“Landis: Syria Key to Middle East Peace Process,” CFR Interview with Gwertzman

Landis: Syria Key to Middle East Peace Process
Council on Foreign Relations – New York, NY,USA

Interviewer:
Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor

December 5, 2007

Joshua Landis Let’s start with the Annapolis Middle East peace conference last week. I think many people were surprised that Syria showed up, albeit with a deputy foreign minister instead of a foreign minister. How did this happen?

Syria was wooed. There was intense diplomacy prior to Syria’s accepting. The prime minister of Turkey, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, apparently called the Syrian President Bashar Assad four times. The Saudis called him as well. King Abdullah of Jordan visited him. It was the first time he’d done that in years, and he was very solicitous. Various European foreign ministers visited Lebanon and they talked to the Syrians. Everybody was pushing the Syrians to come.

Why?

Because this is a turning point and Syria is key to the peace process. If you keep the door closed on Syria, many people believe the peace process can go nowhere. The Saudis did not want to come and genuflect to the whole peace process if the Syrians were not along, because they needed Arab nationalist cover. And there were two agendas going on here: One agenda was to push the peace process forward and try to get the Bush administration committed to it in a serious way. The other factor on the agenda was to create some sort of Arab community in order to isolate Iran and raise the pressure on Iran, because I think it’s widely understood that the only way you’re going to isolate Iran in the future is to repair the deep schisms and divisions between Arab states—and this schism is primarily between Syria and Saudi Arabia, because Iran’s reach into the Arab world, and its influence, is largely through Syria. Of course it’s through Iraq as well, but we can’t do much about Iraq. The idea of flipping Syria has been on everybody’s lips. If you can draw Syria away from Iran and back towards Saudi Arabia, then arms cannot get to Hezbollah in Lebanon because they go through Syria from Iran. Hamas, in Palestine, also would become much more isolated than it is now. It would have no support within the Arab world.

What actually happened at the conference? Did Syria say much?

They did not say much. They were very quiet, and they were jubilant. What happened at the conference was that, evidently, the Lebanese delegation was blindsided by the announcement that Michel Sulieman, chief of staff of the Lebanese Army, was being put forward as a compromise choice for that country’s new president. This was seen largely, and by the Lebanese delegation, as a victory for Syria and the opposition, Hezbollah, and a defeat for the March 14th group [an anti-Syrian political coalition set up in the wake of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon in 2005]—and for America, which had insisted that there should be no amendments to the Lebanese constitution and that the democratic process should carry forward according to law. In order to have the chief of staff become president, there needs to be an amendment to the constitution, because it is currently illegal.

What’s your opinion? Do you think this is a great defeat for March 14th, or is it a good compromise?

I think it’s an excellent compromise for Lebanon, and I think that many people, even within March 14th, felt that this is the best way forward for Lebanon. Unfortunately, because of the ideological divisions between America and Iran, because of the terrible bad blood between the opposition and the majority, everything is seen in terms of defeat and victory. Unfortunately, that’s where we stand, and it’s not clear that Michel Sulieman will come through this whole process, because there are many jealousies and there is a lot of anger in Lebanon.

So even though France and Egypt, who seem to be the main architects of this compromise, went up to the Lebanese delegation during Annapolis and said, “Congratulations on your new President,” and the March 14th group said, “Yes we will accept this,” it’s not clear that even the opposition had agreed. Because General Michel Aoun [a pro-Syrian Maronite Christian], who wanted to be president, is balking at this. He wants further compromise. There’s still a lot of factualism.

It’s not a deal?

It’s not a done deal. It’s just that France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the outside powers all support it.

I thought Aoun had said he backed it.

Well he’s now saying he would back it, but he said “Yes, but I want to guarantee that I have a position…” There’s a long list of things he wants. And, you know, everybody’s trying to get their last-minute extra. There’s a lot more haggling in Beirut. In a sense, though, this seems to be a major victory for Bashar Assad, because, two years ago, everybody was saying, “He’s on his last leg, he’s weak, and his regime is shuddering, it may fall.”

Syria is key to the peace process. If you keep the door closed on Syria, many people believe the peace process can go nowhere.

The Syrian opposition said, “We’re going to be in Damascus in six months.” The Syrians were anxious. Today, there is no anxiety about this. Now, what do you do with this? A diplomatic victory only takes you so far, and Syria is a poor country, a weak country.  It’s got to turn this upswing into money and a chicken in every Syrian’s pot. The economic question is the big question going forward: can this government carry out economic reforms and really drag Syria into the globalized world?

It would seem to me, as a non-Syrian expert, that a peace agreement with Israel would be the highest priority, because that would open up Syria to outside investments.

It would. That’s what’s dividing Syria from Saudi Arabia, because Saudi Arabia essentially wants to team up with Israel against Iran. That undermines Syria’s position. The more the Arab world forgets about the Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli conflict and teams up with Israel, the less Israel has to care about making peace with Syria, and the less leverage Syria has to get back the Golan heights. So Syria has to keep the Arab-Israeli conflict alive—with Hezbollah, Lebanon, Hamas, or with any proxy it can, because Syria does not have the capability to hurt Israel militarily.

Now let’s talk a bit about the Golan Heights. Back in 2000, Israel and Syria were excruciatingly close to a peace agreement. Can it be revived?

The problem is that Syria is weaker than it was then. You know everyone argues about whether the war in the summer of 2006 was really a win for Hezbollah or a win for Israel. And, in the long-run, although in the short-term it seemed to be a win for Hezbollah, in the long-term Israel has made considerable gains.

What Syria has done is announce that it is willing to bargain. It’s not going to stick with Iran against the United States, come hell or high water.

Hezbollah has had its ears pinned back. It’s now about twelve miles away from the Israeli border, and even though it’s trying to rearm and so forth, it’s not clear that Hezbollah would want to or can carry out another confrontation with Israel.

Israel frightened Hezbollah and set them back, and this was a lesson to Syria. Israel in September carried out this air raid on Syria [against a suspected nuclear plant] without any repercussions, seemingly. It’s very clear that Syria does not have the kind of military option it had before through proxies, when Hamas seemed to be victorious in the occupied territories, and Hezbollah was the greatest power in Lebanon.

You know, it’s interesting, because there’s been a lot of speculation that, because the Palestinians are so divided, with two different Palestinian governments, that it would be easier for Israel to negotiate a deal with Syria.

The trouble is that Syria is too weak.

You mean it can’t give up a strip of land?

Yes, but it’s too weak in a sense that all the Israelis I talk to say, “Syria’s asking too much for the Golan.” In other words, they want too much. They have to make some major concessions. And, most recently, we’ve seen a number of Israeli politicians say, “Well, let’s have a hundred-year lease for the Golan.” That seems to be the starting point for an Israeli negotiation: Let’s roll back to where we were in 2000.” A lease evokes a very different sort of relationship, and this is what the Israelis are putting forward, so it means the Syrians have to negotiate back from this kind of idea. And they, of course, want everything according to international law.

I see. So the Syrians want what the Egyptians got in the 1979 peace treaty with Israel—the return of all the occupied land in the Sinai?

They want everything. They say, “Let’s follow the line, let’s follow international law.” And, even there, international law is a little bit ambiguous, because there are several different lines. There’s the 1923 line, there’s the 1967 armistice line, and they want the one that is the most favorable to them, which is 1967.

Okay, so in your view the likelihood of any negotiations starting is what, slim?

Well for official negotiations, I think it is fairly slim. But on the other hand, everybody wants to keep the door open for a number of reasons. Israel wants the peace process, and not necessarily peace. I know this is the phrase Israel usually uses against the Syrians, but in this case I think it’s been reversed.

Why do they want the process? For two major reasons: One, it means that Hezbollah will stay down in the farm, because as long as Syria is trying to woo Israel, it’s going to put the brakes on any activity from Hezbollah. Secondly, Israel can carry out negotiations with the Palestinians more easily, so long as Syria is being sweet. Because they can always threaten the Palestinians: “Well, if you don’t make a deal with us, we’ll just go off and make a deal with the Syrians and you’ll be totally isolated and we’ll kick you around. We’ll put more pressure on you.” It’s a much better negotiating position for the Israelis, to have both countries.

What does this mean in terms of the Syrian-Iranian relationship?

What Syria has done is announce that it is willing to bargain. It’s not going to stick with Iran against theUnited States, come hell or high water. Over a year ago, Bashar Assad had said if the Golan is on the table, he would put relationships with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas on the table. Everything is on the table. By coming to Annapolis, he upset the Iranians. He upset the Palestinians.

Comments (65)


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51. Alex said:

AIG

America will always be Israel’s best friend. Alex is not delusional.

But this particular administration made some devastating mistakes … starting from the president being convinced that God spoke to him and asked him to go on an extravagant crusade …

This administration is not able to say “oops … sorry, we made a mistake” … it will take a new group to replace them to correct some of the obvious mistakes.

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December 7th, 2007, 5:21 pm

 

52. Qifa Nabki said:

Alex,

AIG is right about one thing, and that is that the next administration is unlikely to initiate any kind of significant difference in pursuing a comprehensive peace formula.

If anything, the Bush debacles reminded AIPAC that there exists, even in the muttony heartland of America’s anaesthetized masses (pace Kingcrane) a serious ambivalence about Israel. America’s colleges have been growing increasingly vocal about the “Zionist occupation”, and AIPAC has made it no secret that it plans to fight back.

Every major Democratic candidate, from Obama to Hillary to Edwards has been ‘vetted’ by AIPAC; they wouldn’t have gotten this far without its imprimatur.

What matters isn’t whether Syria is strong or weak, flippable or unflippable. What matters is what kind of constructive steps the regime takes. Too often, political capital has been squandered, especially at ‘watershed’ moments in recent history.

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December 7th, 2007, 5:36 pm

 

53. Alex said:

I agree Qifa Nabki .. nothing is going to automatically change… there are no guarantees, but there will be a much better chance of seeing a vigorous peace process.

Ask our friend Ford Prefect. He met with the Clintons last month. Bill will probably be President Hillary’s Middle East envoy .. and he said he thinks a Syrian Israeli agreement will take 30 minutes to conclude!

If you want to see how the different candidates differ on Israel … check (as I do every week) Rosner’s chart… see why Israeli panelists who voted to make Guiliani their favorite candidate … are against an active American involvement in the peace process.

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December 7th, 2007, 6:01 pm

 

54. Joshua said:

I am surprised that readers found my comments that
1. Syria is weak vis a vis Israel
2. Hizbullah was weakened by the 2006 Summer War, diminishing Syria’s leverage with Israel for a favorable Golan deal.

(I did not say that “HA is now too weak to withstand a 2nd Israeli onslaught etc,” as KSA would have had me say. I do not believe this. I was not talking about HA’s defensive capabilities, only about its offensive capabilities.)

The Summer War demonstrated that Hizb has a very capable defensive machine and did indeed give Israel a black eye. It will be some time before Israel tries to invade or occupy part of Lebanon again with ground troops.

In the same vain, Hizb also got a bad black eye. It has been pushed back from the border with Israel. A beefier UNIFIL force impedes its freedom of action, and more UN Security Council resolutions weigh on it. The Lebanese army is also stronger than it was.

The most telling measure of its diminished value as a proxie for Syria is its dead body count. How many Israelis has it killed or wounded since 2006? Not one.

In the year and a half before June 2006, Hizb killed or wounded quite a few.

Both Israelis and Lebanese have been deterred from killing each other.

What effect does that have on Israel’s Golan calculations?

The only pressing reason for Israel to return the Golan is to stop Hizbullah killings of Israelis. We cannot be sure that Hizbullah has been deterred by the 2006, but it does seem that way.

We could also talk about the change in Hamas’ strength and status since 2006, but I will spare my readers.

Syria has a few diplomatic cards to play. It has a very strategic position in the region. The US needs Syria more than ever as it moves away from a policy of confrontation. Perhaps increased US pressure on Israel will counter-balance the diminished military posture of Hizbullah? I am not sure it will.

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December 7th, 2007, 8:02 pm

 

55. Lysander said:

From the outside, we can only speculate on what Hizbollah’s military position is. However, I would deduce the following points;

1) If it were seriously weakened, that was not evident from its performance during the war. It launched the largest number of missiles and inflicted the largest number of IDF casualties on the last 2 days of the war. Israel makes grandiose claims about the casualties it inflicted on Hizb. Whatever the truth of that, Hizb was capable of fighting to the last moment despite them.

2) Clearly, Hizbullah did not expect a 34 day war and have said so themselves. But they were prepared for one. The same can be said about Israel. I don’t think Olmert, Peretz or Halutz expected the war to last that long either.

3) To what degree Hizb’s rocket are a deterent aren’t clear. Throughout the war, Israel talked about bombing Beirut’s electrical and water facilities, while warning Hizbullah not to attack Tel Aviv. Neither happened.

4) Clearly, Israel accepted a ceasefire giving them far less than they initially demanded. The disarmament of Hizb, though demanded in the UNSC, will not happen anytime soon. Also, one should note that the ceasefire largely held. Typically, if it sees some advantage, Israel would accuse the other side of violating the ceasefire and grab more territory, as in, for example, the 1973 war with Egypt, or the battle in Beirut in 1982. This time Israel was quite content to maintain the ceasefire. ( a botched commando raid notwithstanding)

5) Clearly, a guerrilla force of 2-3000 men cannot be compared to the 2nd or 3rd strongest army in the world. The fact that people make the comparison, even if its in Israel’s favor, is itself a testament to Hizbullah’s skill in combat.

6) I disagree with AIG’s assesment that Hizb has “no potential anything.” Clearly the U.S. and Israel are exerting substantial energy to the disarmament of Hizbullah, which by its own admission and according to Israel’s accusations, continues to arm itself more and more. Also, it is not Israel’s attitude that so long as Hizb does not attack them, they do not care how they are armed.

7) Anyone wondering about Hizb’s effect on Israeli behavior need only ask themselves how the 1982 war would have been different if Hizbullah had been there back then.

8) It is correct that Hizbullah is not so strong that Israel would trade the Golan for them. But, while that may be Syria’s purpose, Iran and Hizbullah have other objectives besides the Golan.

Cheers,
Lysander

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December 7th, 2007, 10:26 pm

 

56. G said:

It’s curious to note that Landis has consciously twice avoided the second part of Honest Patriot’s question:

2- Granting all the brainy analysis and agreeing with every point you make, please add now your value judgment on the use of political assassinations by Syria to subdue Lebanon. Do you professionally and ethically accept this as just standard politics ? Where else is this occuring ? Where has it occurred in history ? And what do you make of it ? Please share with us how you look at it ? Are you equating it with Israel’s targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders ?

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December 7th, 2007, 10:46 pm

 

57. Joshua said:

Dear G.

I think killing people is bad.

I do not approve of governments, non-governments, militias or non-militias killing people in order to achieve objectives or just because they can.

I have never compared the assassinations in Lebanon with those in Israel and its occupied territories.

I wish all mankind would live in peace and harmony.

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December 8th, 2007, 12:13 am

 

58. G said:

What a wonderfully, yet typically, evasive answer that never once attributes agency to Syria, and instead implicitly points in a completely other direction away from Syria.

Exactly what we expected someone like you to say.

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December 8th, 2007, 1:52 am

 

59. MNA said:

Dear Joshua,

It seems that what is restraining Hezbollah vis-à-vis Israel is the Lebanese internal politics more than anything else. Hezbollah does not want to jeopardize gains it achieved domestically with another confrontation with Israel, which could only benefit its rivals of the March 14th group.

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December 8th, 2007, 4:12 am

 

60. Joshua said:

MNA,
Perhaps you are right about Hizbullah and the internal game. It still means that Hizb is not punishing Israel, which means Israel can relax.

The Palestinians have also switched tactics, relieving pressure on Israel.

chart

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December 8th, 2007, 4:16 am

 

61. MNA said:

Joshua,

I don’t think that we can contribute Hezbollah’s restrain vis-à-vis Israel solely to the war of 2006. If anything, the Iranian nuclear file, the Iraqi debacle, and the international investigation into the Hariri assassination all have more to do with it than the War of 2006. Some people on this blog cites Hezbollah inaction when Syria was bombed in Sept as a sign of weakness, but who said that Syria wanted Hezbollah to retaliate, at the first place, and risk all the gains that Syria achieved diplomatically in the last few months. I think any judgment at this time is premature; we should wait and see until the dust settles a little bit in the area.
By the way, thank you for the chart, it is interesting.

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December 8th, 2007, 4:50 am

 

62. Roland said:

AIG reminds one of the Germans of a hundred years ago. AIG shares Wilhelm’s mistaking of mere machtpolitik for realpolitik. For example:

A. If the Syrians retaliate against Israel after the raid, AIG would think there must be no negotiations until they stop fighting.

B. But if they don’t retaliate, they’re weak–therefore no negotiations are necessary!

Using such logic, it is impossible for AIG to ever negotiate in good faith with anyone else.

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December 8th, 2007, 5:24 am

 

63. MSK said:

Dear Josh,

Here the quote from your interview:

“it’s not clear that Hezbollah would want to or can carry out another confrontation with Israel.”

“Israel frightened Hezbollah and set them back”

“The problem is that Syria is weaker than it was then. [2000]”

“The trouble is that Syria is too weak.”

–MSK*

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December 8th, 2007, 2:48 pm

 

64. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Roland,
Of course not. I have a clear and simple requirement for negotiation: Syria becomes a democracy.

The Syrian reaction either way to the raid would have had zero influence on my decision to negotiate with them or not. I am against negotiating with dictators. I am light years away from macht or realpolitik. I am willing to forgoe short term benefits of talking to dictators in order to achieve real long term peace.

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December 8th, 2007, 6:54 pm

 

65. kingcrane jr said:

What about if the Zionist entity became a democracy:
-No more extremists (Avigdor Lieberman and others are itching to expand the Palestinian genocide).
-Enough with the Orthodox Rabbinate in Israel (and enough with religion altogether); let it be a one state with Arabs and Jews and others if appropriate, and let us void the “Palestinian Authority” from its current definition: a corrupt bunch that will rule a mini-Gaza ghetto and a mini-West Bank ghetto.
-Syria could then become a “democracy” and all those asking for that should poll the people about:
a-Which model they want (proporational, single district, etc)
b-Who the people are likely to vote for (secular parties, MB, left, right, etc).

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December 10th, 2007, 2:18 pm

 

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