Syria’s Recognition of a Palestinian State: Signs and Significance

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Palestinians await UN membership. (Photo: AFP - Abbas Momani)

By: Yasar Ayoub

Published Thursday, August 18, 2011

In a surprising move, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced “its recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital based on preserving the legitimate rights of Palestinians.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the move, acknowledging that it will bolster Palestinian efforts to receive recognition and full membership for the Palestinian state in the United Nations.

The Arab community has recognized the Palestinian state since 1988, with the notable exceptions of Syria and Lebanon. Though they do not recognize the Palestinian state, Damascus and Beirut both host a representative office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Legitimate questions surround the timing of the Syrian move. The Syrian regime has historically opposed previous Palestinian efforts in this vein: the 1988 declaration of the state of Palestine in Algeria; the Oslo Accords; the establishment of the Palestinian authority; and even recent Palestinian efforts to return to the negotiating table with Israel.

Perhaps the Syrian move serves as a message to the Arab and international community, intended to benefit the Syrian regime and extricate its stormy internal crisis. The escalating situation has turned bloody in recent days as the number of casualties has increased.

The first message may be directed at the global organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. Syria’s acknowledgement of the Palestinian Authority seemingly threatens Syria’s longstanding relationship with and support for Hamas. This is due to the Muslim Brotherhood position on the crisis in Syria, and the Syrian branch’s active involvement in the opposition movement.

The second message may be directed internally towards Palestinians residing in Syria. The Palestinian refugee community in Syria received sharp criticism from the opposition for not participating in anti-regime activities. They also received their fair share of accusations from the regime itself, as the regime feared Palestinians as a possible ‘external’ influence on national politics. Yet, the Syrian move to acknowledge the Palestinian state also affords Palestinians legal authority and protections within Syria. However, the change in Syrian policy towards Palestinians living in Syria is mostly a rhetoric, as the government still predominantly focuses on security issues surrounding Palestinian refugees.

The third message is directed at the Arab ruling community. It indicates an end of the era of Syrian withdrawal from the Arab consensus -- that there will be Arab consensus on the Palestinian issue. In this way, Arab states may refrain from criticizing the Syrian regime, particularly states who are members of the Arab Middle East peace process follow-up committee. Thus the Syrian recognition provides an Arab consensus and strengthens the Arab demand that the UN give full membership to the state of Palestine. In return, the Arab ruling community might be pressured to provide protection of some kind to the Syrian regime in the face of international pressures.

The fourth message may be directed at the international community, signalling changing diplomatic practices by the Syrian government. The recognition reveals that the Syrian regime is no longer inseparably tied to Iranian regional politics ordaining that the government of Israel is a cancerous entity that must be removed from the region. Therefore, the conflation between Syrian politics and Hezbollah has changed, and that Hamas is no longer closer to Damascus than Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are. This also implies that the Syrian recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders is an affirmation of the Syrian recognition of resolution 242, upon which the peace process in the region is based. With this move, the Syrian regime is heading towards consistency with the international community in regards to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is a condition for international engagement with Syria. The move may also distance Syria from the accusation that it protects and nurtures 'terrorist' organizations in the region, at the expense of moderate forces in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

There is no doubt that the new Syrian recognition would increase the number of countries that recognize the Palestinian state, in a step towards gaining a two-thirds votes in the General Assembly of the UN. This facilitates the Palestinian Authority’s pursuit of what is known as the “September bid.” However, this recognition is merely one step in the direction of rectifying Palestinian-Syrian relations that were subject to political patronage and exploitation. It is a step towards preventing mutual intervention in the internal affairs of Palestinians and Syrians, while acknowledging the need to work on issues from an Arab perspective and in accordance with the commonality shared between the Syrian and Palestinian leadership.

Can the Syrian regime abandon its long history of dealing with the Palestinian cause as its sole responsibility? And can it rectify its Arab relations, beginning with the Palestinian issue and moving onto others? Or is the recognition a ploy by a regime struggling to emerge from a major crisis, a decision it may retract in the wake of a major political breakthrough?

* A political writer residing in Paris

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


"syrian crisis"? why not call it what it is? an uprising of syrians that are being routinely massacred day by day. i don't appreciate how this article paints the regime as if it has legitimacy at this point. what about the seige of the yarmouk camp? the naval assault of raml al janoubi? words don't mean anything, when actions show bashar al assads true colors. for years he and his father have given lip service to the palestinians - and this is just more of the same. the regime is just saying this to distract from the slaughter. obviously.

So this means that the Syrian regime is trying to buy Western/Israeli support in it's crisis by softening its uncompromising line on the Palestinian question.
After all, why does the article put it in terms of "recognition of Palestine"? For what is really in question is the recognition of Israel, which is what is implied by a "recognition of Palestine in the 1967 borders". One would think the author is talking about the USA or other countries which really don't recognize Palestine, not even in the 67 borders. If the US etc were to do so, that would mean something. Syria doing so just means it is implicitly going to go the way of Jordan and recognize Israel

To those fans of the Syrian regime: this regime will not be saved neither by Nassrallah nor by Ahmadinejad. Even if the Messiah himself would intervene will not be able to save it from its people.

Anonymous: what makes you so sure?
Maybe the Messiah will not, but the Mehdi will surely do, then not even meaningless theories by Yasar Ayyoub will save your fabricated revolution!

By Nassrallah and Ahmadinejad, I meant the Mehdi (since their supporters consider them half-gods).

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