Japan and the Middle East: Part Six - Japan-Syria Relations
Dr. Flynt Leverett (Senior Fellow, Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution), Sami Khiyami (Syrian Ambassador to the UK), Roey Gilad (Minister Counsellor of Political Affair, UK Embassy of Israel), J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times) and Dr. Buthaina Shaaban (Syrian Cabinet Ninister and Foreign Ministry Spokesperson)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
Currently, diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Damascus are good and have not been affected by the dispatch of Japanese troops to Iraq on a humanitarian mission. Syria is considered an important element in any comprehensive Middle East peace deal because Israel currently occupies the Syrian Golan Heights territory.
At present, the United States, Japan's closest ally, has extremely poor relations with Damascus, opening up a possibility for Tokyo to mediator between the two. If the US decides it wants to enter into dialogue with Damascus, Tokyo could play an important role.
Syria has said that it thinks Japan should play a greater role in the Middle East peace process as well as assume a larger role in the reconstruction of Iraq. This article very briefly examines issues that presently face Syria in regard to the peace process and how these might influence Japanese involvement in it.
Sean Curtin: You have described the Bush administration's policy towards Syria as moving in the direction of "regime change on the cheap." If there is a policy shift towards this position, what effect do you think it will have on other parties that want to play a prominent role in the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis? I am thinking here specifically of the EU, the UN, Japan and the UK. All have indicated a desire to be involved in a regional peace formula, but if there is a new emerging US policy of "regime change on the cheap" for Syria, won't this undermine these efforts or make it more difficult for these parties to be involved with Syria, especially Japan which enjoys good relations with Damascus.
Flynt Leverett: If it does move more in that direction, then I think you are right. Players like the EU, Japan, and other parties are going to have difficulty with the US if it moves further in this direction. With regard to their involvement, and how much they might react, it would very much depend on their individual initiatives.
Sami Khiyami: You have mentioned the fact that any military intervention [by the US in Syria] could cause chaos. It would be much more than chaos that could happen in the region, it would be a whole new intafada, because those who are today promoting peace in the region are governments that understand the words "situation" and "the position of the weak," and "the position of the Arabs in the world." Those who cause such an intafada to happen, it would take them 20 years to understand it. Until then, not only peace would suffer in the region, the nations would suffer and the people would suffer. What do you think about this?
Flynt Leverett: You are correct, I think. When I talked about regime change as a policy option, I explained and laid out some reasons why I thought that that would not be a balanced policy. I did not address the potential region fallout of what would in essence be an American invasion of Syria. I do not think it would work that well in terms of the US achieving its policy goals towards Syria. If you look in a lighter prism at what the impact would be on the region and on US standing in the region. I think that it would be extremely negative if the United States took that kind of military action against Syria and that is another reason why I would not recommend that as a policy option.
Roey Gilad: You have talked about Syria reopening a peace negotiation channel with Israel as a possible position [for Syria]. Then you spoke about withdrawing from the Golan Heights, but Dr. Leverett, you will remember that what blocked the last talks was not the withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the international boarders, but the Syrians were adamant about the need to withdraw to the 4th June  boarder. Do you feel from your knowledge of Syria that there is now more flexibility regarding this issue?
Flynt Leverett: I think that the talks between Syria and Israel did ultimately breakdown over the withdrawal issue. The Syrian position reportedly was that you had to have withdrawal to before the 4th June 1967 boarder. The really interesting question was, what was that boarder? It is not as if there was some agreed upon definition of what the pre-4th June 1967 boarder was and how close that boarder was to the international boundary which delineated it and about which there was a common understanding. In the end, the Syrians were never presented with an offer from Israel that would have even met the definition of withdrawal to the international boarder. The offer that President Clinton took into that hotel room in Geneva in the spring of 2000 with Hafez al-Assad authorized by the Israeli Prime Minister of the time, Mr. Barak, actually would not have called for an Israel withdrawal even to the international boundaries. So, I think in the end, the withdrawal issue was really what killed this particular track. My own sense is that Bashar [al-Assad, the current Syrian President], is very much bound by those red lines on the issue as his father [the late President Hafez al-Assad]. Can we come with a pre-June 1967 line that would allow the Syrians to plausibly portray it as a complete withdrawal from the Golan and would also address Israeli security needs and its interests in having access to Lake Tiberius water? Yes, I think we could. Is there the political will on both sides to do that now? I have my doubts.
The Official Damascus Line on Japan-Syria Relations
Even after it dispatch troops to Iraq, ties between Tokyo and Damascus remained warm as the following exchange with a Syrian Cabinet Minister, which took place in October 2004, illustrates.
Sean Curtin: Japan has given its full support to President George W. Bush's policy in Iraq and dispatched troops to the country. From Syria's perspective has this changed Japan's image in the Middle East?
Dr. Buthaina Shaaban: Japan is a country that is highly respected in the region and has helped the region a lot. I think the people of the Middle East are very politically savvy and they understand that probably Japan has perhaps been subjected to pressure. So, people will forgive Japan for that. People are very politically savvy and understand the nuances and the balance of power. So, I hope this will not damage or change our relations with Japan. They have been active in the Middle East and they are doing a good job in many areas.
The Syrian View from Japan
In an interview with the Japan Times on 1 June 2004, the Syrian Ambassador to Japan Kahtan Syoufi said Japan should assume a bigger role in the stalled Middle East peace process and assume a larger role in Iraq's reconstruction. Syoufi cited Japan's economic prowess and historically amicable relations with the Arab world. He said Syria understands the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq for humanitarian assistance. Syria believes constructive dialogue is the best way to ensure comprehensive peace in the Middle East. He also urged Tokyo to help Syria in its difficult dialogue with the US because Japan enjoyed "special links" with Washington. The ambassador said Israel should respect UN Security Council resolutions related to the Palestinian issue, including Resolution 242, which calls for Israel to withdraw from areas occupied in the 1967 war.
Profile: Flynt Leverett
Flynt Leverett is a Senior Fellow at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is also the author of the recently published and highly acclaimed "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial By Fire." The book offers a richly informed portrait of Syrian politics and policymaking under Bashar al-Assad and a critique of the Bush administrationís Syrian policy.
The main body of comments in this article were made at Chatham House (Royal Institute for International Affairs) in London on 26 May 2005.