Don't Push Assad Into a Corner

Itamar Rabinovich
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Itamar Rabinovich

The current relationship between Israel and Syria is reminiscent of the relationship between Israel and Egypt in 1971-1973 - and is cause for concern. At that time, Anwar Sadat, the new president of Egypt who suffered from low esteem, expressed his willingness to establish peaceful relations with Israel (a startling move for those days), but all the while he prepared for war and even warned, more than once, that the coming year would be "the decision year." The next installment in the developments is something we all remember well.

Bashar Assad is also offering to talk peace while threatening war. He expressed his desire to renew negotiations with Israel even before the Second Lebanon War, whereas his threats to begin a war and his preparations for it have been reinforced and have accelerated in the past year.

Up until a few months ago, Israel turned down Assad's initiatives. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected them several times, sometimes on his own cognizance and sometimes with the explanation (not necessarily spelled out and not necessarily out of his own mouth) that the United States is opposed to Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

The fact is that senior spokesmen in President George Bush's administration have not concealed their negative attitude toward renewing the talks, but they were careful not to speak openly and officially, in order not to be portrayed as dictating Israel's position to it on such a matter. The Bush administration has been harboring hostility toward Assad and his regime for several years; as far as the U.S. is concerned, even beginning public negotiations between Syria and Israel will reward the Syrian ruler with a prize he does not deserve.

There are several reasons why Bush and his people are angry at Assad, primarily his logistical assistance to the Sunni rebellion against the U.S. and its forces in Iraq, and Syrian policy in Lebanon: the desire to maintain Syrian hegemony, the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the attempt to bring down the government of Fouad Siniora, which for the Bush administration was its primary success in exporting democracy to the Middle East.

The Syrian-Iranian alliance, the relations with Hezbollah and the hosting and nurturing of Palestinian terror organizations in Damascus have also been chalked up against Syria. In 2005 it looked as though Bush was trying to bring down Assad, but at the last moment he avoided crossing the line. Apparently he was afraid that if Assad was deposed he would be succeeded by a regime connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. And thus the attempt to bring down Assad was replaced by the attempt to isolate him. In this connection, Bush considered Israeli-Syrian negotiations a step that would help Assad to extract himself from isolation and to acquire international legitimacy. Moreover, many people in Washington (and in Jerusalem) believe Assad does not intend to reach a peace agreement with Israel, and he is interested only in conducting "negotiations for the sake of negotiations."

Olmert's reservations about Assad's initiatives stemmed from different considerations. He undoubtedly took into account the stance of the Bush administration and shared its doubts, but his main considerations were different. Olmert, we should recall, was elected as the heir and successor to Ariel Sharon, and Sharon favored the promotion of the Palestinian issue and objected to withdrawal from the Golan, which is part of any arrangement with Syria. It is true that Olmert's "convergence plan" was shelved shortly after his election, and it's true that since the Second Lebanon War, he has been largely preoccupied with political survival, which was also the reason for his reservations about even beginning negotiations with Syria. In addition, it was clear to Olmert that he lacked the political power to implement an arrangement with Syria, and the very opening of negotiations would arouse the aggressive Golan lobby against him as well.

The Second Lebanon War had a mixed effect on these considerations. It increased the anger at Syria, but also the fear of deterioration into another war in the North, whether due to developments in Lebanon or a Syrian initiative.

Syria has in fact recently been investing substantial efforts in improving its military capability. During the 1990s, the Syrian army deteriorated for two main reasons: the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria's patron and arms supplier in the previous decades, and the cessation of financial aid by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which in the past had participated in funding Syria's major weapons transactions. Syria recognized its military inferiority to Israel, and tried to build a deterrence capability based on two weapons systems: Scud missiles, some of them with chemical warheads, which are dug in and protected in its territory, and missiles supplied to Hezbollah.

This situation changed because of Russia's willingness to provide Syria with modern weapons systems and Iran's willingness to fund the acquisition deals. When this process is completed we can expect to confront both new Syrian capabilities and renewed self-confidence. There is great interest in the change that has taken place in recent weeks in the declared positions of Washington and Jerusalem, as well as Assad's statements regarding negotiations with Israel, during his swearing-in for a second term.

Washington has recently made it clear, first in quiet talks with Israel and afterward in statements by Bush during Olmert's visit to the U.S., that it is not opposed to talks between Israel and Syria, although it does not want to be a party or a partner to such a step. On the one hand, the Bush administration is continuing to demonstrate reservations about such negotiations, albeit more delicately, and is sending Assad a message: If you see that as a route leading to a renewal of talks with Washington, you are mistaken. On the other hand, the U.S. administration is not exposed to criticism for undermining the possibility of an improvement in relations between Israel and Syria.

Olmert for his part is no longer rejecting the idea of negotiations with Syria out of hand - on the contrary: He spoke publicly about his attempts to establish a direct and clandestine channel via a third party. The change in his position is also easy to explain. In light of the danger of a deterioration into war with Syria in the coming years, why should he be portrayed as the one who is rejecting Syrian proposals for rapprochement? It is better to propose clandestine talks and to try to find out if there is anything to talk about, and whether it is possible to combine an Israeli-Syrian agreement into a more comprehensive package that will also include Damascus' relationship with Tehran and Hezbollah.

But while Washington and Jerusalem are softening their position (at least their public one), Assad has toughened his own. In a speech he delivered at his swearing-in ceremony, he spoke of the attempt to renew negotiations by means of a third party (perhaps Turkey), but presented tough opening conditions:

1. Public and indirect talks ("closeness talks" through a mediator).

2. A guarantee of Israeli withdrawal as a pre-condition to beginning negotiations (Assad mentioned the "pledge" of the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as an example, without explaining that this "pledge" and similar ones given by his successors did not include an element of "guarantee").

This stance means a step back. During the 1990s and in 2000, Syria and Israel held direct and clandestine talks (although almost always with an American representative); the demand for a preliminary guarantee of full withdrawal as a condition to entering negotiations was the main reason for the failure of earlier attempts at a Syrian-Israeli agreement.

There are several reasons for this toughening of Syria's position: One is the desire to demonstrate defiance. Since the crisis of 2005, after the assassination of Hariri, Assad's self-confidence has grown. He sees himself as operating from a position of strength (Iranian support, his influence in Lebanon, the influence over Hamas and Islamic Jihad), and if the Bush Administration and the Olmert government are having reservations about negotiations with Syria or are presenting conditions, his natural reaction is to present conditions of his own.

No less important is the desire to react to what Damascus sees as disregard of Syria. Bush's first speech about reviving the Israeli-Arab peace process dealt exclusively with the Palestinian issue. Tony Blair's mission is also focused on the Palestinian issue. Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have several times explained their desire to leave a positive "legacy" or "impression" (in contrast to Iraq) in the form of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

This goal is not acceptable to Assad and his regime, and their initial and characteristic reaction is a toughening of positions. Afterward, they will consider additional steps, such as activating their Palestinian clients in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank, and their Lebanese partners, in order to "heat up" the arena and make it clear that Syria cannot be left out of the picture. And later on, as the process of empowerment progresses, they may consider more radical options.

What do these things mean for Israel?

The natural tendency of the Olmert government is to prefer the Palestinian track. On this track there is already a format for action, and it is the track preferred by the U.S. and, in truth, by most of the Arab world. The "Arab initiative" and other messages reflect the position of the conservative Sunni Arab states, which want Israel to bring about visible progress vis-a-vis the Palestinians, so that they will be able to cooperate, or at least to coordinate positions, against what they consider the main threat: Iran.

It would be wise and proper for Israel to advance on this track, but it is not in Israel's interest to push Syria into a corner. We must not respond to the toughening of Syria's position by shrugging our shoulders and slamming the door. The answer should be a rejection of the opening condition presented by Assad, and an ongoing indication of our desire to talk directly and clandestinely to find out whether there is a real option for an agreement that will meet Israel's needs and demands.

At the same time, it is essential for Israel to rehabilitate its deterrent capability against Syria, both in substance and image, in order to grant validity to the diplomatic positions it decides to adopt.