Buthaina Shaaban – adviser to the Syrian president, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee – has revealed the country is closer to a peace-deal with Israel than it has ever been.
This year, Syria has had a series of indirect talks with Israel, on the return of the Golan Heights. It is the first time the two countries have talked since Shepherdstown in 2000.
“At Shepherdstown the problem was just the demarcation of the 1967 line (the future border),” she told a packed audience at the Diplomatic Academy of London. “Now, we started by trying to describe the 67 line, so the feeling is better than after Madrid.”
The two countries are on the final hurdle before a peace-deal. “Now we need the will of the world to embrace the negotiations,” she said.
American attack on Syria
In a wide ranging talk, Shabaan said she hoped the American attack on Albu Kamal was the act of an administration on the way out. She speculated that Bush ordered the invasion to boost McCain’s chances before the election. And expressing optimism for a change under Obama, she said: “Let’s hope this will be classified as the past very soon.”
She called Obama’s election win “a extremely welcome change”. Shabaan is convinced it is the beginning of a new stage in Syrian-American relations.
Working for peace
Shabaan welcomed the visit of Britain’s Foreign Minister David Miliband, as well as French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the EU’s Javier Solana. She said Syria wants to work with the world to make the Middle East a safer and more stable place.
“We are between Iraq and Lebanon, how can we want anything but peace in these countries. We don’t need lectures from across the ocean,” she said, referring to American allegations of Syrian trouble-making in Iraq.
She wasn’t given an easy ride by the audience, which asked her whether Syria had failed the Palestinians. There has been no cohesion in the Arab position on Palestine, she admitted. “In Britain, we are being treated as ‘Arabs’ – if they see you in the street, they don’t care if you’re Palestinian or Algerian, you are just ‘Arab’, but we don’t treat ourselves as Arab – we have a long way to go.”
Shaaban claims the future of the Arab World will be in a regional group. South East Asia, Europe and America have free-trade areas like Asean, the EU and Nafta. “Arabs have more in common than any other region in the world.”
“It’s not what you say. It’s who is listening,” Shabaan said, amid accusations Syria hasn’t explained what was going on at a suspected nuclear reactor, bombed by Israel in 2007. Suddenly, the concern of the world was not Israel’s attack on Syria – but can Syria please explain what was in this building.
Shaaban admitted Syria has failed to sell itself to the West. She’s calling for a whole new media strategy.
Shaaban, one of the government’s modernisers, says Syria has been talking, but the West doesn’t want to listen. “Arab cultures believe, if you have a right, you will get it … ‘if the West doesn’t want to understand, let him’, they say.”
“We need a satellite channel, in English. We are three hundred million people,” she said, “forget politics, even just to show our culture.” But Shaaban complained that Syria couldn’t afford to do it on its own – the richer Arab countries need to be convinced.