Bashar al-Assad has maintained his country’s key position in Mideast politics by drawing out the peace process and turning it into warfare by other means
Of course, Damascus still boasts about its status as the “beating heart of Arabism” and the “citadel of steadfastness and rejectionism” against Western colonialism. Furthermore, it insists in its interaction with Western states that they publicly acknowledge that Syria is a “central” player that is “key” to solving the region’s problems. In so doing, Syria acquires free leverage. It then uses this dance to secure clout over regional adversaries and to enhance the image of a first-tier actor.
However, Syria doesn’t possess any intrinsic sources of power that would allow it to project much influence over its Arab rivals. And so, in order to punch above its weight, the Assad regime has relied on sponsorship of terror groups of all stripes, as well as its relationship with Iran.
One senior Syrian official explained it in no uncertain terms in an interview with the International Crisis Group in January 2009: “They [the Unites States] talk to us when it is a question of cutting ties with Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah. But if we do, will they carry on speaking to us?”
It is this dynamic that makes a mockery of the notion that Syria should be “brought back into the Arab fold.” Whatever the nature of this “fold”—and there never was “one” fold, but competing alignments—what is sure is that Syria never was part of it. In reviewing the history of regional blocs, from the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact in the 1950s to the present, Syria was never part of a pro-United States strategic architecture. Syria’s perennial quest for primacy among the Arabs has led to adversarial relations with all its Arab neighbors: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinians, and Saudi Arabia.
Fouad Ajami once recalled an old quote by the Lebanese Druze chieftain Kamal Jumblatt that captured an essential truth about the difference between Egypt and Syria. “Whoever rules Egypt is a pharaoh,” Jumblatt said. “And whoever rules Damascus is a wali, a provincial governor.” Syria, Ajami wrote, “was born ‘weak and beleaguered’ and remained a brittle, uncertain state, oscillating between claims of grandeur and a feeling of being persecuted by mightier powers.”
Syria neither wants nor can it replicate Anwar Sadat’s peace with Israel because it would mean that the grandiose house of illusions constructed by the Assad family would collapse, revealing the weak country behind the rhetoric. For Syria to accept to be “another Jordan” is to acknowledge its real, feeble weight. The idea of integrating Syria into a pro-American regional order through the peace process misunderstands fundamental Syrian interests, as it expects Syria to relinquish the only assets that make it relevant in regional politics.
Ironically, Assad’s own statements on “peace” with Israel should have made quite clear that Syria has no intention of severing ties with its old friends, regardless of the status of the Golan Heights. Assad has created room for future maneuver by introducing a distinction between “peace” (which includes a maximalist view of restoration of “Palestinian rights”) and a “peace treaty” (which he called a mere “piece of paper you sign. This does not mean trade and normal relations, or borders, or otherwise”), telling The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh: “If they say you can have the entire Golan back, we will have a peace treaty. But they cannot expect me to give them the peace they expect.”
In his interview with La Repubblica, Assad downgraded that term even further, calling it a “truce”: “Many in the West do not understand the difference. If Israel is ready to return the Golan, we cannot say no to a peace treaty. But only a comprehensive solution guarantees true peace. An agreement limited to Syria and Israel will leave unresolved the question of Palestine. More than a peace, it will be a truce. In fact, with five million Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Arab world, tensions would remain high.”
In a March 27 interview with Charlie Rose, Assad explained what he means by this “peace treaty”: “There is [a] big difference between talking about [a] peace treaty and peace. Peace treaty is like a permanent ceasefire. There’s no war, maybe you have [an] embassy, but you actually won’t have trade, you won’t have normal relations because people will not be sympathetic to this relation as long as they are sympathetic with the Palestinians: half a million who live in Syria and half a million in Lebanon and another few millions in other Arab countries.”
In other words, Assad says he would be generous to accept Israeli territorial concessions on his terms, but he cannot be expected to actually offer anything of value in return. In his interview with Hersh, Bashar also addressed the issue of his relationship with Iran and ceasing support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. He told the journalist that relations with Iran were “not part of the peace process. This peace is about peace between Syria and Israel.” Assad repeated this basic position to La Repubblica: “Iran has nothing to do with my negotiations.” As such, he said to Hersh that Israel and the United States should not “waste time talking about who is going to send arms to Hezbollah or Hamas. Whenever you have resistance in the region, they will have armaments somehow. It is very simple.”
The picture of peace that Assad draws is one that is identical to the current status quo, except for the fact that Syria would also get the Golan Heights back on its terms and presumably enjoy various trade advantages and economic carrots from the West. Bashar even has a catchy line to describe it: “peace and resistance form a single axis.” This is often misinterpreted as meaning that Assad would continue to support “resistance” until “peace” is achieved. What he actually means, as is evident from his own statements, is that “resistance” will continue regardless of a peace treaty.
Bashar Assad has made it clear that he sees the peace process as warfare by other means. In this, he is merely following his father’s footsteps. When the United States made its peace-processing push in 1990, it figured that permitting Syria to take charge of Lebanon would allow for integrating the Syrians in the peace effort, in order to once and for all achieve a “comprehensive” peace. Hafez Assad gladly pocketed what turned out to be a full decade of peace negotiations, including countless (often humiliating) trips by U.S. secretaries of state to Damascus (where they would at times be made to wait for hours before being granted audience) and reciprocal invitations of Syrian officials to Washington.
Meanwhile, Assad made good use of his control of Lebanon to solidify his alliance with Iran. A central component of that alliance was to guarantee that Hezbollah, Iran’s surrogate, would have free rein in southern Lebanon to continue its war against Israel.
This old duplicitous policy exposes the naïve and narrow thinking of those who argue that peace talks or a peace treaty with Syria would “isolate” Iran and its tentacles, like Hezbollah.
Amitai Etzioni put his finger on the problem in an article in the National Interest last year:
Syria would hardly be the first nation to find it beneficial to promise the moon and the stars in exchange for getting back a major piece of much coveted territory and being removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and its associated sanctions—while making light of its obligations. In this case, that means still seeking to curry favor with Iran, say, by not fully closing its borders.
That’s precisely what Assad, in effect, told Hersh: that he intends to continue arming Hezbollah, regardless. Another way that statement could be read is that Assad is incapable of affecting the armament of Hezbollah, which would render an agreement with him utterly without value.
But over-inflating Syria’s actual importance is a chronic problem in policy circles. Witness, for instance, this recent bit of conventional wisdom from Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel:
Today, nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan, as four other Israeli prime ministers have, in exchange for peace with Syria, which serves as the conduit for Tehran’s troublemaking in the Arab-Israeli arena.
As Etzioni noted in his article, “The notion that Iran would be ‘isolated’ even if Syria became Israel’s best friend is—to put it mildly—a fantasy difficult to fathom.” Major world players, like China, Russia, and India, all have interests with Iran, as we all know from the floundering U.S. effort at marshaling support for sanctions. As Etzioni concluded, “there is no reason that whatever happens to or with Syria will affect these interests and lineups.”
The delusion persists, nevertheless. On the one hand, there’s denial. Believers are so confident that Syria’s alliance with the Iranian axis is so “unnatural” that the task of U.S. diplomacy has to be to show Assad that his “real interests” lie with the United States. This, in fact, is what the nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in March.
On the other hand, there’s a redefining of defeat as victory. Advocates now argue that to push for a Syrian realignment is simply not realistic. All we should hope for is to have Syria “balance” its unsavory alliances with deepening ties to constructive players, such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia. And so, as Aaron David Miller put it, “The White House would have to be patient. Syria won’t walk away from a 30-year relationship with Iran; weaning the Syrians from Iran would have to occur gradually.” In other words, Syria would continue to have it both ways.
The Syrians have become used to being afforded such exceptionalism. Assad made a revealing remark to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the latest Arab Summit in Libya, telling him “the price of resistance is not higher than the price of peace.” While advocates continue to bring up the Sadat model, they continue to make exceptions for Assad that weren’t afforded to the late Egyptian president. As long as Assad is afforded such exceptionalism, he will continue to push his logic with a sense of impunity.
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