Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, is not regarded as a charismatic person. He has captured neither the hearts nor the imaginations of the Palestinian people. Most frequently, when he does elicit passion, it is in the context of public or private expressions of derision. In time, Abbas may be remembered best for his quiet and enthusiastic enforcement of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.
While Abbas himself is not a remarkable man, at least one of his attributes is: his longevity. Indeed, his long life is an extraordinary achievement in a political environment that has been shaped continuously by Israel’s assassination policy. Abbas’ longevity, in turn, has distinguished him in another way: He has had more direct exposure to the US leadership than perhaps any other Arab leader, with the possible exception of members of the Saudi monarchy. That exposure has lately enabled him to play an affirmative role as adviser to, and as a conduit for, actors on either side of the Syrian civil war.
Washington in common – but what else?
There is a tendency among observers of the Middle East to regard any of the numerous conflicts there with an insufficient appreciation for the deep entanglements and mutual dependencies that have developed across borders. The awareness that the leaders and peoples in the region interact, and that a multitude of considerations likely weigh on any given country’s policies exists, but the measure to which that is true is sometimes under-appreciated.
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When the Libyan uprisings began – and before Western intervention overwhelmed Muammar Gaddafi’s army, Egyptian revolutionaries spent substantial energy lending capacity and organising aid convoys in support of their peers in Libya. The phenomenon was under-reported but it indicated something about the porousness of the Libya-Egypt border and the two people’s historical and cultural affinity.
Analysts frequently cite the degree to which Lebanon and Syria are entwined, yet there is rarely any mention of the Palestinian political role in minimising the tragedy of the Syrian civil war. Indeed, to the extent that the Palestinian role has been discussed, it is usually in the context of the decision made by the Hamas leadership to distance the movement from the Assad regime in Damascus.
News reports rightly highlight the plight of Palestinian refugees, but the Syrian civil war is treated as a tragedy whose resolution may occur independently of the Palestinians. And while it may, there is emerging evidence that Abbas has played a mediation role there in recent months. Notably, it is a role he has only been able to cultivate after decades of failed action on his own people’s behalf.
Neutrality, or as close as it gets
Relative to other actors in the region, the Palestinians have adopted a neutral posture in Syria. While it is true that some Palestinian groups fought on opposite sides of the war, their involvement was limited in scope and never served to indicate an official position on either the part of the PLO, Hamas, or other Islamic groups. There are several reasons for this – the most compelling of which is that thousands of Palestinian refugees are made vulnerable by any violence, irrespective of political affiliation. Equally, the Palestinian experience in Lebanon has not been forgotten, and few Palestinians seem eager to relive the trauma of those years.
But recent months have seen Palestinian neutrality develop into active global mediation efforts, at least among senior officials of the Palestinian Authority. According to journalist Sami Kleib, Mahmoud Abbas worked to broker an end to the war in Syria, in part by advising the “National Coordination Committee, Building the Syrian State, and the rest of the internal opposition in Syria to unite under a single political front, to act as a solid grouping and expand the representation of the opposition”.
At the same time, Abbas appears to have worked to prevent Washington from bombing regime targets in Syria several months ago, in the wake of a particularly heinous chemical weapons attack on civilians. He exploited his relationships with the Russian and US leaders to relay messages both to and from the Syrian National Council and the Assad regime. The outcome – an agreement on Syrian chemical weapons – earned Abbas the appreciation of the regime in Damascus.
Abbas also reportedly intervened to advise the US president that an early insistence on preventing Assad from playing any role in a post-war Syria would unduly burden Geneva II – a set of meetings aimed at achieving a ceasefire and detente in Syria. It was allegedly on his advice that Washington deferred their insistence on regime change.
It is ultimately unclear how the Syrian civil war will end. However, it is likely that Abbas, with his deep experience of and easy access to Western leaders, will play some role in communicating positions and mediating negotiations. Yet it is noteworthy that his efforts to diminish the ferocity of the Syrian civil war could not have developed independently of his long, tortuous experience with the “peace process”. Indeed, it would be a welcome surprise if some value emerged from the Oslo Process – and a welcome irony if that value also helped the Syrian people.
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism (Saqi Books 2012) and co-founder and CEO of liwwa.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @ahmedmoor