The international media has given Syria a bad rap as a sinister, warmongering nation that harbors terrorists and refuses to make peace with neighboring Israel, a Syrian official said. He told the Juneau Empire on Tuesday that his country is a misunderstood victim that has spent decades trying to recover land taken from it and to free 20,000 Syrians under siege by Israel.
The Empire's editorial board met Tuesday with Ahmed Salkini, the press secretary of the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic. Salkini came to Juneau to address two topics: The peace process with Israel and United States-Syrian relations. Both, he said, come down to a small area of disputed sovereignty called the Golan, currently controlled by Israel.
"Something is always missing in the public discourse," Salkini said. "Syria is one of a handful of countries in the world that actually has an occupied territory."
Israel captured the Golan during the Six-Day War in June 1967. Much of the Syrian population left after the war, although it remains in dispute whether they fled or were expelled. The area has remained under Israeli control ever since, although Syria has never stopped demanding the land's return. In 2006, the United Nations adopted a resolution calling on Israel to end its occupation of the Golan.
"We believe we have a just and legal cause against an unjust occupation," Salkini said. "We've committed to a peaceful resolution to this."
Syria has insisted that Israel must withdraw from the Golan as part of any peace deal. During United States-brokered peace talks from 1999 to 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly offered to withdraw from most of the Golan in return for a comprehensive peace deal. In the final stages of talks, the agreement fell apart over access to the Sea of Galilee, which is Israel's main source of fresh water.
Since then, Salkini said that Syria has sat through a long series of talks with Israel regarding the Golan, often with the Unites States as a moderator, but never quite reached an agreement.
"We've come close to reaching some sort of understanding," Salkini said. "But it hasn't yet happened."
And until some kind of agreement is reached, tensions will continue to build between the two countries, along with the violence that the United States has been pushing to end. And the United States certainly has a vested interest in easing these tensions, both to end the cycle of violence and establish stronger allies in the Middle East.
"We cannot keeping going on in perpetual conflict," he said. "But right now it does not look very promising."
Salkini said the Unites States would have to be a crucial part of any peace agreement. In April 2008, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad was quoted in The Guardian as telling a Qatari newspaper, "There would be no direct negotiations with Israel until a new U.S. president takes office. The U.S. was the only party qualified to sponsor any direct talks."
Salkini expressed frustration with the Bush administration, but said Syria was taking a cautiously optimistic approach toward the Obama administration.
"With the Obama administration, the rhetoric is different," Salkini said.
And there's a lot of rhetoric to wade through. In the short time he spent with the Empire editorial staff, Salkini offered insight into the divided viewpoints that separate the same issues. He briefly mentioned the Hamas and Hezbollah organizations, which the United States regards as terrorist groups, but Salkini said Syria views them as justified resistance movements. He also pointed out that Israel's grip on the Golan extends beyond the resources and the land itself, and reaches into fundamental philosophical differences.
"Our idea is it goes against the philosophy of Israel and the issue of Zionism," Salkini said of the idea that Israel would relinquish control of the Golan. "It is an expansionary state by nature."
Calling Israel "expansionary" and implying that it is incapable of compromise is an example of the finger-pointing that is prevalent in the debate. Even at the University of Alaska Southeast, thousands of miles from the heart of the conflict, the experts who gathered to explain the problems and seek solutions could not steer clear of open disagreements.
"As Middle Easterners, whether we are Arabs, we are Iranians, we are Turks and Israelis, we are very good at pointing fingers. That's what we excel at amazingly," Middle East political professor Farideh Farhi said Tuesday night during a panel discussion. "In 2009, we are sitting in a world that is a lot worse in terms of the Middle East than it was 10 years ago."
The blame assigned Tuesday during the Juneau World Affairs Council's forum sheds light on the fundamental issue. What it boils down to is two sides that both believe they're right, and both believe they're the victims in a deadly cycle of violence. The only way the United States can help bridge that divide is to understand where both sides are coming from. Open discourse is the best place to start.