Israel and Syria – can we square the circle?

Syria has traditionally prided itself as the ‘’heart of Arabism’’, the championOf the Pan-Arab ideology and consequently as the Arab country most dedicated to Pursue the anti-Zionist struggle. Syria, according to a widely-held notion there, was the one Arab country most badly affected by So-called ‘’western imperialism machinations’’, as it lost Lebanon in 1920, and large Parts of historic Palestine, from both sides of the Jordan river , which under the Ottoman Empire, were controlled from Damascus.

Hafiz Assad himself declared on 8 March 1974, that Syria had a right to interfere In the Palestinian issue, because Palestine was the Southern part of Greater Syria[and this is a precise quotation!]. The same Hafiz Assad also said in an interview to a Kuwaiti newspaper[Al-Qabas], on 24 January 1987, that the Jews Could not base their current claim to Palestine on the basis of the fact, that they had A State there 2000 years ago!. Clearly, the Syrian dictator had a deep historic senseWhen coming to formulate his policies towards the conflict with Israel, and Syria’s overall role in Middle Eastern politics. He may have inherited this sense from no other than his father, Suleiman Al –Assad , who in 1936, signed a petition to the French Mandatory authorities in Syria, protesting the plan to grant independence To a Sunni-controlled Syria, which will then deal harshly with its Alawite minority. The old Assad specifically related to Palestine and positively described Zionist aspirations there. While Hafiz Assad hailed the memory of his father , as is customary in such a traditional/clannish society as Syria , this part of his father’s legacy was doomed to oblivion…

What could not be ignored by Hafiz Assad was the fact, that even though the regime which he established in Syria was much more stable than any other previous Government in a country , once considered to be ungovernable , it was still highly illegitimate, resented by the majority Sunni-Arab population.

The uprising starting in March 2011 , soon developing into a full-scale , bloody Civil war , put an end to the idea that brute force alone can subdue the Sunnis of Syria and enable a coalition of minorities, led by the Alawites, to control them. And the truth is, that the Assad regime, though considering itself to be the most trusted Guardian of Arab national interests, was an Alawite regime, which took a traditionally oppressed community to a position of internal dominance, and pursued communal interests also in its foreign, regional policy, while using the Ba’ath party pan-Arab ideology as a cover.

This is where Israel comes to the picture. While traditionally the relationships between the two countrieshave been expressed in vitriolic rhetoric over the past 4 decades since the end of the 1973 war, in reality they were governed by a meeting of interests , and the main one of whom, was Syria’s fear that a war with Israel would precipitate the downfall of the regime based on a minority sect, and so, the border between the two countries was the most peaceful of Israel’s borders. However, there was a fly in the ointment and this was Syria’s persistent reluctance to move this state of affairs from a no war reality to a formal peace situation, based on a binding peace treaty.From 1991 , multiple rounds of negotiations took place between Syria and Israel, revolving around the entire gamut of problems separating the two countries. From a Syrian perspective, there were always two main reasons explaining the failure to conclude a peace treaty. They both had to do with the fact that the regime was indeed minority -oriented and illegitimate. Both father and son, Hafiz and Bashar Assad , could get the entire Golan Heights, or ‘’only’’, 99.9% of it, but they declined, because they were afraid that any peace with Israel would be taken in Syria to be an Alawite- Jewish agreement, a betrayal of the mostly-Sunni Syrian national interests. Then there was Another reason. The strategic Iranian-Syrian alliance, a Shi’ite-Alawite anti-SunniAxis, which seems to pay handsome dividends now to the besieged Syrian regime, whose only allies are Iran, Iraq, Hizballah, in short the Shi’ites of the Middle East, fighting to prevent a Sunni take-over in Damascus. Bashar Assad was faced with a simple choice by Israel; Tehran or the Golan Heights. He chose Tehran, and with it We can more fully evaluate Israel’s current dilemma with regard to Syria.

His regime may cling to power for some more months, perhaps a year or so, but He will not be able to regain full control over Syria as was previously the case. A lot of Syria’s territory will be ruled by Sunni fundamentalists, sworn enemies of Israel, who will try to settle scores with the Sh’iite axis, but will not refrain from trying to attack Israel from the Syrian Golan. In fact, they already started doing it.

Bashar Assad himself, while still in Damascus is just a shadow of his old self, and is now, more than ever , an hostage of the Iranians and their allies, who may very well exact an Israeli price from him, by pressuring him to supply them with his cachet Of chemical weapons and ground-to ground Tishrin missiles which cover most of Israel’s territory. Perhaps even demanding and getting the green light to use themselves the Syrian Golan as a new front against Israel. Israel on record, in word and action, is committed to prevent these two scenarios from unfolding, but it lacks the ability to put effective pressure on the Syrian dictator. We cannot prop up his regime on the one hand, and more attacks on him on the other hand, will precipitate his final collapse, and with it the bad scenario of complete chaos and transfer of arms to the Iranians and their allies. In fact, Israel is faced with bad and worse options.

What is needed is some majic, squaring of the circle, convincing Assad peacefully that he should not do what we do not want him to do, while he so overwhelmingly depends on the Iranians who tell him to do the opposite, but that is something easier said than done. In real terms, Israel has to understand that we deal now with another Bashar Assad, not the one we came to know until 2011.The peaceful Golan border may very soon become another victim of the Middle East turmoil, once called ‘’the Arab Spring’’.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina