Syria and the Palestinians: A love-hate relationship

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For an entire century, Syria has had a love-hate relationship with Palestinians. The Palestinian cause has been at the core of Syria’s ideological and political posture. The pan-Arab ideology always placed Palestine at the center of Greater Syria, and the ruling Syrian pan-Arab Baath Party followed the Palestinians in choosing a flag identical to that of early 20th century pan-Arabism. Regionally and internationally, Syria has supported Palestinians and the Palestinian position both rhetorically and in posturing within the anti-Camp David front, the non-aligned movement and in the UN.
The same Syria, however, has also used and abused Palestinians of all colors. When Damascus disagreed with Yasser Arafat, it sided with PFLP Marxists or DFLP leftists. Later, Syria aligned with radical right wing Islamists even after the Baathists had demolished Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters in Hama.

Relations between Syria and official Palestinian representatives have been in bad shape ever since Arafat became persona non grata in Damascus following the PLO’s criticism of Syria’s lack of intervention in Lebanon when the Israelis were pounding the PLO in 1982. After Syria joined the US in fighting their fellow Baathist in Iraq in 1991, America rewarded Damascus with a seat at the Madrid peace conference. Madrid, in turn, produced three negotiating tracks: Syrian-Israeli, Lebanese-Israeli and a joint Jordanian/Palestinian track with the Israelis. When the PLO subsequently struck a secret deal with Israel in Oslo in 1993, the Syrians felt they had been stabbed in the back.

The Syrians have also tried their own track with the Israelis, but that has yet to produce any result. And since Syria didn’t join the Americans in their latest Gulf war, relations with the US have cooled. This negativity has produced an Israeli reluctance to respond to the peace gestures from the young Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Syria’s relations with the Hamas movement pose the biggest questions for the current Palestinian leadership. Khaled Mishaal’s Damascus base has become a point of contention for Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, especially since Hamas decided to violently seize power in Gaza, and there is growing Arab and international pressure on the Syrians to help "convince" the Hamas leadership to change its course.

The Annapolis process brought the Syrian role to the forefront once again, with pundits repeating the mantra that there can be no peace without Syria. Syria’s participation at Annapolis–not wanting the regional peace train to leave without being on board–surprised many. The Syrians especially stunned their radical Palestinian guests, who were preparing to publicly oppose the Annapolis conference, and naturally the demonstrations that were planned to take place in Damascus were suddenly muted.

For the most part, Syria’s interest in improving its relations with the West is governed by its position regarding Lebanon. If the Lebanese presidency crisis eases, Syria will be tempted again to try and resolve its remaining problems with the West. It will not be surprising if in the near to medium future, the US engages the Syrians and/or encourages the Israelis to respond to Syrian peace overtures. The price that Syria will be asked to pay will not be restricted to clamping down on Mishaal and Hamas, however. US President George W. Bush’s call to solve the Palestinian refugee issue in a financial way indicates that Syria will be asked to deal with the refugees resident there as well as help resolve the much more thorny issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

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