against Hamas marks a change of position on the Syrian side which, according to the source, fears the emergence of an “Islamic emirate” in the Gaza Strip. “We completely reject this policy; it is a move which benefits the Muslim Brotherhood, on whom the Syrian regime’s position is clear,” stated the source. “We refuse the creation of such an emirate on the border with Egypt. There are real signs that Hamas wants to begin this project. My criticism of Hamas is that it not only plays a political role but also a religious one; we support Hezbollah because it only plays a political role.”

The source also discussed the issue of Iran and the glimmer of hope that there will be a productive dialogue with the international community about its nuclear program. “Iran will soon surprise everyone by signing an agreement with the West,” he asserted. “And the losers in this case will be the Arabs. There doesn’t need to be an alliance with Iran, but as President Assad said, it should be recognised for the regional power it is. But, for example, we disagree with Tehran about Iraq.”

Last week, the President of the Kurdish administered northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, proposed a referendum on self-determination in the region, which triggered waves of protests inside and outside the country, especially in Syria. “It will not happen,” he retorted. “We will not allow a Kurdish state to be created, as long as Turkey remains strong… and we assist them on security matters and logistics on this issue. Iran will not allow this either, and the Kurds must remain citizens in any form they want but within the framework of the state they live in. The Arabs must be cautious of these changes because theCwill spread throughout the region from East to West, at critical spots from Sudan to Morocco to Iraq.”

At the end of the interview, the source confirmed the collapse of the Yakhont arms deal between Russia and Syria which was unveiled a few months ago. “Russia deals with us and with Arabs as a retailer not as a politician,” he said. “Russia is a source of arms, but not the only one. New ties with countries such as Georgia could be a source of weapons.”

The source said that the Russian president, who is scheduled to visit Israel in mid-January, sent a message to reassure Arabs ahead of the visit that joint interests between Russia and Israel will not come at the expense of Russian-Arab ties. The source was unconvinced with these reassurances, and believes Russia’s policies have turned against the Arabs in favour of Israel.

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