By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Amid rumors that the political furniture is being moved around in Damascus, perhaps the strangest thing is how Syria has organically lodged itself between Iran and Israel, states that are otherwise mortal foes. The Iranian connection is well known, but less understood are the dynamics of the Syrian-Israeli relationship, and where they might lead.
Rarely a day goes by without someone in the Israeli press advocating a revival of Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The arguments are familiar: Syria has a "secular regime," therefore is worthy of Israel's attention; now is Israel's best chance to "break Syria off from Iran"; Syria alone can control Hizbullah; and so on. That each of these arguments has been explicitly contradicted by Syrian actions or statements is generally ignored. The fetish of "talking" is too strong for anyone to punch through the myths.
And yet the rationale for Syrian-Israeli peace talks rests on a bed of myths. Syria's regime may be secular, but it has built long-term alliances mainly with Islamist regimes and groups, such as Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas. When possible, as in the case of Fatah al-Islam, Syria has created or overseen militant Islamist groups, while Al-Qaeda operatives caught in Iraq will routinely describe their training and passage through Syria, usually via networks linked to the country's intelligence services. Given all this, the Assad regime's "secularism" seems irrelevant.
What about Syria's purported willingness to break off from Iran? Syrian officials have repeatedly affirmed that Iran is more than an ally; it is a strategic partner. However, optimists on Syrian-Israeli negotiations write this off as a Syrian bargaining step, a case of upping the ante before an eventual divorce from Tehran. In fact nothing suggests Syria is lying. Assad is wagering heavily that Iran will emerge as the regional superpower, which is precisely why he has been so willing to risk his Arab relationships lately in Tehran's favor. Logic, too, indicates a Syrian-Iranian split is not in the cards. Its close ties with Iran are what make Syria sought-after. If those ties disappear, Syria's sway would markedly decline.
Which brings us to the third issue: control over Hizbullah. A sudden downgrading of the Syrian-Iranian relationship would indeed leave Damascus with little regional sway, except if one thing happens: Syria returns its soldiers to Lebanon, taking the clock back to where it was before 2005. Israel would have no problems with this, and was never enthusiastic about the so-called Cedar Revolution. The only thing is, the Israelis forget that Hizbullah built up its vast weapons arsenal under Syria's approving eye. Far from imposing its writ on Hizbullah in order to eventually disarm the group, Syria has every incentive to keep the Hizbullah threat alive as leverage so that it remains indispensible.
That leads us to an obvious but seldom considered truth. Syria will not engage in serious negotiations with Israel unless it first manages to reimpose its hegemony in Lebanon. Without Lebanon in hand, Damascus has no real cards to play when haggling with the Israeli government, which has already demanded as a precondition for peace talks that Syria end its affiliation with Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah. And without cards to play, how could Bashar Assad conceivably get what he actually wants out of negotiations, which is only what his father was on the verge of getting in 2000: a return to Syria of the entire area of the Golan Heights, as well as international recognition of Syria's long-term domination of Lebanon?
So what we are bound to see in the coming months, and probably beyond, is the foreplay of Syrian-Israeli contacts, without the real thing. Indirect exchanges are already taking place through the Turkish authorities. Other channels have been mentioned in the media. A recent report in Kuwait's daily Al-Jarida, citing sources in Jerusalem, went so far as to announce that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would visit Qatar on April 14 to "complete" secret talks with Syria. If that odd story is somehow true, the fact that it found its way into a newspaper could be an effort to torpedo the initiative. But such acts seem unnecessary. Israel has no impetus to give up the Golan without assurances that Syria will make major concessions in return; and the Syrians will not make major concessions before Israel assures them that it will hand back all of the Golan and look the other way on, even assist, a Syrian restoration in Lebanon.
One item receiving publicity last year was news of the unofficial channel the Syrian and Israeli governments allowed between a former Israeli Foreign Ministry official, Alon Liel, and a Syrian-American businessman, Ibrahim Suleiman. It lasted from September 2004 to July 2006, and a main objective of the Syrian regime was to use those contacts to start a dialogue with the United States. That endeavor failed, but Liel has tirelessly sought to revive the relationship, even visiting Washington a few months ago to lobby American officials. He apparently came away empty-handed, because the Bush administration refuses to approve of a Syrian-Israeli track that, it knows, would make it considerably more difficult to contain Syria and check its efforts to undermine Lebanese sovereignty.
During his Washington trip, Liel had some captivating things to say about his discussions with the Syrians. For example, those Lebanese who get so lathered about the settlement of Palestinians in their country might consider what he said at the Middle East Institute on the issue: "Part of our talks with the Syrians included the [400,000] Palestinian refugees in Syria and they indicated [a] willingness to consider nationalizing them. This will then ... likely make it easier to promote the same in Lebanon."
Israel is unlikely to soon surrender anything serious to the Syrian regime, and the contrary is equally true. But the Israelis do prefer Assad to the unknown, which has bought the Syrian leader a good deal of breathing space in the face of Arab and American animosity. You have to wonder how long that can last. Once a new administration takes office in the United States, it may soon find that the situation in Iraq, relations with Iran, and Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians allow little room for maneuver. Syria may materialize as the one place where the Americans can effect a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. Could Assad's Israeli friends remain as complaisant in that context?
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.