The most important aspect of the new relationship developing among Syria, Israel and the United States is perhaps the least noticed: Syria under President Bashar al Asad is, for the first time in decades, not a candidate for an American-brokered peace process with Israel. Instead, it is increasingly exposed to US sanctions, Israeli military pressure, and possibly even eventual American military action.
The wages of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are only one aspect of this dramatic deterioration in Syria's status--but an important one. Asad, upon whom the mantle of leadership was cruelly thrust by his late father's cronies three years ago despite his lack of political maturity, has apparently not yet figured out that Damascus' ongoing support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and collaboration with Iran and Hizballah against Israel (all of which ostensibly have constituted business as usual in Syria for many years now) no longer play out the same way, not only in Jerusalem, but--more importantly--in Washington. In former years Asad's late father, Hafez, could engage in peace negotiations with Israel while refusing to meet Israelis face-to-face, sheltering Hamas and Islamic Jihad and invoking Hizballah violence against Israel as part-and-parcel of his negotiating tactics--and get away with it. The terms of reference have changed.
This is so, first and foremost, because of the events of 9/11. Washington now views Syria in the Iraqi context--as a collaborator with anti-American forces. President George W. Bush's administration has decided to deal with terrorism and its supporters with increasing doses of brute force or, at a minimum, coercive politics (e.g., the Syria Accountability Act passed by Congress in October), even when, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the score sheet for this strategy is at best ambiguous.
All of this has undoubtedly emboldened Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government in Israel to call Syria to account more aggressively than in the past regarding its support for anti-Israel terrorists, just as it has laid the blame squarely on Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat for attacks by most other Palestinian terrorists. In this sense, the Israel Air Force's unprecedented October 5 attack against a nearly deserted training camp north of Damascus, in retaliation for the previous day's terrorist atrocity in Haifa perpetrated by Islamic Jihad, reflected both an American green light and the logic of the Bush-Sharon position on terrorism.
But it also bore witness to Sharon's sense of desperation that (given the American prohibition on removing Arafat by force) he is running out of tactics and targets for dealing with Palestinian terrorism in general. The October 5 attack was modest and calculated: it focused on a seemingly low-level objective, and was preceded several weeks earlier by an Israel Air Force fly by over Asad's villa in Latakia in northern Syria. But retaliatory attacks (however justified) on Syria, if pursued, will have to escalate, thereby risking eventual Syrian reprisals. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al Shara threatened in late October to attack the Israeli-occupied Golan in response, while Hizballah let loose another extended barrage against Israeli forces in the Shaba Farms area.
There are very senior security planners in Israel, like Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz and his chief of political-security staff, Major General (res.) Amos Gilad, who reportedly relish the notion of administering a major beating to the Syrian armed forces, or at least threatening to do so in the way the Turks did very successfully several years ago, when they compelled Hafez al Asad to cease supporting anti-Turkish Kurdish forces based in Syria.
But there are two major differences between then and now. Then, Asad the father could be depended on to make the smart decision and back off from a confrontation with an obviously stronger rival; now, Asad the son can only be described by comparison as a loose cannon, fully capable of making unpredictable moves. Then, there was no Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whereas now it is generally agreed that one of Arafat's goals in the three-year-old intifada is precisely to broaden the conflict by dragging in additional Arab countries on his side.
Thus Israeli escalation with Syria might play right into Arafat's hands. It could also create a dangerous escalatory link, both geographic and strategic, between the Iraqi theater of combat and the Palestinian-Israeli arena, with untold consequences for the broader Middle East.
Readers will recall that I have frequently suggested that none of the relevant leaders engaged in the Palestinian issue--Sharon, Arafat, and Bush--has a realistic strategy for peace, even though they all profess to be seeking an end to the current conflict.
We can now certainly add Syria's Bashar al Asad to the list. Yet the risks and dangers of a possible Israeli military escalation with Syria only underline a basic reality: the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or for that matter to the Israeli-Syrian conflict) is not a military one--neither in Jenin nor in Damascus.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
Despite the heightened attention Syria has been receiving in recent months due to accusations that it is dabbling in the battlefield of Iraq, and more recently after Israel's October air bombing just near Damascus, in fact, Syria remains politically insignificant when it comes to both the Iraq war and the Arab-Israel conflict.
In fact, since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Syria's role has diminished much to that of bystander. Even though Israel continues to occupy Syrian land in the Golan Heights, that occupation takes a very different form than Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and has never been incendiary enough to cause serious tension. The most recent violent events on that front were during the 1973 war, 30 years ago.
That does not mean that the outstanding dispute was relegated entirely to the back burner, but the Syrian track really only became relevant in history when Israel decided it was relevant. For example, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak revived negotiations when he chose, against American advice, to give priority to the Syrian track over its Palestinian counterpart in hopes of a breakthrough. Of course, in keeping with its long-standing and correct position, Syria insisted on a complete Israeli withdrawal in accordance with the letter of the relevant Security Council resolutions.
Previously, Syria had an important role to play in balancing out the Israeli occupation and using the Lebanese resistance, but even then Syria was only important behind the scenes. Syria's actions were always indirect, its interventions third party and its chain of command far removed. There was a time when Syria pressured Israel by using or supporting some Palestinian groups, and pressured the United States and Israel during Israel's long-term occupation of Lebanon by encouraging Lebanese political groups and militias. But those days are long-gone and Syria has become more introspective with changing times. Now, Syria has little if anything to do with the hottest regional issues, especially that of the Palestine problem.
More likely the reason that Syria is now making news is that Israel has returned to the familiar canard that Syria is a threat because it hosts a number of Palestinian political offices and leaders whose factions are active against the Israeli occupation. In fact, over and above the strict and long-standing Syrian prohibitions against using Syrian borders to launch any kind of attack against Israel, there is little else Syria can do. It seems more likely that Israel's charges and now even military attacks are designed to serve internal political aims and distract the Israeli public from the obvious fact that all of Israel's military interventions in the occupied territories have failed. Israel is not secure today nor has it managed to quell Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation despite this government's use of all manner of atrocities. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants us all to forget this failure, and Syria is his amnesia of choice.
If there is anything remarkable about the role of Syria in the region, in fact, it is that the last 20 to 25 years mark a time of dramatic reversal during which the entire Arab-Israel conflict has gone back to its original state. Arab involvement in the conflict today is barely worth mentioning, and largely verbal. Those countries that were involved at one time have now withdrawn--Egypt since the Camp David treaty and Syria since the 1973 October War and Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. Gradually, the regional conflict has become solely a Palestinian-Israeli conflict augmented by moral, semi-political and financial Arab support. As such, Israel's media blitz about the Syrian threat is nothing more than propaganda whipping up phantom threats and ghost enemies to justify more military action and hard-line positions.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He has served in successive Palestinian cabinets and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
An Israeli air strike on an alleged Islamic Jihad site near Damascus was launched on October 5, 2003 in retaliation for the devastating suicide bombing in Haifa by a female member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This airstrike, the first inside Syria since the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, apart from aiming at satisfying the desire for revenge among Israelis, also carried a stern threat to Bashar of Damascus: stop hosting these militant Palestinian groups--or you will be held responsible and pay a high price!
If this is indeed Israel’s new strategy, it may prove to be futile and will possibly backfire if Hizballah or even Syria itself launches missiles into Israel. But even if Damascus shuts down the bases of these militant organizations--Hamas and Islamic Jihad--their violent anti-Israel activities in the occupied territories and in Israel would hardly be reduced; nor would the Israeli-Palestinian impasse be resolved. Indeed, Damascus is likely to continue to do its utmost to enhance this conflict as long as it serves its strategic interests.
Syria has a long record of using various Palestinian organizations in the conflict with Israel, while also endeavoring to block or undermine Palestinian attempts at rapprochement with Israel. Thus, before 1967, the Ba'th regime in Damascus backed the Fatah organization and permitted, even encouraged it to carry out subversive activities inside Israel, including an attempt to sabotage the Jordan-Negev water project. And after 1967, Syria periodically employed various Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) groups--partly from within its own borders, and mostly via Lebanon--to attack civilian and military targets in Israel and the occupied territories.
Ba'thist Syria and the PLO held similar ideological and strategic concepts regarding the struggle against Israel, and for years Damascus rendered military, logistic, and diplomatic support to the PLO. All this--provided the PLO followed or adjusted to Syrian dictates. But whenever the PLO’s decisions and actions clashed with Syrian interests or priorities, Damascus would take strong measures, including military actions against the PLO. This was particularly the case in 1976 during the Lebanese Civil War, when Syrian troops fought against disobedient Palestinian fighters and subsequently did not prevent the Tal Za'atar massacre of Palestinians by Maronites. And during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon the Syrian army refrained from defending the Palestinian infrastructure in southern Lebanon against the Israeli assault.
Significantly, following the Palestinian National Council recognition in 1988 of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 181 (the partition resolution of 1947), and in view of the PLO inclination to negotiate with Israel for the first time, President Hafez al Asad vehemently attacked Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Asad told Arafat that Palestinian independent decision-making should terminate whenever it was incompatible with Syrian national interests. Asad continued to harshly criticize Arafat for not coordinating his moves with Damascus during the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 and particularly before signing the Oslo peace accords in 1993 with Israel. Hinting that Arafat may pay with his own life for his misbehavior, Asad continued to oppose the Oslo peace process while hosting the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations, even during the Syrian-Israeli Madrid peace process.
Following the collapse of that process in March 2000 and Asad’s death three months later in June, President Bashar al Asad has continued to back the militant Palestinian organizations and has also supported the al-Aqsa intifada that began in September of that same year. He alleged that the solution of the Palestinian problem is more important than settling the issue of the Golan Heights, and insisted that the Palestinian "right-of-return" must be implemented, namely the return of Palestinian refugees into Israel proper. On several occasions, including a meeting with the Pope in Syria in May 2001, Bashar fiercely attacked Israel and equated it to Nazi Germany.
To be sure, with such anti-Israel rhetoric and extreme positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bashar has contributed to inflaming this as well as Syria’s own conflict with Israel. Even though Bashar has repeatedly said that peace with Israel continues to be Syria’s “strategic choice,” his actual positions have alienated more and more Israelis, as well as many Americans. Thus, not only are most Israelis opposed to returning the Golan Heights to Syria, even for a peace agreement, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government may interpret the Syria Accountability Act (SAA), approved by the US Congress on October 15, 2003, as a yellow if not a green light to continue attacking Palestinian terrorist sites inside Syria (the SAA threatens to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions against Syria if Damascus continues to harbor terrorist organizations, to develop weapons of mass destruction, and to occupy Lebanon). Such attacks are likely to further imperil relations between Israel and Syria and between Israel and the Palestinians.
Moshe Ma'oz is professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published many studies on Syrian and Palestinian history and politics, including Syrian-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli relations.
bitterlemons: How do you explain the recent Israeli missile attack near Damascus?
Asalim: It was a theatrical show and a message sent to Syria. Syria is probably incapable currently of being dragged into such a battle easily and therefore, it did not offer a direct response. Syria is not interested in being dragged kicking, at such unsuitable timing, into a battle. We consider the Israeli action an isolated event to check the response and deliver a message--not more than this.
bitterlemons: Do you expect more Israeli operations in the future?
Asalim: The Syrians articulated their position clearly. They said that the offices of the Islamic Jihad are political, not used for military training. Their position on this is a fair one, and it is impossible that they would close these offices used for conveying the political views of their brothers in Palestine.
Syria will not change its position, however it will also not contribute to escalation in the current circumstances. Syria is undergoing a process of development and [its leadership] is aware of the conditions in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. They are alert and not interested in escalation.
bitterlemons: Israel is claiming that Syria supports Palestinian resistance…
Asalim: This is an old Syrian position. Even though it has not contributed to deterioration along the borders since the Oslo Accords, it has never stopped supporting the [Palestinian] resistance movements. However, those movements do not use Syrian land as the base for their military operations since Syria has international commitments that it cannot avoid. All these accusations [by Israel] are political.
There are connections to be made between what is happening in Syria and Iraq, after demands were made that Syria deter infiltrators [along the Syria-Iraq border]. But Syria would have to deploy double the number of troops to respond to this demand. We see what is happening in Afghanistan where hundreds of thousands of soldiers are deployed. This is a public relations attack against Syria and the truth is that it is unjust.
bitterlemons: How do you explain Syria's agreement to the Beirut declaration at the Arab summit where it proposed peace with Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal from the occupied territories and a settlement for the refugees?
Asalim: Syria advocates peace and has articulated this on several occasions. There were negotiations over peace with Israel that were stopped during [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin's time and the Syrians still claim that they are ready to resume the talks from the point at which they were stopped. This indicates a wish for peace--but a just one. Syria recognized United Nations Resolution 242, and then attended the Madrid conference in order to end the Arab-Israel conflict. Syria is still ready, but Israel has not matured. As long as Syria is distant from the negotiations process, there will be no peace, or it will be defective.
bitterlemons: Do you think Syria is in a dangerous position after the Israeli and American threats?
Asalim: I believe that the United States is prepared to repeat its conduct in Iraq in every Arab country. Some conditions that existed in Iraq are not present in Syria. Syria has a national front, and the social and economic situation is stable. They will not find any weapons of mass destruction in Syria because it is busy with its development project and is trying to preserve its political position in the face of all resistance.
There is a broad front supporting Syria and it has backing from all of the Arab states. There is no justification at all for an attack on Syria, unlike Iraq. Neither the international context nor the regional one would allow the outbreak of war and all its destructive implications. Therefore, I do not think that Syria is in great danger. It has not committed a provocation to initiate a war.
-Published 3/11/2003 ©bitterlemons.org
Ihsan Asalim is a representative of the Palestinian [pro-Syrian] Ba'th Party.
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