Syria’s Ambassador to London has been speaking at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. But what is interesting about this meeting is what I’m not allowed to write.
There was an intra-Arab disagreement in the question and answer session. One which made my blood boil. But that part of the meeting was off the record. You will have to read between the lines very carefully. In the meantime, here is what the IISS will allow me to say:
Sami Khiyami, Syria’s Ambassador to the UK, said that the Arab World is realising it can’t rely on the West to sort out its problems.
He said that when studying Archeology with a British Museum expert, he learnt that for thousands of years the ancient people of the Levant have lived in harmony with each other. The imagined cleavage between Sunni and Shia was resolved 1400 years ago, and was only really revived and exploited during the Bush era.
The people of Syria have had a historical role in exporting their brand of moderate Islam across the world. At one point 90% of the current ‘Muslim lands’ were controlled from Damascus. Today’s Syria should revive that role, he urged, to tell Muslims of the West that integration is the answer – the West should learn from Syria how to have a secular society where Muslims are free to practise their religion.
On Israel, Khiyami said that Netenyahu is not ready for peace and is undermining any future hopes for peace, with its wall and colonial settlement expansion. Syria, though, has chosen peace as a strategic option. It wants a nuclear free Middle East, it wants to liberate the occupied land, including the Syrian Golan Heights, it wants to continue its support for the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance (a clear signal that Syria will not cut its ties with Hamas and Hezbollah in return for a deal on the Golan). And Syria wants to restore the “triangle of Arab unity” (Syria, Saudi and Egypt).
Syria is clearly steaming ahead on that last point – reconciling in dramatic fashion with Saudi Arabia.
Khiyami also kept returning to labour a point about Turkey. Syria wants to be at the heart of a new regional understanding – between the Arabs, Turkey and Iran. With Syria holding joint military manoeuvres with Turkey, creating a visa-free zone, and working with Turkey to sort out Syria’s regional disputes, this is clearly another Syrian success story.
Khiyami believes Netenyahu is trying to “cripple” Obama’s efforts to find peace. He says the coming month will be decisive for Israeli-Arab peace, but he’s not positive. The Arabs, he claims, are giving up on American promises – and that is pushing intra-Arab unity, and he said something very tantalising: “we may see some spectacular moves in this respect”.
Let your imagination run wild!