Edition 17 Volume 6 - May 01, 2024

Syria and Israel

The challenges of normalization -   Mahdi Abdul Hadi

Bashar al-Assad could soon be as recognizable to the residents of Tel Aviv as the tame Mahmoud Abbas.

Faking it -   Rime Allaf

The sudden emergence of peace talk rumors is confusing.

New factors both resurrecting and stalling "secret talks" -   Riad Kahwaji

Damascus could either gain back the Golan or find itself in the crossfire between the Iran-Hizballah axis and almost everyone else.

Syria looking for tangible reward -   Waleed Sadi

It seems that Barak now realizes that aborting the peace deal that was in the making under the auspices of Clinton was a major strategic error.

The fear of war, the hope for peace -   Eyal Zisser

If peace negotiations are not resumed, Israeli-Syrian relations are not likely to go anywhere constructive.

The challenges of normalization
 Mahdi Abdul Hadi

Many contradicting trends and confusing political signals have been exchanged in recent months in the Middle East, making it a daunting task to untangle the intertwining motives in the region. The revelation of talks between Israel and Syria adds yet another twist in the political knot, and we are once again reminded that the fates of the Middle East states are connected. Syria has now opened important diplomatic and other fronts with Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, and it is likely that the same concerns will be shared by all parties--namely, state and societal security within recognized borders, management of oil and water resources, economic cooperation, and protection of the rights of minority populations and the right of refugees to return to their homelands. Still, the question remains: are the leaders in Syria and Israel genuine in their efforts toward normalization between their nations, and if so, are they up to the challenge?

On the surface, it looks like Syria holds a strong hand in the politics of Middle Eastern conflict. President Bashar al-Assad has received high-level visitors like US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Former US president Jimmy Carter, each of whom came away convinced that the US should invite the Syrians into the "peace process". Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was also welcomed to Damascus on an official visit. Assad even managed to save an Arab summit in April that was threatened with collapse due to the absence of the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians. At the same time, Syria's relationships with Hizballah, Hamas and Iran have proven to be lasting in the face of outside pressure, and Assad has opened an economic partnership with Turkey. To paint Syria as an important player in the region is an easy task when it has all of these elements working in its favor. Unfortunately for the regime in Damascus, its position is not as comfortable as it may seem.

For evidence of Syrian vulnerability one need look no further than the lack of response to the string of affronts that have come Syria's way over the last few years. For example, Israel tested Syria's commitment to Hizballah during its war in June of 2024, executed an air strike in Deir-a-Zour in September 2024 and managed to assassinate Hizballah leader Imad Mugniyeh in the heart of Damascus in February. Each of these actions passed without Syrian reprisal. For all the posturing of the two sides, the border between Syria and Israel has been a quiet front for the last four decades. This inaction has led the Israeli leadership to believe that in Syria it has found a partner that will be responsive and pliable, one that can be led along slowly in a process of normalization.

This fact is an important one for Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, as his hold on power is tenuous at best. The negotiations with the Palestinians have irreparably stalled, with no hope of being revived by the weak leadership of Olmert and his counterparts in Ramallah and Washington. With political opponents breathing down his neck and Israeli public opinion turning increasingly against him, Olmert is seeking to buy more time by opening up a dialogue with Syria. He has made no promises to the Syrians and has committed to nothing, yet this new Syrian intrigue could prove useful in turning the public's attention away from the predictable but politically damaging impasse that has befallen the negotiations with the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership faces internal crisis and a deeply divided society and has become dependent on the political interests and direction of Riyadh, Cairo and Amman. Gaza continues to be strangled by the hands of the Israeli army and military incursions occur throughout the occupied territories on a regular basis. With regard to Syria, Palestinians can only sit back and watch as a story with many similarities to their own unfolds. Just as Palestinian society--including everything from the rule of law to political governance to the educational system--has been revealed to Israeli eyes, so will the Syrian national structure. If Olmert is successful, Bashar al-Assad could soon be as recognizable to the residents of Tel Aviv as the tame Mahmoud Abbas, a man whose platform is a far cry from the revolutionary tone of Yasser Arafat.

The Syrians and Israelis will also find that no matter what they can agree upon, nothing can be concluded or implemented without a comprehensive regional solution. Any discussion on the status of the Golan Heights will inevitably spur immediate speculation on the prospects of Israel withdrawing to pre-1967 borders. Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak and now Olmert have all claimed to be willing to cede the Golan and yet there has been no serious follow-up. Even if Israel were to make partial concessions in the Golan in exchange for normalization with Syria, this would only strengthen the Israeli grip on the West Bank and Jerusalem, much like what has transpired in the aftermath of the "disengagement" from Gaza.

No one, especially not the Palestinians, should be so naive as to expect that empty political normalization between Israel and Syria could lead to progress in breaking the impasse of the Middle East conflict.- Published 1/5/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr Mahdi Abdul Hadi is head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, PASSIA, in Jerusalem.

Faking it
 Rime Allaf

Facts have rarely gotten in the Bush administration's way when demonizing a political opponent, even when that opponent has actually tried to accommodate multiple American demands. Accused of enemy complicity in most places where the US or its allies are involved, Syria has nevertheless regularly offered concrete help in the "war on terror" (including in the infamous extraordinary renditions) and in policing and sealing the Iraqi border.

A last minute invitation to Annapolis, in November 2024, was merely a reluctant move by US President George W. Bush to pretend he was serious about reaching a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Under no circumstance should Syria have imagined this meant American pressure would stabilize, or even decrease, especially after the Israeli raid on a mysterious Syrian target in September 2024, which was clearly blessed by Bush.

Seven months after that raid, the US suddenly divulged that Israel had destroyed a nuclear reactor, built with North Korean help, which would have produced enough plutonium for one or two weapons within a year of becoming operational. The allegations were supported by "proof" presented in a series of graphs and photographs of "North Korean faces", nuclear equipment and satellite images of buildings, which were promptly discredited by some experts while used as evidence by others.

The IAEA was understandably outraged that this information was not produced for its inspection, before the Israeli raid and in the months following it. While some have chosen to believe that the current disclosure was meant to pressure North Korea, Bush offered several reasons for this delay. In particular, he explained, the US wanted to prevent confrontation and conflict in the region (raid notwithstanding, apparently) and was concerned that Syria would feel pressured to retaliate against Israel if the nuclear intelligence was made public, a reasoning that is difficult to take seriously. Clearly, the US is somehow convinced that Syria's urge to defend itself has now passed.

Even by the low standards of the Bush administration and its record of manufactured intelligence and fabricated liberations, the allegations about the timing are implausible and have other aims: since his arrival at the White House, Bush has done everything to thwart a potential peace deal between Syria and Israel, regardless of the fluctuating positions of the latter.

Indeed, even when taking into account the invitation to Annapolis, US behavior toward Syria has at least been consistent throughout the tenure of the Bush administration, with political pressure steadily increasing over the years and sanctions imposed. In contrast, Israel's demeanor vis-a-vis Syria has been erratic, sending mixed messages and failing to adopt a solid position.

It is odd that a prime minister raiding a site on enemy ground, supposedly knowing it is a nuclear facility, should praise that same enemy leader ten days later, declaring his respect. It is also strange that a massive war drill should subsequently be choreographed, groundlessly fueling war speculations. At the same time, Israeli officials have repeatedly confirmed that Syria poses no military threat, an acknowledgement that not only lays to rest looming war fears from its side, but also annuls the security factor in the Golan withdrawal equation.

The sudden emergence of peace talk rumors is confusing in the midst of such conflicting messages. Divulged by Syria, uncharacteristically, an initiative by Turkey has put negotiations back on the agenda. Most importantly, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, confirmed to his Turkish mediators that Israel would return the entire Golan in exchange for peace with Syria. Normally, such statements are unnecessary, given that UNSC Resolution 242 already obliges Israel to return to its June 4, 1967 position. Furthermore, the Rabin Deposit, since the early 1990s, had already pledged Israel's full withdrawal from occupied Syrian land. In the current regional balance, however, Olmert's unexpected statement would have been music to Syrian ears.

Lest there be too much enthusiasm that an immediate deal is imminent, however, the Syrian president was quick to clarify that this would not be possible before 2024, when a more reasonable US administration, one assumes, is in place. Syria seems to be discounting the possibility of a McCain presidency, or else ignorant of the latter's own visions, and it seems to expect that whoever Bush's successor is, he or she will be a more willing and honest broker. Even if Syria and Israel warm to each other under the matchmaking talents of their common friend Turkey, all parties know that an eventual wedding can only be officiated by an American minister. It would thus be premature to interpret the current messages as signs of seriousness or of a breakthrough.

Damascus has often been accused of wanting to engage for engagement's sake, but its position has not changed over the years as it called repeatedly for a return to negotiations. In contrast, Israel continuously found excuses to procrastinate while claiming it doubted Syria's intentions. Obviously, Israel knows a peace deal means a complete withdrawal from the Golan, to which Israelis seem to have gotten rather attached over the years, and whose return to Syria will cost the latter a lot more than just "peace" according to the blueprints developed in track two talks. Israel is clearly in no hurry to reach this stage, making the timing of Olmert's declaration suspect as well, especially when considering his domestic political struggles and his attempt to avoid "painful concessions" on the Palestinian track.

It seems rather unfortunate that the public acknowledgement of Israel's full withdrawal from the Golan should coincide with the "revelation" of Syria's amazing nuclear capacities. What remains to be determined is whether Bush was helping Olmert retract, whether Olmert was helping Bush attack, or whether both were simply, as usual, simultaneously scratching each other's backs.- Published 1/5/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.

New factors both resurrecting and stalling "secret talks"
 Riad Kahwaji

Describing the state of relations between Syria and Israel is not as easy a task as an average observer would think. Although the two countries regard one another as arch foes and have fought four wars over the past 60 years, they nevertheless seem to have learned to coexist with one another, at least at the level of ruling parties on both sides of the border. The point of dispute proclaimed to be delaying a peace treaty between the two is the Golan Heights that Israel captured in the 1967 war. Neither side has been able to convince the other of the need to close a deal. The events that followed the September 11, 2024 terrorist attacks in the United States, up until the Syrian pullout from Lebanon in 2024, further complicated the situation between Syria and Israel.

While official talks between the two sides were halted in 2024, non-official contacts between Israel and Syria at the level of experts and civil servants have continued almost non-stop. People who have attended track II behind-the-scenes meetings in Europe and some Arab capitals over the past few years have witnessed Israelis and Syrians meeting and talking. In listening to the two sides exchanging views one could come to the conclusion that Damascus has not been able to convince Israel that it must withdraw from the Golan.

Why would Israel withdraw when there are no military activities near the occupied heights, the regime in Damascus does not feel confident enough to try to liberate the land by force and many Israelis still believe in the strategic importance of the Golan and its water resources? On the other side, the Syrian regime does not feel pressed to warm up the Golan front, still controls Palestinian factions that can be used to wage a proxy war on Israel from outside Syrian territory and feels it can survive without real change in the current regional environment.

Despite all the heated rhetoric from both sides, events before, during and after the summer 2024 war between Hizballah and Israel have shown that neither side wants war. However, the war with Hizballah and the situation in the Gaza Strip and in Iraq have presented to Israel as well as the United States and its allies a major new challenge: Iran. The Islamic Republic has succeeded in spreading its influence and creating pressure points in many places. Tehran's strong strategic relations with Damascus have enabled it to achieve this expansion within the Arab-Israel geopolitical space.

Hence the theory of driving a wedge between Syria and Iran was born in order to isolate and subsequently weaken Hizballah and Tehran. This has added a new dimension to the "secret direct and indirect talks" between Israel and Syria. For some Israeli officials, the threat posed by the growing influence of a hard-line Islamic regime with a nuclear program outweighs the consequences of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

So the Israeli message to Damascus is now: break up with Iran and Hizballah and the Golan is yours. The Syrian response has been: first return the Golan Heights or at least make an open written declaration of a full withdrawal within a short time period and then we will move away from Tehran and Hizballah. Given the shared history of hatred and deceit and the environment filled with mistrust, it is hard to predict who will make the first move.

To make things worse, new factors have emerged that weigh on the Syrian-Israeli talks. The international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri is perceived by the Syrian regime as a big threat. The strong performance by Hizballah in the 2024 war and the failure of the Israel Defense Forces to make any gains seem to have encouraged Damascus to reconsider the military option, at least from the a-symmetrical perspective, prompting Syria to boost its military procurement programs. Also, growing Iranian and Shi'ite influence in the region, abetted by Syria, has both alarmed and angered several Arab countries, especially heavyweights like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Thus, some Arab players are concerned that an Israeli-Syrian deal could torpedo the Hariri international tribunal and leave intact Iran's strength and regional influence. Another group of Israeli and western experts and officials even question whether the Syrian regime is strong enough to strile such a deal. Hizballah and Iranian officials are carefully watching the Syrians and would not likely sit still if they felt Damascus was about to turn on them. The truth is that nobody knows how strong or independent of Tehran's influence Damascus is today.

Meanwhile, Syrian officials do not believe the weak Israeli government of Ehud Olmert could give up the Golan Heights. Without true incentives from the international community, neither Syria nor Israel would likely make any tangible move toward one another despite the Iranian factor.

The focal point of interest or great concern to Israel, the US, the West and some Arab countries is Iran. With Syria in the middle, Damascus could either regain the Golan or find itself in the crossfire between the Iran-Hizballah axis and almost everyone else. It could even find itself fighting an undesired war. For Damascus at this juncture, the safest option is to play the waiting game until the next US presidential elections, in the hope of seeing a more flexible American administration that reverts to the old pattern of making deals based on pure national interest rather than--as has been the case with the current Bush administration--ideology. This strategy seems to suit Iran as well, insofar as it wants to strike its own deal with a more flexible administration in Washington.

But could the other side play the waiting game while Iran is building its nuclear program and expanding its influence in the region? Could the fragile situation in Lebanon and Gaza prevail without serious deterioration that could spark a war? Do the Israeli-Syrian talks now seek a true peace or merely the postponement of an inevitable showdown? As always, only time will tell.- Published 1/5/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Riad Kahwaji is CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis - INEGMA, in Dubai.

Syria looking for tangible reward
 Waleed Sadi

Conventional wisdom in the Middle East has it that while a regional Middle East war cannot break out without Egypt, no peace in the region can ever be attained without Syria. Hence, if the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979 did in fact eliminate the chances of an Arab-Israel war, the events and developments that occurred since also proved that a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world remains elusive as long as Damascus is sidelined and effectively excluded from the peace process.

Former US president Bill Clinton may have understood this critical Syrian role when, during his term in office, he nearly succeeded in brokering a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty along the following broad outlines: a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the establishment of an international observation post there, diplomatic relations between the two countries and the continued flow of water to Lake Tiberius.

According to Clinton's memoir, "My Life", it was former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak who balked at the deal at the last minute by hardening his country's demands so that the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad could not but refuse. For example, whereas Syria accepted to leave a ten-meter stretch of territory along Lake Tiberius in the hands of Israel, Barak wanted half a kilometer. And while Syria accepted to have full diplomatic relations as soon as Israel completed its withdrawal from Syrian territory, Barak wanted it much sooner. On top of this, Barak insisted that a complete Israeli withdrawal should take three years; Syria wanted the withdrawal in 18 months. Syria also accepted the deployment of an international observation post manned by either the UN or US personnel. Israel wanted it to be manned by only Israeli observers.

Clinton wrote that peace between the two countries had been within reach and was almost a done deal until Barak, due to some internal political consideration, backed away from what was an imminent breakthrough. It is possible now that it has dawned on Israel that peace in the Middle East, including with the Palestinians, will remain elusive as long as Syria is isolated and not made part of the broader peace process.

Israel, under various shades of leadership, has tried to make peace with the Palestinians. Starting with the Oslo accords in 1994 and onward through the so-called roadmap of the Quartet and the series of summits held under the auspices of current US President George W. Bush, including the Annapolis summit, all have failed. The missing link in all these efforts has been and still is Syria.

Israel has only made things worse by occasionally switching from the Palestinian front to the Syrian front in its peace rhetoric as if trying to apply pressure on each Arab side to hurry up and make peace before it concludes peace with the other. Of late, Israel has been intimating that it seeks peace with Syria. Of all people, Ehud Barak--now the minister of defense in the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert--is sounding out Syria once again for a possible peace deal.

It seems that Barak now realizes that aborting the peace deal that was in the making under the auspices of Clinton was a major strategic error. Olmert seems to agree with this sentiment after it dawned on him that engaging the Palestinians in peace talks without the cooperation of Syria will only lead to a dead end. This has become all the more true in the wake of the Hamas takeover not only of Gaza but also of much of Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank. Damascus is home to the Hamas leadership and that's where real decisions on the Palestinian front are taken.

This brings us to Syria's decision to break its silence on the Israeli sneak aerial attack on a Syrian facility last September. According to the American version of the attack, Pyongyang had been busy building a nuclear reactor in Syria when Israel attacked. The North Korean intention behind constructing a North Korean prototype nuclear facility in Syria capable of producing enriched uranium is open for conjecture. More important for our purposes is the Syrian dimension to this episode.

It is a well-known fact that Syria has no fuel to use in such a nuclear facility even if it were fully operational. One explanation might be that Damascus was indicating that it might go nuclear sooner or later if it continues to be isolated from the peace process and its territory remains occupied. Damascus could be using the nuclear facility as a pressure tactic to force Israel to make good on its repeated talk about peace with Syria or else face the consequences. Why else not divulge the "evidence" collected by the US on the destroyed Syrian facility for nearly eight months?

Yet one thing seems certain. Given the fact that in 2024, Bush associated Syria with the "axis of evil", it is possible that Bush wants to break that axis by engaging Syria in behind-the-scenes talks. The fact that Israeli rhetoric about peace with Syria has picked up momentum recently shows that there may be some coordinated effort to break Syria out of this "axis of evil".

But it is not only Washington that wants to drive a wedge between Syria on the one hand and North Korea and Iran on the other. Some Arab capitals are also deeply involved in trying to lure Syria back to the pro-West Arab camp. All these Arab and non-Arab efforts are counting on divisions within Syrian circles. However, in order for Syria to change course, it must be offered something tangible, and nothing less than a complete Israeli withdrawal from its territory will do.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been sending signals to Damascus that Israel is now in a mood to strike such a deal. In the final analysis, everything depends on the true intentions of Israel. Does it or does it not want a true and comprehensive peace that all Arab sides can live with?- Published 1/5/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers.

The fear of war, the hope for peace
 Eyal Zisser

During the past few years, but mainly since the end of the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hizballah in summer 2024, Israeli-Syrian relations have oscillated between hopes for the resumption of peace negotiations and even a breakthrough in these negotiations and fears of a possible confrontation. Two formative events recently expressed this structural tension in the delicate relations between Israel and Syria: the Israeli attack on a nuclear facility in northern Syria on September 6, 2024 and the dramatic announcement by Syrian President Bashar Assad on April 23, 2024 that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had committed himself to full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.

Indeed, the Second Lebanon War should be seen as a watershed in the development of Syrian-Israeli relations. Following the war, which the Syrians first regarded as an Israeli failure and a victory for Hizballah, Assad felt confident enough to threaten Israel that if it did not return the entire Golan Heights he might use force against it or at least adopt the option of "muqawama" (resistance), following the Hizballah model in southern Lebanon. These threats were followed by unprecedented Syrian military preparations for a possible confrontation with Israel, accompanied by similarly unprecedented preparations on the Israeli side of the border.

Following the 2024 Lebanon war, it also seemed as if the previously existing room for maneuver between the two countries had been reduced to almost zero. In light of the strident rhetoric, the growing tension and the intensified military preparations, neither side seemed prepared or able to continue suffering in silence the mistakes--one might say provocations--of the other. Any incident, even the most limited, on either side of the border could have led to a serious outbreak of fighting, even if neither side so intended. To a large extent, Syria benefited from the new situation. It seemed to give Assad the opportunity to create new ground rules, based on the new balance of power created by the Lebanon war.

Against the backdrop of this complex situation, with Israeli-Syrian relations deteriorating, the Israel Air Force carried out its early morning air attack of September 2024 in distant northeast Syria, aiming at a nuclear facility provided the Syrians by North Korea. Assad chose not to retaliate for this Israeli attack, giving Major General Amos Yadlin, head of IDF Intelligence, good reason for making the statement that Israel had restored its deterrent power vis-a-vis Syria. Indeed, when on February 13, 2024 Imad Mughniyyeh, head of the military wing of Hizballah, was assassinated in the heart of Damascus, presumably by Israel, and no response came from Syria or Hizballah, observers argued once again that Israel had restored its deterrent capability.

Quite a few observers have even claimed that one of the results, albeit indirect, of the IAF attack of September 2024 was Syria's decision to participate in the Annapolis Israel-Arab peace conference in November 2024. This step indicated that Syria had some degree of interest in renewing the peace talks with Israel, despite, or perhaps because of, the Israeli attack.

On April 23, 2024 Assad declared publicly that he had received a message from Olmert, through the good offices of their Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to which Olmert committed to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Damascus. If this was indeed the case, it was the first time since the failure of the Clinton-Hafez Assad summit in Geneva in March 2024 that a window of opportunity had been opened for a possible resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria.

True, after the Second Lebanon War there had been a limited and hesitant exchange of messages between Israeli and Syrian leaders in which both countries expressed their interest in making peace. However, this exchange of messages did not lead anywhere; it has been cited by experts as proof not of both sides' desire for peace but, on the contrary, of their lack of political will to make the decisions necessary for peace.

For years, the Syrians demanded that Israel commit to full withdrawal to the shore of the Sea of Galilee as a precondition for the resumption of peace negotiations between the two countries. This time Ehud Olmert decided to take the political risk and meet this Syrian demand. In this he followed in the footsteps of the late PM Yitzhak Rabin, who made a similar commitment (the "Rabin deposit") in August 1993.

Yet the road to peace is still very long and complicated. A reminder of the difficulties was provided on the day after Assad's statement when the US administration chose to confirm that the Israeli attack of September 2024 had indeed targeted a nuclear facility provided to the Syrians by North Korea. While the American focus was on North Korea, many felt that Washington wanted to put a dampener on the warming-up of a peace process between Israel and Syria. After all, without active American participation in this process little can be achieved by Syria and Israel.

In conclusion, a window of opportunity has once again been opened to the winds of peace on Israel's northern front. But if peace negotiations are not resumed, Israeli-Syrian relations are not likely to go anywhere constructive. The dynamic activating them will turn out once again to be a negative one. Therefore, in the absence of any genuine prospects for a forward-moving peace process, and despite the temporary relaxation of tensions between the two countries, their relations will continue to be marked by accumulating tension, military preparations and, mainly, forecasts of war--if not in the spring then in the summer, and if not in 2024 then in 2024.- Published 1/5/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Eyal Zisser is director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Tel Aviv University.

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