Talks With Syria, Yes - but Not Now

Itamar Rabinovich
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Itamar Rabinovich

Since Syria's military intervention in the Lebanese civil war of March 1976, a triangular relationship has replaced the bilateral ties that existed previously between Israel and Lebanon, and between Israel and Syria. The nature of this three-way relationship has undergone changes during the years, and the present war in Lebanon is to a large extent the outcome of one of them: the weakening of Syria and the effort to turn Lebanon into an Iranian frontline base.

The second Lebanon war and the manner in which it has developed give this triangle a renewed significance. In recent days, an increasing number of voices are being heard in Washington and other world capitals, calling for the inclusion of Syria in every diplomatic solution concerning the current crisis. This makes Damascus relevant and important in a Lebanese context, in ways that had all but disappeared a year ago.

Three-way equation

The equation of Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese relations has undergone three main phases:

1976-1991: In March 1976 the Syrian army intervened in the Lebanese civil war, with Israel's tacit consent. The United States, Israel and Syria had a mutual interest in preventing the victory of the Palestinian-left coalition, and in diffusing the danger of a Syrian-Israeli war.

Early in the 1980s this situation changed. The decision by the Begin-Sharon government to enter the Peace for Galilee war also reflected the desire to push Syria out of Lebanon, and the unrealistic ambition to set up a pro-Israeli regime there. When the dust settled in 1984 Syria managed to thwart both Israel and the United States, and to reestablish its domination of Lebanon. Syria kept a quiet border in the Golan Heights and chose to conduct its conflict with Israel by aiding the Palestinian resistance organizations and Hezbollah.

1991-2000: In this decade a peace process between Israel and Syria has taken place. The Clinton Administration and four Israeli prime ministers (Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak) gave priority to the "Syrian option" over the "Palestinian option" - and each one, in turn, failed. As long as negotiations with Syria have been taking place, Israel has claimed that the fundamental solution to the South Lebanon problem will be found in an agreement with Syria. This policy included a tacit acceptance of Syrian hegemony vis-a-vis Lebanon. Israel and the United States were also willing to accept a "double game" with Syria involving its continuing aid to Hezbollah and Palestinian terror organizations while it was negotiating with Israel.

Hafez Assad's approach was that efficient diplomacy must rely on force, and that one doesn't forfeit such leverage before an agreement has been accomplished. This approach was outrageous, but American and Israeli governments agreed to it, while gnashing their teeth. Syria did have a central role in creating the accord that ended Operation Accountability (1993) and Operation Grapes of Wrath (1996), which Israel instigated in reaction to Hezbollah attacks and Katyusha firings.

This phase ended with the final collapse of Syrian-Israeli negotiations in a summit between Clinton and Assad in Geneva in March 2000. Ehud Barak, prime minister at the time, made a resolution and shortly afterward carried out an independent withdrawal from Lebanon, and in so doing severed the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Syrian peace process and the South Lebanon issue in that decade.

2000-2006: These years were a time of profound changes in rapid succession. Syria, led by Bashar Assad, has weakened from within and without. Its relationship with the United States was hurt primarily as result of the double game that Assad, Jr. tried playing on the Iraqi issue. Through that, he provoked the personal animosity of George Bush and found another enemy in his administration. Lebanon became the second central issue in the U.S.-Syria relationship. In the ideological worldview of the Bush Administration, Lebanon became a key element in its campaign of democratization in the Middle East.

The expulsion of the Syrian army from Lebanon is seen as a crucial step in the rebuilding of Lebanon and its democracy. The involvement of the Assad regime in the assassination of Rafik Hariri provided the United States and its allies with a pretext for removing the Syrian army from Lebanon.

At a certain point toward the end of 2005, it seemed that American and international pressure might topple the Assad regime, but it turned out that the Iraq situation had been depleting most of the United States' diplomatic capacity. Assad realized that American pressure on Syria had no real "teeth."

The Bush Administration's animosity toward Syria has strengthened another tendency: toward removing the Syrian-Israeli peace process from the Middle East diplomatic agenda. Prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert gave the Palestinian issue exclusivity, making it very clear that they have no interest in a renewal of negotiations with Syria. Syria occasionally signaled its desire to renew talks, if only as a move to extract itself from diplomatic isolation and to alleviate American pressure. In the absence of a diplomatic option, Syria returned to the familiar pattern of increasing aid to Palestinian resistance and terror organizations and to Hezbollah.

The message to Israel has become clear: Syria will not accept the loss of the Golan, and in the absence of a military or diplomatic option, it will continue its struggle with Israel via an indirect route.

Syrian assistance to Hezbollah has changed as well. Syria lost a major card in Lebanon - its military presence. Its weakening under the rule of Bashar made it a junior partner in its alliance with Iran. This alliance was established in 1979 and one of its key elements has been cooperation in Lebanon. Hafez Assad's Syria provided the ayatollahs' regime with comfortable access to the Shiite population in Lebanon, and allowed it to achieve the sole success of the "Revolution Export" doctrine.

But while Assad, Sr. knew to draw the lines on Iranian influence in Lebanon, his son has failed to maintain control in this realm. In recent years the junior-senior partner relationship has further changed into one that is more reminiscent of a patron-client relationship.

Fear of entanglement

Since the present war has broken out with Lebanon, Syria has been motivated first and foremost by the desire to avoid entanglement in the fighting. Syria is aware of the power balance existing between it and Israel. It continues to transport supplies to Hezbollah, but avoids any direct involvement in the war. Damascus is also aware of the fact that the United States is not taking it into consideration when planning the processes that are designed to ultimately bring about a cease-fire and more stable settlement in Lebanon, or at least in its southern part. But Syria does not display concern over this.

Syria's foreign minister, Walid Mualem, in effect served as ambassador to Washington in the previous decade. He hears the voices coming from Washington which predict that the Bush Administration will have to get over its animosity toward Assad, to disregard the long list of offenses perpetrated by Damascus and to open a dialogue with it, if it wishes to reach an effective settlement in Lebanon. The chance of a direct dialogue with Iran is slim, but the temptation to talk with an element that has been presenting itself over months as a possible mediator with Iran might grow stronger.

There isn't necessarily any immediate move in the offing. A solution to end the fighting without Iranian and Syrian involvement could certainly be achieved. Iran and Syria might decide that in order to stop the pounding of Hezbollah, they will avoid sabotaging a formula that will answer Israel's minimal requirements - release of the hostages, removal of Hezbollah forces from the proximity of the border, the deployment of a multinational force and the declaration of Lebanon's sovereignty over the entire country.

Such a formula will allow for the ending of the war, but will not uproot the fundamental problem. Iran, Syria and their Lebanese partners could start gnawing away at it shortly after the fighting is done.

The government of Lebanon and the Lebanese army are not a stable basis for the rebuilding of their state. Iran will not give up its frontline base in Lebanon and Damascus might just wait a few weeks for an American or European offer to help in the long-term establishment of an agreement in Lebanon. Then Damascus could reintroduce the price it demands in return: renewal of Syrian-U.S. talks and the reinstatement of the Golan Heights issue on the political-diplomatic agenda of the Middle East.

Beyond these immediate questions stands a more profound issue. Everyone understands that the present war is a war by proxy, and that beyond Hezbollah and Syria stands Iran. Iran casts a tall shadow over the Middle East even before it has achieved full nuclear power.

The Arab countries understand this well and this is what spurs their quiet support of attempts to weaken Hezbollah.

When the fighting settles down the question that will take center stage will be how Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan plan to confront the Iranian ambition of supremacy in the region. The issue of the Golan Heights and Syria's wish to have its special status in Lebanon acknowledged again will come up. This is a considerable price-tag as far as Washington and Israel are concerned. Israel will find it hard to accept any concession that will be seen as diminishing the war's achievements. Thus, the diplomatic process with Syria must be considered as a matter for a later time, and not as a step in ending the present war.

Itamar Rabinovich is the president of the Tel Aviv University, and served in the mid 1990s as Israel's ambassador to the U.S. and head of the delegation that negotiated with Syria.