SYRIA: Long and winding 'peace road' a pipe dream or a sign of things to come?
Damascus is busily working on a highway that will eventually link Syria to Jerusalem in what has unofficially been called the Peace Road. Forward planning or wishful thinking?
On the outskirts of the village of Qatana, 16 miles southwest of Damascus, construction of a route nicknamed a "peace road" is well underway.
The highway's planned route passes into Israel through the town of Quneitra in the Golan Heights, perhaps back in Syrian hands by the time the highway is completed.
When contacted, Syrian transport officials declined to comment on where the highway was actually leading.
If recent comments from senior politicians are anything to go by, peace between Syria and Israel would appear far off. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallam warned in February that any war between the two countries would come to Israeli cities. His Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, responded in kind, retorting, “You and your family will lose the regime.”
But a return to the negotiating table may not be far-fetched.
With heat on Benjamin Netanyahu over his refusal to stop settlement building in East Jerusalem, renewed negotiations with Syria may just be the tonic Israel’s prime minister needs. Israeli commentators have recently been talking up the merits of speaking to Damascus.
The Golan has not been settled to anything like the extent of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, with only about 30 villages there. Some say the reason is that Israel can use the Golan as a bargaining chip. There is no historic attachment to the Golan Heights, thought to have been taken during the 1967 war purely for strategic reasons of water and defense.
Israel has said on several occasions over the last few months that it is ready to talk to Damascus without preconditions. Indirect negotiations between Syria and the last Israeli government, mediated by Turkey, broke down 16 months ago after Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip.
Washington, too, has been making concerted efforts to draw in Syria. During his latest visit to Damascus earlier this month, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, John Kerry, said he was “absolutely convinced … that Syria will play a very important role in achieving a comprehensive peace in the region.”
Syrian analyst Marwan Kalaban disagrees that peace talks will begin soon. “The U.S. has not been forthcoming in offering a clear path in order to restart talks," he told Babylon & Beyond. "Though I believe talks [between Israel and Syria] are timely, I don’t see Israel’s position changing. Syria’s position has been clear."
-- Stephen Starr in Damascus
Photos: The Syrian highway that is expected to eventually be part of a route to Jerusalem. Credit: Stephen Starr