Posted by Joshua on Monday, October 13th, 2008
Several weeks ago, I was asked to answer the following four questions about the impact of a Syrian-Israeli peace on terrorism in the region. Here are my answers. Let me make it clear that the following questions are not mine.
Syria & Israel:
Peace Prospects and Consequences for Terrorist Groups
By Joshua Landis
1.What levers could Syria use during peace talks to retrieve the Golan Heights?
Syria has cultivated a number of “cards” to play in order to pressure Israel to return the Golan Heights and come to the negotiating table. These cards are ideological, military, and diplomatic.
Ideologically, Syria is the only Arab country that continues to advocate pan-Arab nationalism with any vigor. Pan-Arabism serves to deny the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the midst of the Arab homeland. Likewise, the Syrian government insists on the notion of “Arab Rights.” By promoting Arab identity, Damascus reminds Middle Easterners that Israel and its western supporters are in violation of the rights of the Arab people through the occupation of their land.
The Syrian government tries to forestall the emergence of local, territory-based, national sentiment for fear that Arabs will forget their struggle against Israel and cease caring about Syria’s fight for the Golan. By preserving a sense of pan-Arab duty in fighting Israel, Damascus undercuts the efforts of America’s “moderate” allies (Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) in turning their citizens against Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. The chief reason Nasrallah remains the most admired leader among Arabs is because he has fought and sacrificed in the struggle for “Arab” rights. Thus, by bolstering the notion of Arab rights and nationalism, Syria undermines efforts to cast Hizbullah and Hamas as “terrorists” rather than as “freedom fighters.”
Bringing peace between Syrian, Lebanon and Israel would help America’s Middle East allies attenuate the anger of their people, who are not happy with the pro-Israel policies of their governments. “Moderate” Arab leaders are concerned that the growing hostility to Israel undermines their domestic situation by exposing their support for President Abbas as tantamount to collaboration with Israel in oppressing Palestinians living in Gaza. As popular Arab hostility towards Israeli actions directed towards Gaza grows, so street anger towards these regimes rises – and the popularity of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah increases: This makes “moderate” leaders feel vulnerable. (“Summary of Salafist web sites” Conflict Forum – September 16, 2008)
Militarily, Syria cultivates a number of allied militias, the most important of which are Hizbullah and Hamas. Because Syria cannot challenge Israel militarily, it must rely on non-state actors to hurt Israel in operations that avoid using a Syrian return address.
Hizbullah is one of the two main reasons that Israel has returned to the negotiating table with Syria. Israel’s failure to destroy Hizbullah in 2006 or to stop its subsequent rearming by Syria and Iran has persuaded Israel to try diplomacy. Likewise, US efforts to take on Hizbullah ended in failure. Washington’s attempt to strengthen the Lebanese government and army in the hope that they could disarm Hizbullah came to a sad end in May 2008, when Shiite militias overran West Beirut, the stronghold of Saad Hariri, America’s ally. The fact that mid-level officers in the Lebanese Army worked hand-in-glove with Hizbullah convinced Israel and European governments alike that Washington could not turn the Lebanese army into a terror fighting machine. It was no coincidence that Israel’s announcement of talks with Syria followed hard on Hizbullah’s success. When all military options to destroy Hizbullah failed, Israel turned to diplomacy. One of the main purposes of Israeli negotiators is to explore the possibility that Syria is capable of convincing Hizbullah to lay down its arms. Conversely, a principal Syrian card in the negotiations will be to keep the Hizbullah threat foremost in Israeli consciousness and to convince Israelis that Syria can and will act decisively to change Hizbullah’s purpose and capabilities.
It is easy to overstate Syria’s military capabilities. Hizbullah has not killed an Israeli for over two years. As a military threat, Hamas is little more than an irritant. This brings us to diplomacy and alliances.
Diplomacy is crucial to Syria. Having allies, such as Russia and Iran, that are seen to be growing stronger rather than weaker can only help Syria in its effort to get back the Golan. They compensate for Syria’s military weakness. (Syria’s negotiations in the 1990s failed in part because of the collapse of the USSR and inability of Syria to find alternate allies. Israel become convinced that time was on its side and the Golan could be absorbed with minimal risk.)
If Hizbullah is one reason Israel has come to the table, Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities and influence in the region is the other. As Israeli Ambassador to Washington Sallai Meridor explained recently: “By far, the first reason to engage with the Syrians is to explore whether there is a chance to [separate them from Iran] and stop their harboring, encouraging and supporting of terror.”
Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities and anti-Israeli rhetoric have rattled Israel. So have prospects that Russia may return to its Cold War policy of arming Syria and Middle Eastern proxies more generally in its revived contest with the US. These dangers provide Damascus with leverage just as they make the notion of “flipping” Syria ever more attractive to Tel Aviv.
2. What are the implications of a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement for regional counterterrorism efforts?
Syria has stated that a full return of the Golan and peace with Israel will “change the strategic environment of the region.” This will have a major impact on counterterrorism efforts.
First and foremost, it would allow the US to resume intelligence sharing with Syria and work closely with Damascus to stop jihadist infiltration into Iraq. Damascus is eager for this cooperation. So is the US military. A year ago, a West Point study based on captured documents estimated that forty or so foreign fighters cross into Iraq from Syria every month. Petraeus has been powerless to resume intelligence sharing with Syria for the purpose of stopping this traffic due to Washington’s ideological priority placed on isolating Syria. A peace agreement that would include the end of isolation and a return of the US ambassador to Damascus would eliminate this obstacle. Fewer American soldiers would be killed in Iraq.
Also, if Anbar province becomes destabilized as a result of the decommissioning of the pro-American, Awakening militias, it will be important for Washington to seal the Syrian border in order to assist the Iraqi government forces in their effort to subdue the region and draw the noose around recalcitrant Sons of Iraq. A friendly Syria can assist US plans for consolidating central control of Iraq and eradicating al-Qaida’s presence there. Syria’s mukhabarat have been good providers of intelligence on al-Qaida suspects in the past. There is no reason to have them as enemies if peace is signed between Israel and Syria.
3. How would any loss of Syrian sponsorship affect Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionist groups?
Syria has considerable leverage over Hizbullah for a number of reasons, not least of which is that all of Hizbullah’s larger arm supplies must be transported through Syria. Delivery by sea or air leaves them vulnerable to monitoring and interception by Israel and the US.
Syria could persuade Hizbullah to give up its fight against Israel. If Syria made peace with Israel and ended its grievance over the Golan, any ally that sought to undermine the peace and rekindle war between Syria and Israel would become a problem. The community of interest shared between Hizbullah and Syria is too important to be sacrificed over peace with Israel.
Some Hizbullah leaders might hold out and resist such a shift and insist on continuing the struggle against Israel and to turn against Syria, but they would be in the distinct minority. The notion that if Syria began to shift its strategic interest, Hizbullah would also trim its sails has considerable merit. Hizbullah has coordinated strategy closely with both Syria and Iran.
There can be little doubt that Hizbullah would be sorely divided were Syria and Iran to move in opposite directions. Because of the reluctance of the three allies – Syria, Hizbullah, and Iran – to move, one without the others for fear of being tricked by the US and Israel, Washington would be well advised to engage all three in dialogue. By attempting to bring all three along at once, Washington stands a much greater chance of successfully reducing terrorism in the region than if it attempts to “flip” one in order to destroy the others or to divide and conquer.
This is not to say that Syria would not be tempted to turn without its allies were it given proper guarantees of diplomatic support, security guarantees, and economic assistance, but the likelihood of success would be greatly increased if the West engages in a good faith effort at compromise with all three. If this approach fails, it will have provided Syrians with political cover. Syrian officials take the claim of “Arab rights” seriously and will be reluctant to be seen to sacrifice them without compromises from the US – Israel camp.
As for militant Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, Syria is not wedded to them and can move on its own peace agreement with Israel without waiting on the Palestinian track. Syrian officials have reiterated that Syria’s official Palestinian policy is much like Iran’s and Hezbollah’s. They want a solution that the Palestinians accept, or at least the vast majority of them. When asked if that must include all occupied territory, they that if the Palestinian accept it, we accept it. We do not want to be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. When the Palestinians abandoned their war footing in 1992 in order to pursue the Oslo peace process, they, in essence, gave Syria the right to pursue peace on its own as well.
Unofficially, many, if not most Syrians, have come to the conclusion that the Palestiniansare too weak to stop the loss of their land and rights to Israelis. They also believe that the international community will do little to prevent this. Most Arab governments have abandoned the fight and there is little that Syria can do to reverse this process. Many Syrians are of the opinion that if Syria can get back the Golan, it will be fortunate. Syria has suffered enough in wars against Israel. The government is prepared to exploit this sentiment. It is fully aware of its own weaknesses – both military and economic. In short, Syria wants a deal, and it does not want to allow Palestinian groups veto power over a deal. It does not believe the situation for the Palestinians or the Golan will improve over the long run.
4. How would a peace agreement impact Syria’s domestic security situation?
Peace with Israel would improve regime stability by improving the economy. Presumably Syria would be taken off the terrorist list, US economic sanctions would be dropped, and foreign investment in Syria would rise markedly.
It is common for regime detractors to claim that it would collapse forthwith because war with Israel is its main, if not only, justification. Sunni Syrians, they suggest, would turn against the Alawite dominated regime once peace was signed. This analysis has little if any merit. The same was said about Egypt’s authoritarian regime. It has survived just fine – indeed, it avoided bankruptcy by signing peace with Israel and winning US economic backing.
What is more, the notion that the Syrian leadership derives its legitimacy from fighting Israel is hard to square with reality. Syria has never won a battle against Israel; Syrians are not fools. The legitimacy that the Syrian regime enjoys does not come from fighting Israel. On the contrary, It comes from the stability and security that the leadership provides Syrians. In a region where little stability exists and where regime collapse usually means catastrophic civil war and social break down, security is prized over fighting Israel. No Syrian wants to end up like an Iraqi, Palestinian or Lebanese during that country’s long civil war. More than one out of eight inhabitants of Syria are refugees or have parents who were refugees during the past century. The conservatism of Syrians and value placed on security should not be underestimated.
Consequently, Syrians put up with the government they have. They complain a lot, but protest little. There is no viable or dangerous opposition in Syria. The regime has shown its willingness to act swiftly and brutally to smash opponents before they can organize against it. As in other Arab countries, security forces are able to convince the people not to question government legitimacy.
Syrian leaders and the economic elite in Syria are all expecting a sizeable economic peace dividend. They may be disappointed in this. Although fewer barriers to foreign and local investment will exist in a climate of peace, corruption and the absence of the rule of law will remain primary obstacles to economic growth in Syria.
In the long run, peace may well force the Syrian regime to take more decisive measures to reform and promote economic growth, but this is unlikely to jeopardize the regime’s survival. So long as sectarian mistrust remains high in Syria and in the region more generally, the present leadership will be able to avoid unified popular action against it. Having peace with its strongest neighbor can only add to this stability. Syria’s leadership and people stand to benefit from both the process and the peace. Arguments that Syria only wants the process and not the peace are silly.