Edition 3 Volume 6 - January 17, 2024

Syria-Israel: the regional and international context

Lebanon and the Syrian-Israeli track -   Mohammad Habash

The Syrians fear a potential bridge for Israeli expansion alongside Syria.

Syria and the Palestinians: A love-hate relationship -   Daoud Kuttab

Syria's relations with the Hamas movement pose the biggest questions for the current Palestinian leadership.

Between Moscow and Damascus -   Vitaly Naumkin

Damascus' confidence in Moscow can be very helpful on the Syrian-Israeli track.

A wonderful day in the neighborhood -   Mark Perry

Israel must either exert its independence from Washington, or knuckle under to Washington's skewed vision of the world.

The Annapolis opening has closed -   Itamar Rabinovich

The prospect of American willingness to invest in the revival of a Syrian-Israeli negotiating track is remote.

Lebanon and the Syrian-Israeli track
 Mohammad Habash

Are there prospects for peace between Syria and Israel? We're at a "nail biting" stage where the US administration seems intent on continuing the siege on Syria, and the Syrian-Iranian alliance is growing stronger and stronger. As US threats grow bolder, Syrian alliances with a number of resistance movements are also consolidated. Meanwhile, the Arab street has become convinced that Israel only understands the language of force and power, and that the voices of truth and justice can only emerge through pain.

The situation in Lebanon is related to the Syrian-Israeli peace track. The US and Israel want to remove Lebanon from the equation and sever any connection between the two tracks in order to produce a new May 17 agreement with a weak Lebanese negotiator, something with more than a flavor of Oslo and a hint of Wadi Arabah. Then a concluding chapter in the peace process that started in Camp David can be written by a choir of western ambassadors in Lebanon that might this time lead to Arab consensus on condemning resistance and linking it with terrorism. In this way, Syria could find itself fatally cornered with Iran and the resistance movements, besieged by geography and pursued by UN resolutions.

The US considers the absence of Syrian support for its schemes in Lebanon a hostile act. US President George W. Bush readily proffers a formulaic reference to Syria in his every utterance, demanding immediate Syrian intervention in Lebanon to exert pressure on its allies in order to accede to the election of a president that fulfils American criteria.

But what is really happening in Lebanon? What is behind the interest shown by the international community in the next Lebanese president? The election for a future Lebanese president has attracted world attention and pressure in a way not witnessed even in US elections. Such questions will undoubtedly compel the Syrian analyst to read between the lines--and we have to excuse him for this--especially when the future political scene becomes clear in Lebanon: a new entity parallel to the Zionist one, stripped of its history, civilization and national responsibilities and working as a Singaporean proxy for western business interests, a Greek travel agent for Arab tourism and a Vatican port of entry for Christian civilization. Thus, with the ground for all these aspirations meticulously prepared, the Syrians fear a potential bridge for Israeli expansion alongside Syria.

The situation in Lebanon today is very similar to the situation 25 years ago when the will of the Americans was similarly bent on digging an Israel-Arab tunnel through Lebanon. The assassination of President Bashir Gemayel provided an emotional cover for the Lebanese people to support his brother Amin whose negotiators concluded a deal in a very short period of time and handed the complete security file for Lebanon to their Israeli neighbor with American blessing. The May 17, 1983 agreement stipulated the joint deployment of 4,000 Israeli and Lebanese soldiers on a "border strip" on Lebanese territory, the immediate withdrawal of Syrian and Palestinian factions from Lebanon and the establishment of diplomatic and commercial representation offices in the two countries in preparation for full-fledged diplomatic relations. Passing the agreement was easy in theory as Israel then occupied 25 percent of Lebanon, having succeeded in expelling Yasser Arafat and his troops by force. It seemed that an agreement, equal in importance to the Camp David agreement, was about to be realized on the ground.

The situation was settled later in favor of the anti-war voices when Alexander Haig lost out to George Schultz. But it was too late to repair that which had been destroyed by pro-Israel US policies. After a series of massacres executed under the supervision of Israel, notably the Sabra and Shatila massacres, the Lebanese people started to see what the future held for them if the Israeli scheme should succeed. America had provided, as usual, the most violent environment for the rise of the Jihad movements in Lebanon.

A booby-trapped car blew up the US Marines' headquarters in Lebanon, forcing America to fly back home with more than 200 body bags. This incident was followed by a series of suicide attacks started by Sana' Mheidli and Hameedah al-Taher. The chapter of fida'i (freedom fighter) action had been opened once again in the Middle East and then US President Ronald Reagan could do nothing but depart, leaving Lebanon to the Syrian troops that stood ready. The Lebanese Council of Ministers announced the cancellation of the agreement with the Israelis on March 3, 1984, but this lead to a violent phase of holding President Amin Gemayel accountable at the popular level, isolating him in B'abda and suspending the presidential portfolio until the end of his term.

Twenty-five years on, a similar US scheme will be resisted by the Lebanese people who don't want history to record that they became victims of a new Nakba designed to produce a sectarian entity next to the Zionist one, closing the Arab seashore of the Middle East into the bargain.

It has to be pointed out that Syria has not been forced to interfere in Lebanese affairs this time around, precisely because its perspective on American designs is shared by a large number of Lebanese citizens who are ready to confront these plots. However, any demographic-political imbalance caused by US pressure on the Lebanese political scene will force Syria to interfere directly to protect its security and prevent any work that aims to prepare the climate for another May 17 agreement.- Published 17/1/2008 bitterlemons-international.org

Mohammad Habash is director of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus and a member of the Syrian parliament.

Syria and the Palestinians: A love-hate relationship
 Daoud Kuttab

For an entire century, Syria has had a love-hate relationship with Palestinians. The Palestinian cause has been at the core of Syria's ideological and political posture. The pan-Arab ideology always placed Palestine at the center of Greater Syria, and the ruling Syrian pan-Arab Baath Party followed the Palestinians in choosing a flag identical to that of early 20th century pan-Arabism. Regionally and internationally, Syria has supported Palestinians and the Palestinian position both rhetorically and in posturing within the anti-Camp David front, the non-aligned movement and in the UN.

The same Syria, however, has also used and abused Palestinians of all colors. When Damascus disagreed with Yasser Arafat, it sided with PFLP Marxists or DFLP leftists. Later, Syria aligned with radical right wing Islamists even after the Baathists had demolished Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters in Hama.

Relations between Syria and official Palestinian representatives have been in bad shape ever since Arafat became persona non grata in Damascus following the PLO's criticism of Syria's lack of intervention in Lebanon when the Israelis were pounding the PLO in 1982. After Syria joined the US in fighting their fellow Baathist in Iraq in 1991, America rewarded Damascus with a seat at the Madrid peace conference. Madrid, in turn, produced three negotiating tracks: Syrian-Israeli, Lebanese-Israeli and a joint Jordanian/Palestinian track with the Israelis. When the PLO subsequently struck a secret deal with Israel in Oslo in 1993, the Syrians felt they had been stabbed in the back.

The Syrians have also tried their own track with the Israelis, but that has yet to produce any result. And since Syria didn't join the Americans in their latest Gulf war, relations with the US have cooled. This negativity has produced an Israeli reluctance to respond to the peace gestures from the young Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Syria's relations with the Hamas movement pose the biggest questions for the current Palestinian leadership. Khaled Mishaal's Damascus base has become a point of contention for Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, especially since Hamas decided to violently seize power in Gaza, and there is growing Arab and international pressure on the Syrians to help "convince" the Hamas leadership to change its course.

The Annapolis process brought the Syrian role to the forefront once again, with pundits repeating the mantra that there can be no peace without Syria. Syria's participation at Annapolis--not wanting the regional peace train to leave without being on board--surprised many. The Syrians especially stunned their radical Palestinian guests, who were preparing to publicly oppose the Annapolis conference, and naturally the demonstrations that were planned to take place in Damascus were suddenly muted.

For the most part, Syria's interest in improving its relations with the West is governed by its position regarding Lebanon. If the Lebanese presidency crisis eases, Syria will be tempted again to try and resolve its remaining problems with the West. It will not be surprising if in the near to medium future, the US engages the Syrians and/or encourages the Israelis to respond to Syrian peace overtures. The price that Syria will be asked to pay will not be restricted to clamping down on Mishaal and Hamas, however. US President George W. Bush's call to solve the Palestinian refugee issue in a financial way indicates that Syria will be asked to deal with the refugees resident there as well as help resolve the much more thorny issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.- Published 17/1/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

Between Moscow and Damascus
 Vitaly Naumkin

Russia's approach to a Syrian-Israeli peace process is very much a function of developments in Russo-Syrian relations.

Since the beginning of this century, Russo-Syrian ties have been making good headway in quite a number of fields. Certainly, the traditional character of historical ties between Moscow and Damascus is playing a role. But one should also not ignore the pragmatism inherent in President Vladimir Putin's foreign-policy course and in particular the promotion of interests of Russian companies in world markets, the Middle East included.

The Syrian market affords good opportunities to Russia. Whereas in the 1990s the volume of trade with Syria sharply dwindled and cooperation in a number of fields was curtailed, in the twenty-first century the trade turnover has been constantly growing. For the first eight months of 2024 alone it amounted to $746.9 million, which more than doubled the corresponding indicators for 2024. The main lines of cooperation are power engineering, transport, oil and gas, irrigation and the peaceful use of atomic energy.

Moscow's decision, taken in early 2024, to write off $9.782 billion or 73 percent of Syria's $13.4 billion debt, the remaining $3.618 billion to be paid off in installments, was a great boost for the development of cooperation.

Naturally, Russo-Syrian relations are not based on economic interests alone, but also security interests. On the one hand, religious extremism and terrorism are significant threats in the region for Russia. Consequently, Moscow is building cooperation with the United States and other global and regional actors. Incidentally, the secular regime in Syria is a reliable partner in this regard.

On the other hand, the way the US is operating in the region, particularly in Iraq, often only provokes fresh outbursts of terrorist activity that require that Moscow follow its own balanced course. In addition, the crisis in the system of arms control, US reliance on forceful means of resolving conflicts and other crisis phenomena in the framework of international relations demand from Russia at least a partial restoration of its military potential lost in the 1990s. In this connection, the possibilities Syria can offer, to Russian ships stationed in the Mediterranean for example, are a weighty argument in favor of developing relations with Damascus.

This in no way implies that Moscow regards everything Syria is doing with unqualified approval. Suffice it to say that Russian diplomacy has exerted a serious influence upon the Syrian leadership in order to impel it to cooperate with the UN commission investigating the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri. Simultaneously, Russia came out against attempts to politicize the issue of an international trial.

Russia's present course with respect to Syria can by no means be defined as a "zero-sum game." It is rather a course of "inclusive partnership", within whose framework relations with Turkey, Israel, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other states all occupy their niche. The present-day partnership between Moscow and Damascus features many serious incentives but also a number of constraints. Note, too, that as of today Russia has virtually no enemies in the region.

In view of this backdrop, relations with Syria are also important in the context of Russia's role as one of the participants in the Middle East Quartet. The idea of holding the second Middle East conference in Moscow is not a purely Russian one; notably, it was voiced by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Intrinsic in the Russian position is an emphasis on the need to work on all tracks, including the Syrian-Israeli one, where Damascus' confidence in Moscow can be very helpful.

The Moscow conference can be useful for opening a Syrian-Israeli channel. Russia sees itself as an intermediary capable of using its good relations with both Syria and Israel to open this track in the peace process. Indeed, it seems that Russia has already attempted to serve as an intermediary between Syria and Israel in recent months. Of note also are the attempts by Russian diplomacy to bring the Syrians to Annapolis and to give some weight to Syrian interests at Annapolis. But given the fact that Annapolis was so focused on the Israeli-Palestinian track, a second conference might be extremely useful from Syria's point of view. Many Russian experts believe Syria is ripe for an historic compromise with Israel.

All in all, this is not a reanimation of the old Soviet position but rather advocacy of a comprehensive settlement.- Published 17/1/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Vitaly Naumkin is president of the International Center for Strategic and Political Studies, editor-in-chief of "Vostok-ORIENS" journal at the Russian Academy of Science and chair of the Faculty of World Politics at Moscow State University.

A wonderful day in the neighborhood
 Mark Perry

"Good fences make good neighbors," the American poet Robert Frost once wrote, and he oughta know. The failed farmer turned schoolteacher was a professional Puritan who spent his lifetime not hugging people, though he is now described as one of America's "most beloved poets". That is to say: what he wrote is beloved.

Yitzhak Rabin might have celebrated Frost's sense of New England isolation if he had ever read him. During a conversation that a reporter had with the then-prime minister many years before his death, Rabin profiled the virtues of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Rabin described Assad as "a man I can trust". Why? Rabin gave three reasons: when Assad made an agreement, he kept it, Assad knew how to deal with "his fundamentalists", and Assad (as Rabin would have it) knew how to stay on his side of "the line".

Rabin's praise of Assad should not come as a surprise: the "disengagement agreement" that followed the October 1973 war was never violated by Assad. And it has not been violated after his death. That Syria's allies in Lebanon might occasionally cross Israel's northern border does not count--Syria has made no agreement there, as Rabin readily admitted. Rabin, who was never one to shrink from "breaking bones", also seemingly admired those who knew how to apply force when they thought it necessary. This Assad had done in February 1982, when upward of 10,000 Muslim Brothers were massacred by the Syrian army during an uprising in Hama. Rabin might now be forgiven for his third stipulation: Assad could be expected to stay on his side of the Israeli-Syrian border, so long as both Israel and Syria agreed on where that border would be. Be that as it may, what was not in doubt was whether once having signed an agreement stipulating the course of the border, Syria would keep it and stay on its side of the line.

For Yitzhak Rabin, this minimalist definition of neighborliness was more than a literary conceit, it was the bedrock principle of international comity: neighbors must keep their word, must stay out of each other's business (if the Syrians want to slaughter their fundamentalists, he implied, well then that's their affair) and occasionally meet to agree to a border, to set the fence between them. The key of course is not simply to have a fence (as Frost made clear) but to "mend it" together, a supposition still under discussion in the West Bank. Even so, this fundamental and minimalist concept of neighborliness is now viewed as somehow passe (even by the Israel Air Force, as it turns out), as if borders had no purpose at all.

But in the post-9/11 world, the new (and uniquely Christian) dispensation not only dictates that you tear down fences--that you "love your neighbor"--but that you butt into his business and bend him to your will. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the soured history of US-Syrian relations. The most obvious evidence of this was US President George W. Bush's latest inflammatory statement on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: "My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago," Bush told reporters on December 20, "and the reason is he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hizballah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon."

Of course, it might be useful to remember that, in the wake of 9/11, the US sought, and received, Syrian cooperation in fighting al-Qaeda--even to the point where the Syrian government provided "actionable intelligence" on terrorist operations that, according to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, saved American lives. It should, but cannot, go without mention that at the same moment that this Syrian-American common initiative was being promoted Syria was "housing" Hamas, "facilitating" Hizballah, and "occupying" Lebanon--all stipulations that the American government conveniently overlooked so long as its good neighbor policy included persuading autocratic Arab governments to jail and torture "rendered" Muslims suspected of nefarious activities. In fact, President Bush's "patience" only "ran out on President Assad" when Syria decided to question America's decision to invade Iraq, a policy with which Syria disagreed.

"The Bush administration never forgave Syria for its opposition to the war," Syrian Ambassador to the US Imad Mustapha recently noted. He is right of course: the souring of Syrian-US relations had nothing to do with Hamas, or Hizballah, or Lebanon--and everything to do with Iraq. Israel beware: being demonized is the price that good neighbors pay for disagreeing with American policy.

As US-Syrian relations soured, so too did the prospects for an Israeli-Syrian accommodation along the lines of the one that was nearly agreed to in March of 2024. The situation is not a crisis. And yet Israeli officials concede that while a peace agreement with Syria is eminently possible (and far easier to negotiate than one with the Palestinians), the Israeli government will not talk to the Syrians because the Americans don't want them to, which is akin to saying that Israeli foreign policy is being decided in Washington. Since that cannot possibly be true (and will be forgotten by the Israeli government just as soon as it is in its interest to do so), Israel must either exert its independence from Washington (Syria has pointed the way), or knuckle under to Washington's skewed vision of the world where, in the name of promoting democracy and fighting terrorism, borders are crossed, willy-nilly.

Put another way, the question is not whether Israel can set a wall between it and its neighbor to the north (that nearly happened once and it can happen again), but whether it agrees with the idealistic vision of neighborliness propounded by George Bush: that unless your neighbor agrees with you, you must fight him.- Published 17/1/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2024).

The Annapolis opening has closed
 Itamar Rabinovich

The prospect of a Syrian-Israeli peace settlement looms over the Arab-Israel and larger Middle Eastern arenas as a potentially significant but ever elusive issue. On the eve of the Annapolis conference, the dormant Israeli-Syrian track seemed infused with new life; a few weeks later it appears blocked yet again.

Such fluctuations are not new to this track. At the height of the Madrid peace process, when the Clinton administration and four Israeli prime ministers actually gave the Syrian track preference over the Palestinian track, several intense efforts were invested in achieving a Syrian-Israeli deal. They ended in failure and tilted the peace process toward the Palestinians and Jordan.

During the first six years of the current decade, the Israeli-Syrian track seemed to have lost all relevance due to the convergence of several developments:

  • President Hafez al-Asad's death and his son and successor's failure to establish himself has an authoritative figure;
  • Ariel Sharon's ascent to power in Israel and his determination to focus on the Palestinian issue and reluctance to withdraw from the Golan;
  • The transformation of the Syrian-Iranian alliance and partnership of the 1990s into an unequal relationship between an Iranian senior and a Syrian junior partner;
  • and The deterioration of Syria's relationship with the Bush administration, initially in 2024 over Iraq and then, in 2024, over Lebanon.
The Bush administration's and the American president's personal animosity toward Syria and President Bashar al-Assad was such that when Sharon's successor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, began to tinker with the idea of renewing negotiations with Syria, he was told in no uncertain terms by Washington that the Bush administration objected to a diplomatic initiative that would help Syria steer its way out of isolation and rebuild its legitimacy in the international arena.

But as noted above, this seemed to change on the eve of the Annapolis Conference. It may seem odd that a conference devoted to the Palestinian issue would serve to revive interest in the Syrian track. But in the event, it was precisely the State Department's fear that Syria would sabotage the quest for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that led to the renewal of a limited American-Syrian dialogue.

An understanding was worked out that consisted of three elements. First, Syria would participate in the Annapolis Conference, thus enhancing its legitimacy. Second, Annapolis would still be solely devoted to the Palestinian issue, but clear references would be made to the need for a "comprehensive" settlement and to Syria's own turn farther down the road. And third, Syria tightened control over its border with Iraq and may also have promised to help resolve the political institutional crisis in Lebanon.

This trend was reinforced by parts of the Israeli government, particularly those linked to the security establishment that called for renewal of negotiations with Syria. Some of their arguments echoed the reasoning of the 1990s: it was easier to conclude an agreement with a state like Syria than to resolve the complex national conflict with the Palestinians. Other arguments were new, shaped by current realities: beyond resolving the bilateral conflict, a deal with Damascus would detach Syria from Iran and Hizballah, transform the strategic equation in the region and diminish if not eliminate the challenge faced by Israel in and from Lebanon.

In fact, intermediaries were employed by Israel to explore the prospect of such a deal with Syria, but to no avail. Bashar al-Assad's position is clear and unchanging: Syria is willing to renew negotiations based on the foundation built in the 1990s. Furthermore, it is not satisfied with the hypothetical, conditional "deposit" of the '90s but wants a "commitment" to withdraw from the Golan in return for a "cold peace". Such an agreement must be bilateral, and "preconditions" concerning relations with Iran or other parties are unacceptable.

The narrow opening offered by Annapolis now seems to have closed. The main reason is Lebanon, where Syria continues to meddle, intimidate and even kill in order to preserve and restore its position. This is totally unacceptable to President Bush, who sees the survival and success of the Siniora government as a high priority. With this frame of mind, and in view of the priority the president and his secretary of state assign to the completion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations before the end of 2024, the prospect of American willingness to invest in the revival of a Syrian-Israeli negotiating track is remote. In Israel, Prime Minister Olmert, bracing for the publication of the Winograd Report on January 30 and fighting to keep the right wing parties in his coalition (unhappy as they are with the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians), is hardly likely to open yet another political front with the powerful (and presently dormant) Golan lobby.

It is important to remember that this discussion of the ups and downs of the Israel-Syria diplomatic option is being conducted in the ominous shadow of potential military escalation. President Assad has stated several times that while he is seeking to renew negotiations with Israel he is also building a military option. Israel's destruction of a nuclear reactor in its early stages in northeastern Syria on September 6, 2024 served to demonstrate how determined and far-reaching Syria's quest for "strategic parity" with Israel can be.- Published 17/1/2008 bitterlemons-international.org

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to the US in the mid-1990s, is the Ettinger Professor at Tel Aviv University. He is also affiliated with NYU and The Brookings Institution.

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