The Obama Administration’s decision to refer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the International Criminal Court for alleged human-rights abuses suggests that U.S. policy toward his government is finally shifting. The Damascus regime’s radical violence against its own people seems to have disabused the White House of the notion that the Syrian president is a reform-minded and Westernized Arab leader with whom they can do business. With the death toll mounting and thousands of Syrian refugees crossing the border into Turkey for fear of reprisals from Assad’s security forces, the White House finally seems to have concluded that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding, one for which Assad, his brother Maher, and their clique are responsible.
For more than 20 years—through both Republican and Democratic administrations—bolstering the Assad regime and securing a peace deal with Israel have been important goals of both American and Israeli policy. In the decades-old fantasy that Washington policymakers now appear to be abandoning, Bashar, like his father Hafez before him, was seen as a pragmatist who would forgo his alliance with Iran and Hezbollah in exchange for Israel returning the Golan Heights. So what if Israel was giving up a strategic plateau that the Syrians could use to rain down fire on the villages of the northern Galillee as they had before 1967, went the thinking—there was going to be peace with Syria.
Unlike the Palestinian track of Middle East peace negotiation—which was beset by competing factions and the meddling of Arab neighbors—the Syrian track, managed by one Arab strongman who can make and enforce decisions, was seen as the easy peace. Israelis would finally get to have hummus in Damascus! Negotiations advanced far, under both Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli leaders.
But over the last three months, the premises on which this joint American-Israeli policy were based have been shown to be insane. Assad’s actions—the torture, mutilation, and murder of teenagers, using tanks and artillery to lay siege to towns, and now the use of helicopter gunships against unarmed civilians—are a public repudiation of every one of the premises of what has been the dominant school of thought in Israel-Syria relations. And yet almost no one has said anything about these ideas being wrong—a silence that means that regardless of who ends up ruling Syria, the Golan is going to be on the table again, and American and Israeli officials are going to be pushing Israel to make a peace deal with Damascus.
Among the few pundits who have admitted they were wrong is Israeli columnist Sever Plocker of Yediot Ahronoth. Long a believer that “Israel can achieve peace with Assad’s regime in exchange for willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights,” as he wrote in April, Plocker now admits he was mistaken. His error, he says, was that he “did not take into account the Damascus regime’s tyrannical character.”
Plocker’s confession is heartfelt, but he’s still wrong. Who did he think was responsible for killing tens of thousands of Syrians at Hama in 1982 if not then-President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father? Plocker could not see the nature of the regime because he was afflicted with the same vanity that has corrupted Israeli and American policymakers who have sought for decades to arrange for the lamb to lie down with the lion, and be crowned as peacemakers: an obsession with peace, which blinded them to the character of a regime that murders its own citizens with conscience. He is still wrong because he thinks the problem is simply that Israel should not make peace with such a regime, when the reality is that peace is not in Israel’s power to make. Jerusalem cannot make a deal because the Syrians are incapable of cutting such a deal. The reasons for this are strategic, historical, and existential.
The strategic reasons have been obvious for years, even as many U.S. and Israeli officials have chosen to ignore them. It is only Damascus’ proxy war with Israel, through its alliance with Iran and support for Hezbollah, that has earned this state sponsor of terror the prestige that U.S. engagement has afforded this mid-sized Arab state with very limited natural resources. The regime’s self-image requires it, as Assad said in a speech Monday, to demand respect according to its historical size, not its geographical size. For U.S. diplomats, a peace deal means that they get to take Syria off their to-do list and move on to other problems. But for Assad it means that he has cashed in the only chips he had and is no longer able to project regional or international power.
Some argue that knocking Syria down to size would leave it resembling something like Jordan: a second-tier Arab power without oil. The difference is that unlike Jordan’s Sunni Hashemite royalty, Syria’s ruling family is drawn from its Alawite minority, and it is received wisdom in the region that minority regimes can’t cut a deal with Israel. Only the Sunnis, the regional majority, have the final say over such major decisions in the Middle East.
For centuries, the Sunnis have had it in for the Alawites, whom they consider heretics. Prior to Syrian independence, a group of Alawite notables petitioned the French mandate authorities for their own state so that they would not have to live with the Sunnis. “The spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion,” read the letter—one of whose signatories was Suleiman al-Assad, said to be Bashar’s great-grandfather.
Eventually, the Alawite accommodation with their countrymen was to out-Sunni the Sunnis regarding Israel. After Hafez al-Assad lost the Golan to Israel twice, first as defense minister and next as president, he turned to resistance, a trend amplified by his son. While Assad warns that he’d be replaced by the much more dangerous Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist factions should his regime be toppled, the current ruling structure is the exaggerated cartoon version of a radical Sunni regime, which is to say that if Assad falls, there’s nothing worse that will follow.
In fact, some argue that a Sunni regime might represent the best chance for a peace deal, as Israel’s two peace treaties are with Sunni powers: Egypt and Jordan. And yet some analysts seem to have misunderstood the significance of the opposition’s chant, “No Iran, no Hezbollah. We want a Muslim who fears God.” To be sure, the Sunni-majority opposition is against the Shia-led resistance bloc, but not because they favor living in comity with their Jewish neighbors in Israel. It simply means they despise the Shia and their allies, like their own Alawite regime, as well as Israel.
Syria is not a state in the Western sense but rather is an interlocking network of tribal and sectarian systems. At present, the clique around Assad, including the security services and paramilitary forces, represents the most powerful gathering. They have spilled rivers of blood in tribal areas like Daraa not because they do not understand that their murders and mutilations have incurred blood debts against them that will last generations, but to show that they are powerful enough not to care. In other words, any peace treaty signed by Syria’s ruler would not be between states, but between confessional sects and tribes. The Alawites can’t cut a deal with the Jews, because they don’t have a deal with the Sunnis.
The Assad regime is the culmination of many hundreds of years of intra-Arab civil war. Before Syria’s ruling establishment is capable of making peace with Israel, it will have to preside over a peace process between Syrians themselves. And before that can happen, Syrians are going to have to get tired of shedding each other’s blood. That’s some way off yet. In the meantime, there’s no point in leading the Israelis to slaughter as well.