Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

A Middle Eastern Peace Accord Is Contrary to Syrian National Interests

Posted in Syria by Dan on July 30, 2009

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The Syrian Arab Republic (under the Assad family) and the United States Government in Washington has always been at odds as to what should be included inside a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace accord.  George W. Bush’s administration, as well as President Obama’s White House, has strongly advocated for a complete eradication of Hamas violence towards the state of Israel.  The United States has also ordered Hamas officials to recognize the legitimacy and sovereignty of Israel as a Jewish State.  Syria, on the other hand, construes Israel has the main instigator and bully in the Middle East, thanks to its aggressive posturing towards Palestinian factions inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.  So the logic goes, the Israeli Government must begin to improve its understanding of Arab culture, recognizing that all Palestinian men, women, and children should be granted the same rights as everyone else.

Ever since Bashar al-Assad inherited the Syrian presidency from his father Hafiz in the summer of 2000, the Israeli problem has often been labeled as the primary foreign-policy responsibility of his inner-circle.  In stark similarity to the elder Assad, Bashar has made it publicly known that Jerusalem’s unending desire for a “Greater Israel” will be shunned as both arrogant and imperialist by his government.  The expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, he echoes, is a deliberate attempt by Israel to stall the prospects for a two-state solution…a resolution that would finally entitle the Palestinians to their own state.  In fact, Syria’s active stance in the peace process as of late has actually strengthened Damascus’ leverage against its Egyptian, Saudi, and Jordanian enemies.  Muslims throughout the world now view Syria in a positive light, claiming that President Assad is the one core Arab leader who will remain a  confident and defiant voice against Zionist intrusion.

While all of these disagreements have mitigated somewhat under President Barack Obama, tensions between the U.S.-Israeli camp and the Palestinian-Syrian alliance remain with the utmost intensity.  Of course, this bleak reality is not dissuading former Senator and now U.S. Mideast-envoy George Mitchell from meeting directly with the Syrian president himself.  According to the Reuters news agency, the controversial face-to-face meeting conducted this past week was constituted as a success by both American and Syrian mouthpieces.  Mr. Mitchell described Mr. Assad’s behavior as both “candid and positive:” a man eager to assist the process of reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In a dramatic transformation from the forceful policies of his predecessor, Obama’s White House believes that the inclusion of Arab grievances is the only possible way a genuine peace agreement could be formulated and sustained in the long term.  As George Mitchell states, “if we are to succeed, we will need Arabs and Israelis alike to work with us to bring about comprehensive peace.”

Mitchell’s trip to Syria, although a demonstration of symbolic significance and a renouncement of past U.S. policy, does not distinguish itself from the stalemate of past visits.  The current American-Syrian relationship is still as fragile as it was eight years ago: nowhere near the level it needs to be for a full-hearted cooperation to emerge.

Undoubtedly, this is not entirely President Obama’s fault.  Bashar Assad’s regime is notorious for saying one thing, and then doing the complete opposite.  For the past ten years, the Syrian Government continues to speak of hope, peace, and prosperity towards Americans and Europeans alike, all the while stressing for the days when Syrians and Israelis could get along without violence and political hostility.  ‘We are all working towards a day when Arabs and Israelis can live side by side as economic partners, states the Syrian mantra, ‘as well as a time when the Israeli and Palestinian people will end their long-lingering disagreements.’  These comments certainly sound like advocates of international peace and universal human rights….well…if they weren’t coming from a known state-sponsor of terrorism.

Despite the recurring tone of optimism emanating from President Assad and his cabinet, he has failed to show the international community that he is serious about an Arab-Israeli partnership.  He fails to follow up his words with deeds, such as terminating his financial and military support to Islamic militant groups.  In fact, Israel claims that Syria has increased its material support to Hezbollah militants in Southern Lebanon over the past few months: evident the Shia-militia’s rising missile capability.  When adding Hamas’ power into the picture, it becomes clear that Damascus continues to use terrorism as a major tool of statecraft, extracting attention that the regime would find difficult to attain otherwise.

In addition, Assad has shut down any proposal that would open up Syria’s borders with Israel:  an economic relationship that could orchestrate Syrian compliance to the Israelis in a direct and legitimate fashion.  In perhaps the most counterproductive policy towards the Israelis, Assad remains adamant in his quest to strengthen his alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a clerical government that is both belligerent to the western community and its own people in the same capacity.

With Israel continuing to display its ability to respond to security threats in the Persian Gulf, either through sophisticated air-force exercises or naval-fleet maneuvers, Tehran’s power and the destabilizing effect of Islamic proxy groups is the only deterrent Mr. Assad holds against western military incursion.  It is this beneficial and unbreakable situation that exposes the sad truth about Mr. Mitchell’s most recent diplomatic visit:   while overtly courageous and optimistic, Washington seems to have picked the wrong time to engage the Assad regime.

No amount of western appeasement could possibly persuade Assad from breaking his ties to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.  The benefits derived from the Iranian-Hezbollah-Hamas link not only provides Syria with a security umbrella against an Israeli bombardment…it also supplies Damascus with an unending sense of relief in an otherwise turbulent region of the globe.  Considering the fact that Syria’s military is desperately lacking the funds, manpower, and technology to defend the state from an invasion, the “Rejectionist” security relationship is the only defense shielding Assad from a disgraceful exile that has historically plagued other Arab autocrats.

While acknowledging that the rhetoric between the United States and Syria has warmed as of late, and while understanding that Bashar Assad is open to direct dialogue, one must remain skeptical of his real motives.  Would a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue fully convince Syria to abandon its ties to terrorist organizations?  The answer is a straightforward and resounding no.  Syria withdrawing its support for Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas would make as much sense as the United States breaking its ties with Western Europe.  Both would be illogical and detrimental to each state’s national interests.  Trusting President Assad to hold up his end of the bargain should be out of the question, especially when this same man has routinely shown his true “two-faced” persona in the past.

Only by studying the frustrating aspects of Syrian political history will President Obama gain an understanding as what can be expected from Assad’s participation in the Arab-Israeli peace process.  Even if Mr. Mitchell’s efforts are successful and go according to plan without any obstacles, it is hard to sustain the belief that Damascus will re-orient their world view in some magical fashion.  After all, with tens of millions of Arabs currently praising Syria as the prominent guardian of Muslim liberties, Mr. Assad holds no incentive to change his behavior (Bashar al-Assad is ranked as the most admirable Arab leader in the most updated Arab Public Opinion Survey).  Such a result would be suicidal for both his political career and the survival of his clientele Alawite Dynasty.  However, if he continues on his present course, Syria may establish itself as a force to be reckoned with in the very near future.  Interestingly enough, Bashar al-Assad may be one of the only political figures in the Middle East that could actually profit from the deadlocked-nature of the status quo.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Khaled Yacoub Oweis of Reuters and Marc Lynch from Foreign Policy contributed to this blog

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