Page last updated at 09:36 GMT, Thursday, 22 May 2008 10:36 UK

Syrians examine prospects for peace

By Lina Sinjab
BBC News, Damascus

Israeli-occupied Golan Heights
The fate of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is central to negotiations

"The fortress of opposition and confrontation, the beating heart of Arabism."

That is how Syrian officials describe their country, and many of the population believe so as well. Arabism is in the blood; the issues of Israel/Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon are discussed over every morning coffee and dinner table.

They live the consequences of 1967, when Syria lost the Golan Heights, displacing 130,000 people; and of 1948, when thousands of Palestinians sought refuge in Syria.

So they listened intently when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his readiness to give back the Golan in return for normalising relations with Syria.

Turkey said it had been mediating between the two sides for more than a year.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has repeatedly said Syria is committed to peace as "a strategic choice for Syria".

Samir Taqi, political analyst and head of al-Sharq Centre for Strategic studies, says: "This needs real determination from the next American administration to embark in the acceptance of the need of a reconciliatory regional approach."

Dr Taqi says a new era began after the 2006 Lebanon war, showing the risks maintaining low-level confrontation with Israel or ending the conflict without a proper solution.


Israel wants Syria to distance itself from Iran and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, and to cease supporting Hezbollah, the Lebanese political and militant organisation.

Damascus considers resistance by Hamas and Hezbollah a legitimate right against occupation, but it also wants to defend its own interests and get the Golan back.

Damascus market
Damascus sees itself as the beating heart of Arab nationalism

Dr Taqi says all the problems could be solved though a more conciliatory approach towards Iran, and acceptance of regional co-operation in the name of peace and security.

"If we embark in a serious approach towards the Syrian-Israeli track, the general trend in the region would be towards peace," he said.

Many Syrian intellectuals now believe no-war, no-peace era has ended and that peace is the only solution.

"I have always rejected any relations with Israel, it was a declared war until we won back our rights, " says Shawki Baghdadi, a veteran writer and poet.

"But when I saw that Arab states were normalising their relations with Israel, I started to think of peace.

"Today I think we need to accept peace with Israel and to transfer our military battle to the cultural and civil sphere."

He says some of the defence budget could be diverted to education, development and welfare, to go some way towards prevent the brain drain the Middle East is currently facing.

Writer Akram Antaki says Syria has to recognise Israel as a reality, and Israel must engage with the region.

"We should reach a compromise but it should be a real peace between Syria and Israel. We cannot continue fighting forever without any goal," Mr Antaki says.

"It is a mutual process. The main thing is to stop the process of hate and war."

Popular suspicion

Dunia Fadel
I am ready to stay under occupation for another 100 years but to have freedom for Palestine too
Dunia Fadel
On the streets of Damascus, the mood is slightly different. People are concerned about their livelihoods and food prices, but their eyes are on Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.

Dunia Fadel, who came from Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to finish her higher education, says there can be no peace with Israel without a solution to the Palestinian question.

"We have heard this for 41 years and nothing happens. Israel wants to dictate our policies.

"I am ready to stay under occupation for another 100 years, but to have freedom for Palestine too."

Bassel Mahrous, a religious music seller in the famous Hamadiya market, says: "I don't know if the Americans will push the Israelis to do it.

"We won't have relations with Israel, they will remain the occupiers we cannot have relations with them."

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