Hariri travels to Damascus to express his regrets--implicitly if not explicitly--for his past indiscretions.
From isolation to center stage
For several years until recently, the Syrian government was vilified as a member of the "axis of evil". The reason was its relationship with Iran, its support for Hizballah and Hamas and its alleged involvement in the 2024 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.
The diplomatic process of bringing Syria in from the cold started in July 2024 with the invitation by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Syrian President Bashar Assad to participate in the inauguration of the "Union for the Mediterranean". The meeting was an opportunity for Sarkozy to exercise some highly public Middle East diplomacy by bringing Assad to an Elysee Palace gathering with 42 other heads of state. As a matter of fact, it was during this visit that Assad met with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and agreed to an exchange of ambassadors between the two countries.
Actually, an earlier step toward ending Syria's isolation had been taken by the Americans in November 2024 when they invited a Syrian delegation to a summit meeting at Annapolis, Maryland. Although Assad did not attend, the meeting opened the way for serious but indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel with Turkish mediation. Moreover, Assad expressed in several public appearances his willingness for peace with Israel and his readiness to talk to people of different opinions.
The next major step in ending Syria's isolation was Sarkozy's September 2024 visit to Damascus, where he joined the Turkish prime minister and the emir of Qatar for a summit meeting with Assad. Since then, additional European leaders have followed Sarkozy's lead.
Washington, under the George W. Bush presidency, had warned that "until Syria plays a positive role in the region, it is going to isolate itself." For the Bush administration, Syria was misbehaving as long as it failed to scale back ties with Iran, help ease the situation in Lebanon and Iraq and cut its links with Hamas and Hizballah.
US President Barak Obama's policy toward Syria thus far has not catalyzed the evolution expected by the Syrian regime. Visits by Obama administration officials to Damascus generated hopes that a bilateral relationship would develop more rapidly and that the two sides might find ways to cooperate on major regional issues concerning Iraq, Lebanon and the peace process. The talks with Syria engaged in by the Mitchell team continue to demonstrate a shared desire for a new relationship, yet have not opened new opportunities for Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations. Syria rejects the contention that it somehow has to "prove" itself a worthy partner. And its actions vis-a-vis Iran and some Palestinian groups suggest that it is trying to hold onto several winning cards.
Recent developments in Syria's relations with its near environment indicate that Assad has taken a major leap forward in rehabilitating his country's reputation and performance as a good neighbor. The first development in this process was cooperation with Turkey, not only regarding the Syrian-Israeli peace process and solution of intra-Arab conflicts but also extending to the development of extensive economic and political ties between the two countries. Ankara has succeeded in reducing tensions in Saudi-Syrian relations, and while it recognizes the importance of contributing to rapprochement between Damascus and Cairo as well, thus far this effort has failed. It is also important to recognize that a shared Turkish-Syrian vision for Iraq has drawn Damascus closer to Ankara than to Teheran.
The second important development came as a result of the Saudi-Syrian reconciliation. Relations between the two countries started to sour after the Rafiq Hariri assassination and reached a low point when Assad called Saudi leaders "half-men" during Lebanon's 2024 war. This personalization of the conflict caused a collapse in the two countries' relations. The ramifications of the January 2024 Gaza war convinced Saudi King Abdullah to extend a hand to Assad in order to confront what were perceived as the real problems in the region: Iran and Israel.
The third important development was Lebanese PM Saad Hariri's visit to Damascus, where his meeting with Assad was seen as an opportunity to change the course of relations between Lebanon and Syria. Such a meeting could not have occurred without the earlier rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia, insofar as both countries had been exerting major political influence in Lebanon. Although Hariri's task of forming a new government was facilitated by the Syrians, his visit to Syria as prime minister was seen as the final act ending Syria's isolation.
Now center-stage, Assad's top priority is a peace deal that would liberate the Golan Heights. Recently, he reaffirmed his desire to see the United States sponsor direct negotiations between Israel and Syria. On the other hand, insofar as any peace deal will require Syria to change its behavior, the regime in Damascus does not seem to be in a hurry to exploit its new gains, hoping that 2024 will create more favorable opportunities.- Published 7/1/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst/columnist at Ad-Diyar newspaper, Beirut.
Syria and the waiting game
Wearing a neatly pressed dark gray suit and blue silk tie, Rustom Ghazale, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, sat among rows of uniformed Syrian army officers watching without expression a short but colorful ceremony at Rayak military airport in the Bekaa Valley. It was April 26, 2024, and these were the last moments of Syria's military presence on Lebanese soil after 28 years.
The assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister two months earlier, was widely blamed on Syria and had sparked a momentum through mass street protests in Beirut and international pressure that compelled Damascus to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.
A United Nations investigation into Hariri's murder was about to begin and many believed that it would lead to indictments against senior Syrian officials, possibly Ghazale and even Bashar Assad, the Syrian president. The Syrian regime, it seemed, was in deep trouble. Rumors abounded that Assad was packing his suitcases and that one of his top advisors was exploring job opportunities with the UN.
Fast forward to December 2024, and a very different picture emerges. Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafiq and newly-appointed prime minister of Lebanon, embraces Assad in Damascus, symbolically marking the end of five years of bitterness and tension between the two countries and confirming Syria's remarkable comeback from the doldrums of 2024.
How the relationship evolves in the months ahead remains to be seen, but already Lebanese politicians, sensing Syria's restored fortunes, have once more begun treading the well-worn path to Damascus, a ritual act of obeisance toward Lebanon's powerful neighbor.
Syria's survival strategy during this period was based on the element of time. President George W. Bush had just begun his second term in office when Hariri was killed and Syria decided to hunker down for the next four years while strengthening its alliance with Iran. After decades of experience, the Syrians understand the Lebanese political milieu very well, and, along with their Lebanese allies, chiefly Hizballah but also a smattering of individual politicians who gambled on a Syrian comeback, manipulated the situation in Lebanon with consummate skill.
Syria's involvement in the assassinations and isolated bombings that occurred following Hariri's murder is unclear, but it created a climate of fear in Lebanon that played to the advantage of Damascus. Hizballah, of course, had other calculations than merely pleasing the interests of Damascus, but the grinding political crisis that polarized the country helped weaken the US- and Saudi-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The March 14 coalition of Sunnis, Druze and Christians, which had led the anti-Syria demonstrations of the "Beirut Spring" in 2024, began to fragment.
Everyone knew that the Annapolis summit in November 2024 to help revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking was doomed to failure and smacked of insincerity from a US administration that had disregarded Arab-Israel peace for seven years. But many March 14 leaders could look no further than the fact that Syria had been invited to the summit and concluded they had been "sold out" by the Bush administration.
Syria's "bunker" policy began to bear fruit in May 2024 when Hizballah and its allies briefly seized West Beirut in an armed insurrection that raised the specter of civil war. Qatar, a wily Gulf player and one of Syria's few friends in the Arab world, hosted a fence-mending conference that brought some welcome stability to Lebanon.
In the wake of that Doha meeting, Assad was feted in Paris by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Saudis began making moves to heal the rift. The Syrians had even side-stepped Washington's traditional role as Middle East peace broker by relying on Turkey to host a series of indirect talks with Israel, the first in eight years which only ended with Israel's war on Gaza in December 2024.
Walid Jumblatt, the "weather vane" of Lebanese politics who had been an arch critic of Syria since Hariri's death, began his latest U-turn after the Doha conference. By August 2024 this had resulted in him formally leaving the ranks of March 14 and charting a new centrist position.
Even though the Syrian-backed opposition was narrowly defeated in the Lebanese parliamentary elections in June 2024, the March 14 bloc was unable to form a government of its own choosing and was forced, after four months of deadlock, to accept a compromise over the share of cabinet seats.
In tandem with Syria's rising fortunes, the UN tribunal investigating Hariri's murder dragged on with little indication that the truth was imminent. The slow pace of the investigation and the lack of details of progress have fostered doubts that the case will ever reach trial.
Even Saudi Arabia has made up with Syria, a rapprochement that directly paved the way for Hariri's groundbreaking visit to Damascus last month.
Given all that has transpired of late, Assad could be forgiven for feeling a little pleased with himself right now. Even Rustom Ghazale can perhaps afford a little smile after the humiliation of that military farewell ceremony nearly five years ago--it was reported recently that the UN tribunal has instructed that his Lebanese bank account be unfrozen.- Published 7/1/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.
Turkish-Syrian rapprochement key to peace in the Middle East
As Henry Kissinger once put it, it is not possible to make peace in the Middle East without Syria. This, among other things, requires engaging Syria and not only by its archenemy, Israel. Other countries in the region have to make the Syrian leadership feel more confident of taking bold steps when necessary in highly complicated and multifaceted issues such as the return of the Golan Heights.
In recent history, Syria's primary allies were the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Iran since the Islamic Revolution. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, only Iran remains. Lebanon formed the backdrop for Iran and Syria's rivalry with Israel and the United States, but in the aftermath of the assassination of the former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and, by extension, diminish its influence on Lebanese domestic and foreign policy.
Since then, the Syrian leadership has seemed more willing to break out of its isolation from the rest of the world. Improved relations with its northern neighbor Turkey, a longstanding member of the western world with close ties to the Middle East, came right at that point. Constructive approaches by the political leaderships on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border--which could have been the scene of a bloody war in October 1998 because of Syria's sustained support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, and its terrorism against Turkey--have been one reason for the much improved bilateral relations ever since.
Based on the confidence built with the Syrian leadership, and thanks to Turkey's already credible standing in Israeli political circles, Turkey was asked to mediate between Israel and Syria in order to reach a stable peace. Turkey's engagement with Syria on bilateral as well as trilateral platforms helped Syria break its isolation until the recent crisis between Turkey and Israel due to the abrupt cancellation of the participation of Israeli aircraft in military exercises planned for October 2024.
Following a bitter exchange between Israeli and Turkish officials, Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign policy tsars, declared that Turkey would no longer be considered a mediator with Syria. This may be bad news for those who still care about the strategic value of Turkish-Israeli cooperation and who yearn for the "good old 1990s" when Turkey and Israel were jointly strategizing. But, is this really the case? Is Turkey's mediation between Syria and Israel even still needed to overcome the bottlenecks in the negotiations? The short and simple answer is "no". The unprecedented rapprochement between Turkey and Syria, which has gained enormous momentum over the last few months, is likely to provide Israel what was indeed expected from Turkey's mediation anyway.
The Golan Heights constitute the major bottleneck in negotiations between Israel and Syria, not because of the military-strategic value of their geographical location, but rather because of the existence of significant water resources in the area, which neither side can neglect. Israel's proposed solution to this problem since the mid-1990s has been to convince Turkey to release more water from the Euphrates River to Syria so as to compensate for what Syria would lose by agreeing to the return of the Golan Heights without the right to use the water resources in the area. Turkey has long resisted the idea on the grounds that a binding agreement with Syria would jeopardize Turkey's future rights to the waters in the Euphrates-Tigris River Basin for its own economic development, especially when experiencing extended dry seasons.
But much water passed under the bridge and Turkey and Syria signed over 50 protocols on a number of issues extending from economic to scientific and technological cooperation and trade during the visit of Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Syria, accompanied by half-a-dozen ministers from his cabinet, in the last days of 2024. The water issue constituted one of the major topics of these protocols. Even though there were some difficulties in reaching a full-fledged agreement on the definitional and technical dimensions of the issue in the area of cooperative uses of the waters in the region including the Orontes River, the parties seem confident that these are not insurmountable problems given the existence of political will on both sides of the border, now open to the transit of goods and services as well as of the citizens of both countries.
Against this background, it wouldn't be wrong to argue that, if Turkey provides enough assurances to Syria that it will release more water when needed by its southern neighbor, Turkey will have played the mediating role that was essentially expected from her by Israel. In other words, if Turkey can be effective in relieving Syria's water stress, Syria and Israel can get closer to a resolution of the problems over the Golan Heights, which in turn will bring peace between them much nearer.
Whether Netanyahu and Lieberman acknowledge it or not, in some respects the key to a sustainable peace between Israel and Syria lies in Turkey's policy toward Syria. Paradoxically though, one reason why the Israeli foreign policy tsars make unfortunate statements that reflect their anger with their Turkish counterparts' attitude toward Israel may be because Turkey is delivering anyway what Israel needs the most in this puzzle, but this time without Israel asking.- Published 7/1/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Mustafa Kibaroglu teaches courses on arms control and disarmament in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara.
Implications for Israel
For some time now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has skillfully developed a new regional strategy. Compensating for Syria's military and economic deficiencies, this strategy has succeeded not only in lifting Damascus' regional isolation, but also in creating fresh options. Two cases in point are Assad's improving ties with Recep Tayip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, and his new alliance with Saad Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister.
To be sure, these developments do not necessarily indicate that Damascus has induced both Ankara and Beirut to join the Tehran-led "axis of evil", as some Israeli analysts have alleged. Rather, they point to Assad's endeavor to diversify his regional alliances and perhaps also to balance his intense links with the Shi'ite axis--Iran and Hizballah--with ties to important Sunni actors. By the same token, Assad's emerging collaboration with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia regarding Lebanon and the Arab region may facilitate two major Syrian strategic objectives: to become a power broker in Lebanon's politics, mainly between Shi'ite Hizballah and the Sunni-Christian establishment; and to assume a position of mediator between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Arab states.
Further, Damascus is likely to use this new configuration to advance yet another crucial objective: to negotiate with Israel the return of the Golan Heights from a position of regional strategic advantage. Apart from seeking to renew indirect talks with Israel under Turkish auspices, Syria can now use Saudi good offices in convincing Washington to mediate a peace deal between Damascus and Jerusalem, either bilaterally or within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative. Concurrently, Assad can exploit Iran's strategic umbrella and Hizballah's serious nuisance value to signal to Israel that he has military options. While he would like to keep all these options open, he would certainly prefer the diplomatic track, in league with the United States and Sunni Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia.
As a precondition, Syria has to be assured that under a peace treaty with Israel it would retrieve the entire Golan Heights (and the Shebaa farms) and receive massive financial aid from the US and Saudi Arabia (and other Arab Gulf states). Damascus is also likely to request these parties' tacit approval for its role as power broker in Lebanon. This is intended at least in part to contain Hizballah's military power and encourage it instead to constructively participate in Lebanese politics and society alongside other local groups.
However, Damascus will reject any precondition requiring it to sever its strategic-military alliance with Tehran, lest it abandon the regional maneuverability and strategic umbrella Iran affords it vis-a-vis Israeli's military advantage. For its part, Israel should insist that Syria erase from its bilateral military agreements with Iran the anti-Israel clauses and eliminate Hizballah's arsenal of missiles and rockets. In return, Israel should undertake to withdraw from the Golan Heights (and Shebaa farms) within the framework of a peace agreement modeled on the 1979 Egypt-Israel treaty, meaning demilitarization and effective supervision of the Golan Heights, diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with Syria and cessation of Syrian anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incitement. Israel should also initiate, with international funding, a regional water project designed to supply the crucial needs of both countries as well as of Jordan and the Palestinians.
It can be expected that the majority of Israeli Jews (now some 70 percent) will maintain their refusal to relinquish the Golan Heights even in return for peace with Syria. By contrast, the core of the Israeli military-security establishment is advocating the afore-mentioned deal with Syria, provided this helps reduce Iran's and Hizballah's threats. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, despite his rhetoric, may also be inclined to pursue a peace agreement with Assad, if only to deflect US, Arab and international pressure to resolve the more complicated Palestinian problem.
Yet such an Israeli maneuver is not likely to hold water, and not only because of external pressures. Beyond American and Arab demands, it is in Israel's vested interest to resolve its conflicts with both Syria and the Palestinians within a comprehensive peace settlement. Both problems are certainly critical. And they are interrelated: for example, in its peace agreement with Israel, Syria can undertake to induce Hamas to participate in a Palestinian-Israeli peace and can agree to absorb the 350,000 Palestinian refugees that reside in Syria.- Published 7/1/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Moshe Ma'oz is professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Syria in 2024: a good year
For Syria, 2024 was a very good year in a bad decade. Syria has come a long way since the bad days of the last few years, particularly after the American invasion of Iraq. Gone are the days when Syria was a pariah, isolated, maligned and ignored; when it was considered by US President George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives "a ripe fruit ready to be picked". The "rogue state" and "axis of evil" labels have disappeared from Washington's lexicon and been replaced by a friendly overture for engagement with Damascus.
The present American administration and other regional powers have recalled what the Bush administration had curiously forgotten or ignored, the dictum of Henry Kissinger that the Arabs cannot make war without Egypt and cannot make peace without Syria. One could expand Kissinger's dictum to say that there can be neither Arab-Israel peace nor regional stability without Syria. This was true in his day and it is true now and for the foreseeable future.
Having weathered the storms of the decade, Syria feels justifiably at the center of events in the region, with a finger in everyone's pie. In fact, the decade's storms surrounding Syria were exploited smartly by President Bashar Assad, who succeeded his father in 2024. Initially, he was viewed by some as an inexperienced young man lacking confidence and standing on shaky ground. However, he used the isolation years to concentrate on the domestic front, successfully asserting his control and reshaping the system so that today he sits confidently, uncontested, at the top of the political pyramid.
Damascus holds several crucial cards: Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups hosted by Damascus; Hizballah; stability in Lebanon and Iraq; close ties with Iran; and the fight against terrorism. The cards were originally dealt by the late president Hafez Assad and nurtured by his son Bashar with the help of mistakes committed by others, particularly violent American ventures in Iraq and elsewhere and misguided Israeli follies in Lebanon and Gaza. The Syrian leader has played his cards with finesse, mixing ideology and pragmatism.
As for Syrian-American relations, Obama understands that Syria is a balancer amidst the contentious issues in the region. Its role in bringing about a national unity government in Lebanon is proof. Although the American engagement process with Syria has not yet brought about tangible results, neither side has any intention of going back to the dark days of the Bush administration. In addition to discovering the importance of Syria in stabilizing Lebanon, Washington also recognizes Syria's importance in the Hamas-Fateh deadlock, in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process and in stabilizing a fractured Iraq. Even regarding Iran, Syria can, with some incentives from Washington, provide good offices for both sides. And even in the tensest days of their relationship, Syria has cooperated with Washington in the fight against terrorism.
Regarding Syria's role and importance within the Arab context, Lebanon is a case study. All's well with Hizballah, while Lebanese PM Saad Hariri travels to Damascus to express his regrets--implicitly if not explicitly--for his past indiscretions and misdeeds and seek forgiveness and a new beginning. Damascus received him warmly, putting the past aside. The Hariri trip to Damascus is an admission by the Lebanese leader that Lebanon falls within the Syrian sphere of influence and that relations between the two states are asymmetrical, irrespective of whether or not there is a Syrian military presence in Lebanon. When Syria wished to see a national unity government in Lebanon, this is what happened, with a helping hand from Saudi Arabia.
As for Syrian-Israeli relations, Damascus feels it sits on top of the region while some Israeli leaders are reluctant to leave home for fear of arrest for their war crimes in Gaza. It was just a few years ago when Syria was an international outcast while Israel was pulling the strings in Washington, Europe and some Arab states. Today, Damascus has become a Mecca for western officials while the Israelis are shunned worldwide. True, the Golan has not been recovered and the resumption of the peace process is not in sight, but just as Israel is content with the status quo, so is Syria--until a miracle in the holy land of miracles moves Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu to seriously resume negotiations with Syria over the few issues of contention remaining after previous Israeli governments settled most of them with Damascus.
There were times in the past when Syria was surrounded by a hostile and threatening Turkey to the north, hostile Americans in Iraq to the east threatening to overthrow the Syrian regime, and Israel in occupied Golan to the south, always a threat. Now, Damascus has turned Turkey from an adversary into a partner and turned their relationship--along with Iran, the other major non-Arab regional power--into an apparent tripartite alliance.
This is not a substitute for the traditional Arab tripartite alliance of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but rather compensation for the temporary loss of Syria's membership in the Arab alliance. One hopes the recent Syrian-Saudi rapprochement will be a step toward Arab-Arab reconciliation and Syria's return to the fold. Furthermore, the development of close Syrian-Turkish ties is designed to counterbalance close Syrian-Iranian ties. The views of Damascus and Tehran diverge on two major issues, the future of Iraq and the Arab-Israel peace process, while Syrian-Turkish views on these two issues converge.
To the east, the Americans in Iraq know that the regime in Damascus is there to stay; they need it for stability in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, as well as for their eventual withdrawal. To the south, Israel seems content to maintain the status quo on the Golan while it deals with its own domestic divisions and with the regional and international problems caused by its intransigence and follies.
The Syrian leadership could not have asked for more from the year 2024.- Published 7/1/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org
Elias Samo is a professor of international relations at American and Syrian universities.