With attention in the Middle East focusing on the US congressional hearings regarding a possible Syrian nuclear programme, the Syrian newspaper al-Watan made a surprising announcement last Wednesday. According to the newspaper, Israel, via Turkish channels, had in the previous 24 hours expressed its willingness to exchange the entirety of the Golan Heights area for peace with Syria.
The same day, Syrian expatriate affairs minister Buthaina Shaaban confirmed the information in an interview with al-Jazeera. Israeli spokespeople neither confirmed nor denied the reports. Senior officials said only that both Israel and Syria understood the “price” of an agreement. Could the latest diplomatic feints herald a renewed peace process between Israel and Syria? Almost certainly not. Here’s why.
The Turkish channel of communication is a reality. The Israeli and Syrian governments send regular messages to one another. And Israel’s statement in response to Shaaban’s remarks is indicative of the Olmert government’s willingness in principle for compromise on the Golan.
But with regard to Israel’s position – the international and domestic contexts need to be borne in mind. Internationally, the Israeli defence establishment is known to have been opposed to the US decision to make public aspects of the intelligence behind Israel’s bombing of a suspected nuclear facility in eastern Syria on September 6 2007. Part of this opposition related to the issue of revealing of sources. But a large part derived from the Israeli desire to avoid placing the Syrian leadership in a humiliating position from which it would feel obligated to retaliate for the attack.
From the Israeli point of view, the attack itself was sufficient to convey the desired deterrent message to Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Assad is regarded by the Israeli defence establishment as a weak and brittle entity. Apart from a general desire to avoid open conflict, Israel also has no desire to place Assad’s regime in jeopardy – since whatever would replace it in the event of its falling would almost certainly be worse. Israel has no desire to see the Assad family franchise to its north replaced by a hungry, newly-minted Sunni Islamist government. Hence, the sudden dangling of the possibility of talks may be seen as a face-saving device for Assad, provided partially by Israel.
Domestically, Israeli opposition to concessions to Syria remains widespread and reaches to the highest levels of the current government. This will continue to be the case for as long as Syria remains part of the Iran-led alliance in the region. Both the president, Shimon Peres, and deputy prime minister Shaul Mofaz have asserted in recent days that if giving up the Golan Heights to Syria means in essence ceding it to Iran, then no deal is possible.
This then leads to the key question. Could Israeli concessions to Syria prove a sufficient prize to lure Damascus away from its 25-year alliance with the mullahs in Tehran? Answering this requires taking a closer look at the Syrian regime’s interests in the region.
Syria lacks the size of Egypt and the resources of Saudi Arabia. But it has been able to project power and influence in the region because of its willingness to support radicalism, act as a disruptive force and thus create a situation in which it cannot be ignored. Thus, Damascus backs a host of Palestinian groups opposed to a peaceful settlement of the conflict with Israel – including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PFLP-GC and others. Syria offered significant support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. And most importantly, Damascus maintains influence in Lebanon – following its ignominious departure in 2005 – via its relationship with the pro-Iranian Shia militia, Hizbullah.
The ability to foment chaos and project influence in Lebanon is key for the Assad regime. The expulsion from that country was a personal humiliation for the young president, and its loss is exacting an economic cost on Damascus. Furthermore, the regime seeks to prevent at all costs the commencement of the work of the tribunal into the killing of former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri. Its chosen method for doing this is the fomenting of instability in Lebanon and the instrument it chooses to use is Hizbullah.
The mainstream Arab states – most importantly Egypt and Saudi Arabia – are frightened by the growth of Iranian influence across the region. They are furious with Syria for its backing of non-Arab Iran. But only by backing the radical power in the region can Syria maintain its powerful role as mischief-maker. No Iran means no more fomenting radicalism, no more reaping the benefits of having to be bought off, no more pro-Iranian militias to help out in Lebanon, no return to Lebanon, and the nightmarish possibility of seeing major regime figures collared for the killing of Hariri. It is a near certainty that the regime will prefer to maintain all of these – with the additional mobilising charge of the “occupied Golan” into the bargain – rather than give it all up and become a minor, status quo power.
In other words, Syria is too deeply committed, on too many levels, to its alliance with Iran to consider abandoning it for the Golan and the Arab mainstream. Syria’s conflict with Israel can’t be separated out from Damascus’s larger regional concerns. Hence, with all due respect to the Turkish mediators, we are faced here with another manifestation of that well-known Middle Eastern phenomenon: much ado about nothing.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya Israel.