An Opportunity for a Syrian-Israeli Peace

Editor’s Choice
6 August 2010

 
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR A SYRIAN-ISRAELI PEACE

 
Professor Alon Ben-Meir
While the world reacts to the recent flair-up of violence along the Lebanon-Israel border, other developments in the area could present an opportunity to advance regional peace if pursued. The recent visit by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Assad of Syria to Lebanon has in effect restored Damascus’ dominance over Lebanon, thereby impacting the internal political dynamic in this fractured country. While Syria is likely to maintain its bilateral relationship with Iran for its own strategic and tactical reasons, the new undeclared understanding between President Assad, King Abdullah and Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon was that Lebanon would remain outside of the Iranian orbit of influence. The message to Tehran was quite clear: Syria – with the backing of the Arab states – will resume its hegemony over Lebanon and both Iran and its proxy Hezbollah must accept this new political reality.

 

This new political configuration in Lebanon also suggests that for the right price Syria would align itself with the Arab world to blunt Iran’s ambitions to become the regional hegemony. The implication is that Syria would be far less likely to come to Tehran’s aid should either Israel or the United States decide to attack its nuclear facilities. Moreover, Syria, out of necessity to keep Lebanon out of such a potential conflict, would limit Hezbollah’s political challenge to the Hariri government and prevent it from engaging Israel, should the scenario of potential hostilities between Israel (and/or the U.S.) with Iran unfold. In this regard, the United States and Israel welcome this new development in Lebanon, as it may change their calculations with regard to an attack on Iran. Even more, the Saudi-Syrian move offers Israel an opportunity to resume peace negotiations with Syria and thereby improve the political atmosphere throughout the region in a dramatic way. It is an opportunity Israel should not squander.

 

An Israeli-Syrian peace accord would have long-term, significant implications on Syria’s ties with Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. Changing Damascus’ strategic interests and the geopolitical condition in the Middle East will require bringing Syria within reach of regaining the Golan Heights and normalizing relations with the U.S. Doing so would have a direct impact on the behavior of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria has served as the linchpin between the three, and by removing or undermining Syria’s logistical and political backing-which will be further cemented by an Israeli-Syrian peace-Hamas and Hezbollah will be critically weakened, and Hamas in particular may be forced rethink its strategy toward Israel. Peace with Syria would effectively change the center of gravity of Syrian politics in the region, which is shaped by Damascus’ strategic interests.

Whereas Israel’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program are not likely to be mitigated by an Israeli-Syrian peace, it will certainly force Tehran to rethink its strategy vis-a-vis Israel. The irony is that while Israel continues to hype up the Iranian nuclear threat, it has lost focus on how to change the regional geopolitical dynamic and weaken Iran’s influence throughout the region. Under any violent scenario between Israel and Iran, with an Israel-Syria accord, Tehran would no longer be able to count on the retaliatory actions by Hamas and Hezbollah because the interests of these two groups would now be at odds with Syria’s strategic interest.

The international opposition to Israel’s continued occupation is growing as the occupation of Arab land and the building of Israeli settlements are seen as the single source of continued regional strife and instability. Linking the occupation of the Golan Heights to national security concerns is viewed as nothing more than a pretext to maintain Israel’s hold of the territory-even Israel’s allies, including the United States, no longer buy into the linkage between this territory and national security. The fact that the Israeli government is ideologically polarized offers no excuse for policies that cannot be sustained in the long-term and which in fact could lead to renewed violence. If Israel is truly focused on national security, then it must relinquish the Golan Heights. Only normal relations with Syria and effective security mechanisms in place can offer Israel ultimate security on its northern border.

The rift between Turkey and Israel over Israel’s incursion into Gaza and the tragic flotilla incident has strained their bilateral relations. As such, Israel has refused that Turkey renew its role as a mediator between Israel and Syria. However, there have already been measures taken to soften the rhetoric and tension between Israel and Turkey. These steps should be expanded with the goal of renewing trust between these two historic allies. Turkish mediators proved that they were able to achieve progress in the last round of negotiations between Israel and Syria, which ultimately collapsed with the launching of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. It is the interest of both Israel and Turkey that such trust – and progress on the Syrian track – be advanced. Turkey seeks Israeli-Syrian peace not merely for self-aggrandizement. For Turkey, a regional peace would have a tremendous effect on its own national security and economic development, just as it would for Israel’s. The fact that Syria chose a negotiating venue through Turkey to regain the Golan should not be taken by Israel as a sign that it can indefinitely maintain the status quo without serious consequences. Although Syria may not be in a position to regain the Golan by force, it has shown tremendous capacity to deny Israel peace with Lebanon and the Palestinians, and can continue to do so for as long as Israel occupies the Golan.
President Bashar al-Assad, like his father, has indicated that advancing efforts to pursue peace with Israel is a strategic option. He has expressed a desire to conclude a deal in exchange for the Golan Heights and a healthy relationship with the U.S. In response, Israel must choose between territory and real security; as long as Syria has territorial claims against Israel, Israel will never be secure on its northern border. Israel cannot make the claim that it seeks peace but then fail to seize the opportunity when one is presented. If Syria offers peace, normalization of relations, meets Israel’s legitimate security concerns and Israel still refuses, the Golan will continue to serve as a national liability and a source of instability and violence.
 
Copyright:  Alon Ben-Meir  5 Aug 10
www.alonben-meir.com
 

 
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Syrian-Lebanese Relations: End of the Ice Age

For internal circulation

22 Feb 10

By Birgit Kaspar

Five years after the assassination of the Lebanese ex-prime minister al-Hariri, relations between Syria and Lebanon have improved: initial highly symbolic visits are taking place, and ambassadors have been exchanged. Birgit Kaspar has the details from Beirut.

The huge car bomb that killed the Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafik al-Hariri on Valentine’s Day 2005 was audible across the whole of Beirut. Windows shattered, black smoke rising into the blue February sky.

It was a day that changed Lebanon, but not in the way many thought. “Back then we thought it was the beginning of a new Lebanon, an end to political murders and so on,” says Michael Young, the Lebanese author of a book on the post-Hariri era.

That was not the case, however. The series of attacks continued and Lebanon experienced an endurance test of domestic policy that was to last for years. Only now is stability beginning to return.

Consequences of the “Cedar Revolution”

Many Lebanese suspected the Syrian leadership of being behind Hariri’s murder. Damascus rejects these accusations. “Syrians out!” a popular protest movement demanded, later referred to as the “cedar revolution”.

With strong Western support, Syria was forced to make a humiliating withdrawal in April 2005, following almost 30 years in Lebanon. The international community systematically isolated Syria, and under these circumstances the United Nations installed an investigation commission on the tribunal Hariri murder, which has now been transferred to a special tribunal based in Den Haag.

Five years on from the assassination, however, the Hariri tribunal has not yet named or arrested a single suspect; an indictment is not expected in the near future. Michael Young draws the conclusion that the special court does not have enough evidence against Syria.

“Not because I believe Damascus is innocent; on the contrary. But the investigations on the Syrian front have not been adequately run in some cases,” Young criticises. He leaves it open as to whether out of incompetence or political motivation. Some Lebanese now fear the tribunal could gradually fall into oblivion.

The end of isolation

The fact is, the political climate in the region has changed. Politics played a role in the establishment of the Hariri tribunal from the outset, says Young: “We don’t have a critical mass on the international level for indicting Syria or any other suspect at the moment. I think for many states, the special tribunal is more a headache than anything else.”

The USA and France have abandoned their isolation policy for Syria, having recognised that they cannot set much in motion in the region without Damascus’ cooperation. Following years of extreme tension, the Lebanese have also begun to normalise their relations to Syria.

Last year the two states exchanged ambassadors for the first time. And the new Lebanese prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri’s son Saad, recently paid a highly symbolic visit to the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Karim Makdisi, a political scientist at the American University in Beirut, considered this development inescapable since Syria and Saudi Arabia’s agreement on stabilising Lebanon.

“The Lebanese politicians will always have to dance to the Syrian-Saudi tune,” says Makdisi, whether they like it or not. In addition, he adds, both sides profit from improved relations, provided the diplomatic rules are observed.

Damascus does not want to lose Lebanon and Hezbollah as its trump card in negotiations with Israel and the West. Beirut, in contrast, relies on the only open land border to Syria, still officially being in a state of war with Israel.

New power relations through compromise

For this reason, the MP Marwan Hamadeh, who survived an assassination attempt on his own life in 2004, is reluctant to speak of a return of the Syrians through the back door:

“The Syrians had never really disappeared from Lebanese politics. They withdrew their army bit they still had a permanent influence via their allies. Especially since the Hezbolla-led pro-Syrian minority has had a veto in the cabinet.”

This has been the case since May 2008, after a brief military occupation of West Beirut by Hezbollah settled by the Doha Agreement.

This compromise re-ordered the power relations in the cedar state, forming the foundation for Hariri’s all-party government to this day. The young prime minister is now attempting to manoeuvre between the region’s fronts to create a minimum of stability. For this very reason, he has also accepted an official invitation to Tehran – although no date has been set as yet.

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Qantara.de, Germany   –   19 Feb 10

Syria Must Be A Top Priority

For internal circulation

12 February 2010

By Prof Alon Ben Meir

Recently Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman caused yet another blunder for Israel’s foreign image in a series of hawkish comments and threats toward Syria. Following the diplomatic breech with Turkey by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, Israel has allowed its foreign policy to be poorly misrepresented by ideologues that differ greatly from the majority of Israelis who want peace. As the US finally announced that it is reinstating an ambassador to Syria, Israel needs to consider some gestures to ease the negative attention it has received and start looking to the North to resolve its own disputes with Syria.

Turkey has recently reiterated its interest in resuming its mediating role between Israel and Syria. Israel should embrace the Turkish efforts and commit itself to a negotiated peace agreement with Syria, as the effects of this would reverberate throughout the region, especially as Iran continues to strengthen its ties to proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. Though the recent rift between Turkey and Israel over Israel’s handling of Gaza has put a strain on the countries’ bilateral relations, Turkey remains Israel’s most important strategic ally in the region and is still in the best position to mediate between the two countries. The Israeli concerns over Turkey’s ability to remain neutral in its mediating efforts do not take into account the progress that Turkish mediators were able to achieve in the last round of negotiations that collapsed with Operation Cast Lead.

Turkish interests can be served only by being an honest broker, knowing full well that peace will not be made at the expense of Israel’s national security interests. Israel must understand that Turkey’s regional role, position and strategic objectives are changing but these changes are not contrary to the bilateral strategic relations between the two countries. Israel can benefit from a Turkish ally who is close to the Arab world. Turkey seeks Israeli-Syrian peace not merely for self-aggrandizement, but because for Turkey, a regional peace has a tremendous effect on its own national security and economic developments and will certainly have even greater impact on Israel’s national security and economic interests.

Looming beyond the benefits of direct Israeli-Syrian land-for-peace negotiations are the long-term implications this would have on Syria’s ties with Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. If Syria feels it is within reach of getting the Golan Heights and normal relations with the US, it takes no special acumen to understand that an Israeli-Syrian peace will fundamentally change Damascus’ strategic interests and the geopolitical condition in the Middle East. Changing Syria’s strategic interests will have a direct impact on Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah’s behavior. Syria has served as the linchpin between the three and by removing Syria’s logistical and political backing, which will inadvertently result from an Israeli-Syrian peace, Hamas and Hezbollah will be critically weakened. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are direct by-products of the Israeli occupation, and only by ending its hold on the Golan will Israel be in a position to begin effectively to deal with Arab extremism. Peace with Syria will change the center of gravity of Syrian politics in the region, which is shaped by Damascus’ strategic interests.

Whereas Israel’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program may not be completely mitigated by an Israeli-Syrian peace, it will certainly force Tehran to rethink its strategy toward Israel. The irony is that while Israel continues to hype up the Iranian nuclear threat, and perhaps for good reason, it has lost focus on how to change the regional geopolitical dynamic and weaken Iran’s influence in the region. Peace with Syria will under any circumstances reduce the prospect of using force against Iran to resolve its nuclear threat. However, under any violent scenario between Israel and Iran, Tehran will no longer be able to count on the almost automatic support of Hamas and Hezbollah because the national interests of these two groups will now be at odds with Syria’s strategic interest.

Israel must seize the opportunity to enter into negotiations with Syria not only because it can now negotiate from strength but also because of the collective Arab will to make peace as enunciated time and again by the Arab Peace Initiative. Israel cannot make the claim that it seeks peace but then fail to seize the opportunity when one is presented. President Bashar al-Assad, like his father, has prioritized peace with Israel as a strategic option. He has expressed time and again his desire to conclude a deal in exchange for the Golan Heights and a healthy relationship with the US. Israel must make a choice. It cannot continue trying to justify the occupation in the name of security when the whole Arab world is extending its hand to achieve a genuine peace. Israel must choose between territory and real security; as long as Syria has territorial claims against Israel, Israel will never be secure on its northern borders. If Syria offers peace, normalization of relations, and meets Israel’s legitimate security concerns and Israel still refuses, the Golan will become a national liability rather than national security asset.

The international opposition to Israel’s continued occupation is growing because occupation of Arab land and the settlements is seen as the single source of continued regional strife and instability. Linking the occupation to national security concerns is viewed as nothing more than a pretext to maintain the occupation and as a recipe not only for self-isolation but a precursor for renewed violence. Indeed, even Israel’s allies no longer buy into the linkage between territory and national security. It is time for Prime Minster Netanyahu to put an end to his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s reckless statements about Syria and lack of any diplomatic savoir-faire. The fact that the Israeli government is ideologically polarized offers no excuse for this kind of behavior that could result in an unintended violence that neither side wants. If Israel is truly focused on national security then it must relinquish the Golan Heights, because only a real peace with normal relations can offer Israel ultimate security.

The fact that Syria chose a negotiating venue through Turkey to regain the Golan, and may not be in a position to regain it by force, should not be taken by Israel as if it can indefinitely maintain the status quo without serious consequences. Syria has shown tremendous capacity to deny Israel peace with Lebanon and the Palestinians and can continue to do so for as long as Israel occupies the Golan. Netanyahu needs to decide if he wants peace and what sort of coalition government he should assemble to meet the Israeli majority’s yearning to end the conflict. The quality of governance and what message he wants to sent to the world rests with him. He cannot shirk this responsibility by blaming it on his fractured government.

The appointment of Robert Ford as the new American ambassador to Syria has potential to open a new chapter in US-Syrian relations. Whereas the Obama administration is fully keen on trying to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it has no illusion that the real game changer in the Middle East in connection with Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinians is an Israeli-Syrian peace. The Improved relations between the United States and Syria will inadvertently shift Syria’s strategic calculus as the normalization of relations with the US and the prospect of regaining the Golan Heights will assume national priority over other tactical ties that Syria currently has with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

The United States will have to remain relentless in its efforts to advance the Israeli-Syrian peace and may find Turkey to be the best interlocutor between the two nations.

Middle East Bulletin, New York   –   9 Feb 10


About Dr. ALON BEN-MEIR

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. For the past twenty five years, Dr. Ben-Meir has been directly involved in various negotiations and has operated as a liaison between top Arab and Israeli officials. Dr. Ben-Meir serves as senior fellow at New York University’s School of Global Affairs where he has been teaching courses on the Middle East and negotiations for 18 years. He is also a Senior Fellow and the Middle Eastern Studies Project Director at the World Policy Institute. Dr. Ben-Meir hosts “Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir,” a series of debates and conversations with top policy-makers around the world. He also regularly holds briefings at the US State Department for international visitors.

Dr. Ben-Meir writes frequently and has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites including the Middle East Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Le Monde, American Chronicle, the Week, the Political Quarterly, Israel Policy Forum, Gulf Times, the Peninsula, The Jerusalem Post, and the Huffington Post. He also makes regular television and radio appearances, and has been featured on networks such as CNN, FOX, PBS, ABC, al Jazeera (English and Arabic), and NPR.

He has authored six books related to Middle East policy and is currently working on a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. He is fluent in English, Arabic, and Hebrew.