The Syrian press has a well-defined purpose: to serve the propaganda needs of the ruling Ba`th regime. It is strictly run by the Syrian Ministry of Information and acts exactly according to ministry directives. In general, this makes Syrian newspapers a rather dull enterprise. Differences between Damascus's three major dailies (Al-Ba`th, Ath-Thawra, and Tishrin) lie mostly in their names, the wording of headlines, and the precise location of the daily photograph of President Hafiz al-Asad on their front page.
Despite its obvious limitations, the Syrian press deserves analytical attention, for it reflects how Damascus wishes its policy to be presented to and understood by the Syrian public (though not necessarily the policy itself) and foreign governments. This presentation in turn helps assess the intentions of the regime.
A close analysis of the Syrian dailies suggests that when it comes to the peace process with Israel, the government appears intent on preparing the public for major changes that the negotiations may bring, and even for the possibility, however remote, of peace with Israel.
The Syrian press has for many years purveyed a very negative picture of Israel as a racist, aggressive entity that serves as a base for Western imperialism. To pick one example among thousands, Chief of the General Staff Ahmad as-Suwaydani stated in 1967 that "Israel is a military base of the imperialist camp, not a country."1 For many years, the Syrian press devoted little attention to the nature of Israeli state and society and granted no importance to nuances and differences of opinion in Israeli politics. Nor did it make any distinction between the people of Israel and their government, or between Israeli soldiers and civilians, regarding them all as part of a single demonic entity. Following the June 1992 elections in Israel, a newspaper declared that "the plan of Rabin and Shamir is two sides of the same coin: war and not peace."2
Even now, the Syrian press remains basically hostile towards Israel, and continues to rely on traditional terms and concepts to express that hostility. Cartoons often represent Israel and international Jewry as having no interest at all in peace. In such depictions, Israel and Jews are threatening and aggressive figures that wish to expand Israel's size, thereby constituting a threat to the existence of Syria, the Arab world, and even the world at large.3 Cartoons variously caricature Israel as an observant Jew4 and as a Nazi.5 Anti-Semitic motifs (such as the Jew counting money) appear frequently, as do such aggressive ones as the Jew contemplating the Arab homeland6 or the globe7.
Articles and reports in the pages of Syrian newspapers depict Israel negatively and describe it as an aggressive and expansionist entity.8 News reports on Israel dwell on negative reports of social and economic difficulties, governmental errors, accidents, and calamities.9 Reports on Israel's military build-up are published to underscore its aggression and the threat it poses to Syria.10
The discourse used in relation to Israel is particularly loaded. In all of the newspapers, the word Israel customarily appears in quotation marks.11 Israel within its 1967 borders is referred to as "occupied Palestine" or the "occupied homeland."12 Israel is often termed the "enemy," the "Zionist enemy," or the "invader."13 A headline about the formation of Rabin's new government on July 13, 1992 read: "The Establishment of the Enemy Government Headed by Rabin."14 All Israeli citizens, regardless of their place of residence, age, or occupation, are termed "settlers," including women and children within the 1967 borders.15
Cracks In the Wall
Recently, however, some cracks have appeared in this wall of hostility, especially since Israel's June 1992 elections. Slogans referring to armed struggle with Israel have almost disappeared from the Syrian press, as have references to "strategic parity" (at-tawazun al-istratiji) with Israel, the overriding Syrian goal in the 1980s. For example, in contrast to previous years, militant anti-Israel slogans were conspicuously absent from statements issued by President Asad on the occasion of Syrian Army Day (August 1) in 1992 and 1993, as well as in interviews granted by Chief of the General Staff Hikmat Shihabi on the latter occasion. Both officials referred to the role of the Syrian army as the protector of peace, and the Syrian press particularly emphasized the following line in Asad's 1992 statement: "We shall continue to work for effective Arab solidarity against the Israeli occupation. We strive for real peace, and it is incumbent upon Israel to prove that it too desires such peace."14 Militant anti-Zionism having been a major prop of the regime's political and military stance in decades past, the absence of these references suggests a major change in the Syrian outlook.
New slogans have replaced the old belligerent ones in Syrian public discourse. King al-Husayn of Jordan first used the formula of "land for peace" (al-ard muqabil as-salam), and it has became increasingly used since the mid-1980s in connection with the Jordanian-Palestinian track. For a long period, the Syrian leaders found this figure of speech unacceptable, however, because it implies the possibility of signing a peace treaty with Israel. It was only around the time of the Madrid conference in late 1991 that the Syrians too began using this slogan, and they now do so regularly.
The phrase "land for peace" seems to stress the Syrian demand for the return of the Golan Heights, and perhaps also signals to the Syrian public that the Golan has a price--a peace treaty with Israel. Asad's visit in July 1990 to Sharm al-Shaykh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, constituted an effective Syrian acceptance of the land-for-peace formula, for this exchange underpined the return of that town to Egypt. Indeed, the notion of land for peace appears to have become central to Syria's negotiating discourse, featuring prominently in its demands regarding the goals of the peace process and the principles by which it must be conducted.15
The term "peace agreement" (itifaqiyat salam) first appeared in the Syrian press in July 1992, when the foreign ministers of the states bordering Israel issued a communiqué that in effect responded to Labor's victory in Israel's June 1992 elections. The communiqué for the first time stated that the purpose of negotiations with Israel was to achieve a peace agreement.16 It is interesting to note, however, that Arabic contains stronger words than itifaqiyat salam for "peace agreement," such as mu`ahada (treaty), so it is possible that the Syrian foreign minister and his counterparts deliberately chose a term that carries less impact for Arabs. Nevertheless, the use of even such a limited term on the pages of government-sponsored newspapers certainly has a major impact on readers.
In contrast to years past, the Syrian press now considers the nuances of Israeli politics, especially its left-wing variants.17 It grants special attention to Israeli statements (such as that by Minister of Communication, Arts, and Culture Shulamit Aloni) expressing a readiness for full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This marks the beginning of a willingness to cease publicly regarding Israel as homogeneous and an understanding that recognizing the variety of political stances in Israel may help Damascus in the course of negotiations.18
What does it mean when a cartoon on one page of the newspaper shows an Israeli caricature planning to conquer the Middle East, but on another President Asad talks of a peace agreement? This apparent contradiction points to two conclusions. First, Syria's leaders wish the public to view its participation in the peace process, and possibly even the signing of a peace agreement with Israel, as a necessary path for them to follow. At the same time, they still want Israel seen as an aggressive, threatening, and expansionist entity. In other words, the combination of alleging peaceful intentions toward an aggressive Israel suggests that Asad chose peace with Israel not because he changed his mind about the Jewish state but because he sensed that he had to.
Secondly, the continuation of a hostile line towards Israel is presumably part of Syrian negotiating tactics. It leaves the regime with the option of withdrawing from the peace process, and makes it clear to Israel that so long as no progress that is to the Syrians' liking is made, Syria's attitude towards Israel will remain unchanged. This hostile line has brought Prime Minister Rabin so far as to estimate that unless the Syrians change their stance and progress is made towards peace, a war could break out there in three to seven years.19
Detailed Reports on the Peace Process
Despite frequent grumblings by the Likud government during its negotiations with Damascus (October 1991 to June 1992) that Asad's media did not even report the very existence of negotiations with Israel, the reverse is actually closer to the truth: a sampling taken over several months reveals that more than 80 percent of the editorials in Syrian newspapers in 1992-93 were devoted to the peace process.20 An increasing number of articles in the inner pages of these papers are devoted to the peace process, examining its course and discussing its possible outcomes.21
Reports on Arab negotiations with Israel in the Syrian press are in general very extensive, though not comprehensive. That is to say, they dwell on the Syrian position almost to the exclusion of Israel's stance. Headlines sometimes provide information about the peace process, and sometimes openly cheer for the Syrian position. Further, the press devotes extensive space to the involvement of senior figures, including President Asad, in the peace process. It covers preparatory meetings that Asad and Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shar` hold with the members of the Syrian negotiating team and follow-up sessions of the various government bodies in Syria. Interviews granted by senior officials, mainly President Asad, to the Western media are run in full, even when the Western media provide only excerpts. These often provide the first indications to the public of changes in Syria's position and the status of its commitment to the peace process, such as Asad's significant statement in an interview to ABC Television in July 1991: "from our point of view, they [the Israelis] are to benefit the most from the peace. Peace does not destroy: it builds. I seek peace, not destruction."22 No less significant was Asad's statement in September 1992 to a delegation of Druze leaders and clerics from the Golan Heights, that Syria aspired towards "peace with honor, a peace of brave men, a peace of valorous men, genuine peace that will ensure the general interest." He added: "if the other [party] agreed to this, then there would indeed be peace."23
Making such statements available in the Syrian press transmits a threefold message. First, the political process (not the military one) is at the top of the regime's agenda. Secondly, Damascus participates in the peace process for its own reasons, and not to placate the United States. Lastly, the entire Syrian leadership, including President Asad, accepts the process, thus implicitly legitimating it.
Peace as a Syrian Victory
The Syrian press reflects the regime's many dilemmas regarding participation in the Arab-Israeli peace process. These dilemmas result from the ambivalence in Syrian policy regarding the peace process and the possibility of reaching a peace agreement with Israel. Damascus does not wish--at least at this stage--to commit itself to signing a peace agreement that involves recognition of the State of Israel and the establishment of normal relations with it. At the same time, the Asad regime realizes the need to prepare public opinion in Syria for even the remote possibility that a peace agreement with Israel would eventually be signed.
Moreover, the Israeli and American negotiators have made it clear that they will closely observe the way in which the Syrian media represents the peace process; and they expect it to reflect Syria's presumed commitment to a successful resolution.24 If Damascus is indeed interested in the continuation of the peace process, especially as a means of improving its relations with the United States, it would be reasonable to assume that it would try and meet this demand, if only partially. Moreover, the more the Syrians develop expectations for substantial achievements in the peace process (such as the retrieval of the Golan Heights), the more they are likely to try and meet Israel's demands and moderate their attitude towards Israel.
Syria's very readiness to participate in the peace process clearly constituted a major concession to Israel. Tactically, Syria gave up traditional demands that it had once posed as preconditions for entering negotiations. For example, Israel did not guarantee its full withdrawal from the Golan Heights before the negotiations began, and the negotiations themselves do not have the form of an international conference authorized to enforce resolutions upon the sides involved. Strategically, Damascus appeared to realize that its very joining of the peace process implied as much as an acceptance of the possibility, however remote, that at the end of the process, it might be compelled to recognize the existence of the State of Israel and sign a peace agreement, as was in fact intimated in President Bush's speech at the inception of the Madrid conference:
Our objective . . . is not simply to end the state of war in the Middle East but rather to achieve real peace . . . treaties, security, diplomatic relations, trade investment, cultural exchange, even tourism. . . . Now is the ideal moment for the Arab world to demonstrate . . . that [it] is willing to . . . make allowances for Israel's reasonable security needs.25
The Syrian press endeavors to present the peace process as the natural sequel to, or the natural outcome of, Syria's traditional policy regarding the Arab-Israeli process, and even as a Syrian victory,26
suggesting that no change had taken place in this policy. It portrays the peace process as but one phase in an ongoing struggle with Israel, and denies that its goals are fundamentally different from those of earlier phases of the struggle (i.e., war and armed conflict). A 1992 editorial clearly expressed this attitude: "the battle for peace continues and supplements the October War and is designed to achieve its objectives."27
About the same time, another editorial stated that "there is still war between [Syria] and Israel, and this war takes different forms, but it will not end until all objectives for which our martyrs had fallen will be achieved."28
Associating peace with war may be intended to make the message of peace more easily digestible to the Syrian public. Dropping the old terms of war and accustoming the public to terms that intimate the possibility of peace prepares the Syrian public for a peaceful resolution with Israel. Thus, in headlines and articles that appeared in the Syrian press in recent years on state anniversaries (Syrian Independence Day, Ba`th Party Day, Ba`th Revolution Day, the October War), Asad is referred to as "the hero of both war and peace"; Syria's path during his years in power is described as a path of "battles of war and peace."29 As early as the celebrations of the October War in 1992, Ath-Thawra featured a letter of congratulations to Asad that included the phrase: "he who prepares his people for war, can also lead them to peace, so that his decision to go to war becomes a decision to adopt the path of peace."30 In this fashion, the Syrian press intimates to its readers that having adhered to the path of war for many years, the country must now adopt the path of peace.
It could be, of course, that the very reverse is true: such statements signal that peace is but another stage of the struggle with Israel. But this seems unlikely in the context of Syria's new foreign policy, which now seeks better relations with the United States in light of the collapse of Soviet backing, and hence of its military option. Moreover, it bears noting that throughout the Egyptian-Israeli peace process, similar statements linking war and peace were often heard from the Egyptian leadership. For example, on November 18, 1977, one day before Anwar as-Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, al-Ahram declared that Sadat's "attack of peace" had contributed as much as the October War to crush the Israeli's obstinance in the face of peace. Sawt al-Arab on the same day declared that Egypt's quest for peace continued the spirit of the October War. These statements in the press echoed that of Egyptian prime minister Mamduh Salem on January 13, 1977, when he declared that Egypt's belief in peace was based on its strengths and its victory in the October War.31
Syrian newspapers describe peace with Israel not as an end in itself but as a means of obtaining Syria's national objectives. These views remain unchanged from years past, and emphasize the restoration of all Arab land and rights as opposed to peace in the Middle East. As it was put in the pages of Ath-Thawra: "peace means withdrawal and the fact that rights and occupied land must return to their owners."32
The Syrian press delicately refrains from pointing out that peace in the Middle East, which it so strenuously favors, means peace with Israel. Rather, the term "peace" tends to have a general, noncommittal significance. In contrast to someone like Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Syrian press does not have a "vision of peace" to offer at this point.
Sending Messages to Jerusalem and Washington
The Syrian media serve as a means of transmitting messages and a channel of dialogue not only with the Syrian public but with leaders in Israel and the United States.
The press has served Damascus as a means to tell Israel that it has not closed the door on the peace process. This effort was especially important at those times (for example, December 1992 and almost all of 1993) when there was a sense that the peace process had reached a dead end. President Asad's declaration to the Druze clerics and leaders from the Golan Heights and his statement in May 1993 on his sense that the Israelis were indeed serious when talking about peace are good examples of this effort.
To Israel, the press conveys, Syrian steadfastness in the demand for a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the achievement of a comprehensive settlement in the region, which would include a solution to the Palestinian problem. It also conveys that Damascus is prepared to meet Israel at least part of the way regarding its demands on security arrangements and the nature of the peace.33
To the United States, the press campaign signals a strong wish that Washington play a more active part in the peace process and that, in effect, it force Israel to comply with Syria's demands. This wish even overshadows Syria's traditional demand that the United States alter its unilaterally pro-Israel policy and show an equal measure of consideration and friendship toward Arab parties.34 It also signals an implicit expectation that progress in the peace process will be accompanied by improvements in bilateral U.S. Syrian relations--without U.S. attempts to intervene in Syria's domestic affairs.35
Using the press to signal foreign governments has two advantages for Damascus. Although clearly under full government control, it can make statements that are not binding. The regime can (and sometimes does) disavow any connection with statements and attribute them to the individual author and editor. Also, the press offers a mechanism for rapid, almost real-time responses. For example, when Prime Minister Rabin stated in September 1992 that he favored an interim agreement with Syria, the Syrian press quickly rejected this declaration with gusto,36 as it did when Israelis raised the idea of Syria leasing the Golan to Israel37 or of a summit between Rabin and Asad.38 At other times, the Syrian press expresses interest in ideas raised by Jerusalem, such as demilitarization of the Golan Heights or the deployment of an international force to buffer Israel and Syria.
Interestingly, the Syrians tend to assume that the press in other countries work as their own does, which leads them to interpret every Israeli declaration or publication as premeditated, orchestrated by the government, and part of a comprehensive political campaign.39
The Syrians apparently believe that the insistent repetition of positions has a cumulative effect, and therefore will persuade Israeli and perhaps American negotiators of their determination to stand firm and not retract positions. Reiteration might also be intended to encourage Israelis and Americans to expect Syrian intransigence; this enables Damascus to reap greater political dividends once it decides to present more moderate positions.
Jerusalem reacted coolly to the line adopted by the Syrian press. In part, this reaction stemmed from tactical negotiating considerations--why give any advantage to Damascus by recognizing the Syrian step and thus commit themselves to a reciprocal gesture? In part, too, it reflected the sense of many government officials and analysts in Israel that the new trends in the Syrian press were too limited to make a difference. They do not attest to a deep conceptual change toward Israel, much less an abandoning of the traditional anti-Israel ideology. Itamar Rabinovich, who later became Israel's chief negotiator, expressed this frustration:
Nearly a year after Syria's decision to attend the Madrid conference, there were no signs either of agitation among the public or of any effort by the regime to prepare public opinion for a radical shift in position and policy toward Israel.40
This statement probably indicates a wish to urge the Syrians significantly to accelerate the new trends in their press, with a view to the effect this might have on the Syrian public. It will also have an impact on the Israeli public, which, in the absence of a readiness on the part of Asad to act as Sadat did and come to Jerusalem, is deeply divided regarding the question of whether Syria is indeed heading for peace and, if so, whether this peace would be worth a withdrawal form the Golan Heights.
For many years, the Syrian press expressed a radically anti-Israel position identical to the official position of the Syrian regime. That remains the case today.
While the beginning of a peace process between Israel and Syria has not substantially diminished the Syrian press's hostility towards Israel, its portrayal of the peace process reflects four central facets of the regime's foreign policy:
A commitment to participating in the peace process and representing it as a vital Syrian interest.
An insistence on demands that Syria considers non-negotiable, such as the retrieval of all of the Golan Heights and the achievement of a comprehensive settlement.
An ambiguous readiness to recognize the price (full peace and security arrangements) that Israel demands in return for withdrawing from the Golan.
A perception of the United States as the party that must promote the peace process and as the country with which Syria has a supreme interest in developing its bilateral ties.
The Syrian media continues to reflect ongoing hostility to Israel but also gives expression to the new path that Syria adopted in the late 1980s. The Syrian regime is apparently using its media to signal the Syrian public that the possibility of peace with Israel is on the agenda. It sits there as a vague and certainly undesirable option, but an option nonetheless.
Eyal Zisser is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center and a lecturer in history at Tel Aviv University.1 Jaysh ash-Sha`b,
May 9, 1967.2 Al-Ba`th,
June 22, 1992.3 Ath-Thawra,
Jan. 28, 1993; Feb. 13, 1993; and July 23, 1993.4 Ath-Thawra,
Jan. 21, 1993; Feb. 3, 1993; and July 23, 1993.5 Tishrin,
Apr. 15, 1993.6 Ath-Thawra,
July 25, 1992.7 Ath-Thawra,
Aug. 2, 1992; and Feb. 3, 1993.8
See, for example: "The Lost Peace in Israel's Policy," Ath-Thawra,
May 13, 1992; "Report from the Occupied Land: The Water Problem" Tishrin,
Jan. 21, 1993; "Immigration in Jewish Thought," Ath-Thawra,
Jan. 25, 1993; "Israel and the Policy of Poverty and Starvation," Ath-Thawra,
Jan. 11, 1993; "The Zionist Entity, The Administrative Autonomy and the Principle of Self-Determination" Ath-Thawra,
Jan. 23, 1993; and "Political Implications of the Jewification of Occupied Jerusalem," Ath-Thawra,
Aug. 29, 1993.9
See, for example, Al-Ba`th,
Aug. 23, 1993; and Aug. 25, 1993; Tishrin,
Apr. 15, 1993; Aug. 13, 1993; and Aug. 16, 1993.10 Ath-Thawra,
Aug. 25, 1993; Tishrin,
Jan. 11, 1993.11 Al-Ba`th,
July 13, 1992; Aug. 15, 1992; Aug. 28, 1992; and Oct. 5, 1992.12 Tishrin,
Mar. 16, 1993; Al Ba`th,
Aug. 24, 1993.13 Tishrin,
Mar. 16, 1993, Nov. 4, 1992; Ath-Thawra
, Jan. 29, 1993.14 Tishrin
, July 15, 1992.15 Tishrin
, Mar. 16, 1993.14 Tishrin,
Aug. 1, 1992; see also Asad's declaration on Aug. 1, 1993.15 Tishrin,
Aug. 15-18, 1992.16 Ath-Thawra,
July 26, 1992. The communiqué did not define the nature of such a peace or ever mention Israel as the other signatory.17 Tishrin,
Jan. 6, 1993; Al-Ba`th,
Aug. 16, 1993.18 Tishrin,
July 13, 1992; Aug. 5, 1992.19 Ha`aretz
, June 24, 1994.20
Thus, in September 1992, Tishrin devoted 68% of its editorials to the peace process, in November 1992, 86%, and in December 1992, 95%. Similar rates were measured for Ath-Thawra
, Oct. 22, 1992; Oct. 26, 1992; Tishrin,
Aug. 23, 1992; Aug. 26, 1992; Aug. 28, 1992; and Ath-Thawra
, Nov. 1, 1992.22
Radio Damascus, Sept. 20, 1991, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report: Near East and South Asia
(hereafter FBIS, NES
), Sept. 20, 1991; See also Asad's interview to the BBC, Tishrin,
June 2, 1992.23 Tishrin,
Sept. 8, 1992.24 Davar,
May 24, 1993.25 The Washington Post,
Oct. 31, 1991.26
See Asad's interview in The Washington Post,
July 28, 1991; quoted in full in Tishrin
, July 29, 1991.27 Ath-Thawra,
Oct. 6, 1992.28 Ath-Thawra,
Oct. 5, 1992.29 Ath-Thawra,
Oct. 5, 1992; Tishrin,
Oct. 6, 1992.30 Ath-Thawra,
Oct. 4, 1992.31 Al-Ahram,
Jan. 14, 1977; Al-Ahram
, Nov. 18, 1977; Sawt Al-Arab
, Nov. 18, 1977.32 Ath-Thawra,
Aug. 22, 1992.33
See the following editorials: "Peace and Security," Tishrin,
July 14, 1992; "Security--The Excuse," Tishrin,
July 9, 1993.34 Tishrin,
Apr. 11, 1993; Apr. 12, 1993.35 Tishrin,
Mar. 13, 1992; Ath-Thawra,
Nov. 16, 1992.36
Radio Damascus, Sept. 11, 1992, in FBIS, NES,
Sept. 14, 1992; Ath-Thawra,
Sept. 29, 1992.37
, Sept. 29 1992.38 Ath-Thawra
, Nov. 20, 1993.39
Itamar Rabinovich, "Syrian-Israeli Relations: Past and Present," Moshe Dayan Memorial Lecture, Tel Aviv University, Nov. 5, 1992.40
Itamar Rabinovich, "Stability and Change in Syria," in Robert E. Satloff, ed., The Politics of Change in the Middle East
(Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993), pp. 26-27.