Across the Bay

Friday, April 11, 2008

Facts and Myths of the Syrian-Israeli Talks

Michael Young's latest is worth a read. Much of his points, puncturing many a trendy idiocy, have been raised here in the past:

[T]he rationale for Syrian-Israeli peace talks rests on a bed of myths. Syria's regime may be secular, but it has built long-term alliances mainly with Islamist regimes and groups, such as Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas. When possible, as in the case of Fatah al-Islam, Syria has created or overseen militant Islamist groups, while Al-Qaeda operatives caught in Iraq will routinely describe their training and passage through Syria, usually via networks linked to the country's intelligence services. Given all this, the Assad regime's "secularism" seems irrelevant.

What about Syria's purported willingness to break off from Iran? Syrian officials have repeatedly affirmed that Iran is more than an ally; it is a strategic partner. However, optimists on Syrian-Israeli negotiations write this off as a Syrian bargaining step, a case of upping the ante before an eventual divorce from Tehran. In fact nothing suggests Syria is lying. Assad is wagering heavily that Iran will emerge as the regional superpower, which is precisely why he has been so willing to risk his Arab relationships lately in Tehran's favor. Logic, too, indicates a Syrian-Iranian split is not in the cards. Its close ties with Iran are what make Syria sought-after. If those ties disappear, Syria's sway would markedly decline.

Which brings us to the third issue: control over Hizbullah. A sudden downgrading of the Syrian-Iranian relationship would indeed leave Damascus with little regional sway, except if one thing happens: Syria returns its soldiers to Lebanon, taking the clock back to where it was before 2005. Israel would have no problems with this, and was never enthusiastic about the so-called Cedar Revolution. The only thing is, the Israelis forget that Hizbullah built up its vast weapons arsenal under Syria's approving eye. Far from imposing its writ on Hizbullah in order to eventually disarm the group, Syria has every incentive to keep the Hizbullah threat alive as leverage so that it remains indispensable.

That leads us to an obvious but seldom considered truth. Syria will not engage in serious negotiations with Israel unless it first manages to reimpose its hegemony in Lebanon. Without Lebanon in hand, Damascus has no real cards to play when haggling with the Israeli government, which has already demanded as a precondition for peace talks that Syria end its affiliation with Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah.
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So what we are bound to see in the coming months, and probably beyond, is the foreplay of Syrian-Israeli contacts, without the real thing.
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Israel has no impetus to give up the Golan without assurances that Syria will make major concessions in return; and the Syrians will not make major concessions before Israel assures them that it will hand back all of the Golan and look the other way on, even assist, a Syrian restoration in Lebanon.

I'll have more on this issue as soon as I'm done with a backlog of work.