Posted by Joshua on Saturday, February 28th, 2009
Over the next week, Syria Comment will post two essays on the peace process. This week I will argue why Syria may not get the Golan back from Israel. Next week I will argue why it may.
Why Syria Will Not Get the Golan Back: Why Israel and the Arabs will continue at War
By Joshua Landis
February 28, 2009, Syria Comment
Syria’s ambassador in Washington met with State Department officials in Washington for the first time since 2005 on Thursday. Well, the first “polite” meeting. Imad Moustapha was ordered to the State Department in April to listen to a briefing about U.S. intelligence showing that Syria had secretly constructed a nuclear reactor based on a North Korean design. (Israel destroyed the alleged reactor in 2007.) “It was nothing productive,” an embassy spokesman explained. “It was the same old policy of dictating to us.”
The meeting this week between Imad Moustapha and Jeffrey Feltman, the US’s new Acting Assistant Secretary of State, was reportedly polite and meant to discuss a broad array of issues that divide the two countries. All the same, it is not clear how polite or whether the negotiating will get very far because both sides mistrust and misinterpret each other profoundly. Hillary Clinton’s announcement Thursday that“It is too soon to say what the future holds,” underscores this problem. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said on Friday, “there will be no normalization of ties with the Damascus regime until it meets key American demands, including an end to “interference in Lebanese issue issue,” Wood stressed that there are certain principles which Washington will not abandon.
“We felt it was important to communicate our concerns directly and we shall see how the Syrians will respond to it, including the interference on Lebanese internal affairs and their support for terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah,”
Imad Moustapha, however, was up beat and told reporters on Thursday that the talks were “very constructive.” He expects there to be more meetings in the coming months.
“We believe that this meeting has explored possibilities between Syria and the United States to engage on a diplomatic and political level and also to discuss all issues of mutual concern,” the ambassador said. “We think this is a first step and we believe there will be many further meetings.”
The barriers standing in front of a successful peace process are many. First, the debilitating imbalance of power between Syria and Israel stands out above all others. Second, the US is not an impartial or neutral mediator, but a lawyer for Israel. Third, underlying these problems are the radically different world-views of each side and deep mistrust for each other, due to decades of demonization and warfare. Building trust under such conditions is extremely difficult, especially if it is to be built by the placing a long list of pre-conditions on dialog
An example of mistrust: One State Department official explained to me Wednesday that Syria is holding back appointing an ambassador to Lebanon until the US appoints one to Damascus. This would erode trust, he explained, because Syria had already promised the French it would appoint the ambassador in exchange for Sarkozi’s public embrace of Assad. The implication was clear; the US believes Syria is being a “rug merchant” and double dealing on the Lebanese ambassador issue.
Why would Syria do this? Syrian officials have been saying for over a month that there would be an American ambassador appointed to Damascus by the end of February. This has yet to happen. It is hard to know how each side measures its quid pro quo’s.
Balance of Power
Damascus faces an impossible problem in negotiating with Washington because of its profound relative weakness. The US and Israel work hand and glove to keep Syria weak economically,militarily and diplomatically. The US has helped Israel to bomb Syrian military installations, assassinate HIzbullah and Hamas operatives in Syria, and by designating anti-israeli militias and states as terrorist organizations. A panoply of economic sanctions are also martialed to Israel’s advantage. Israel is incomparably stronger than Syria and getting more so all the time.
Syria stands almost no reasonable chance of getting back the Golan Heights occupied by Israel in 1967 unless Washington makes a clear division between its own interests and those of Israel. Washington should not act as Israel’s lawyer and body guard, which it does today. Instead it must help rectify the terrible imbalance of regional power which allows — in fact encourages — Israel to thumb its nose at international law and continue to annex and settle its neighbors’ land.
Washington has imposed such an imposing list of sanctions, privations, and legal impositions on Syria over the last few decades that Syria cannot hope to negotiate with Israel as an equal. Many of the laws proscribing Syria can be reversed only by congressional vote, which will not be forthcoming unless Syria abandons its allies.
The best example of Syria’s losing battle to rectify the balance of power between it and Israel is the recent report by the IAEA on the indications that Syria was trying to develop nuclear power. This report was made possible by Israel’s illegal bombing with US support of a Syrian military installation in September 2007. Neither the UN nor Europeans objected to Israel’s illegal bombing. Because of the UN sanctioned bombing of Syria — the UN refused to take action against the bombing — the US can now refer Syria to the UN’s Security Council for sanctions unless inspectors are allowed full privileges to scour Syria’s military installations and catalog it efforts at military improvement. Israel will probably gain access to these reports, assisting its efforts to destroy Syria’s attempts to alter its losing balance of power.
At the same time as helping to destroy Syria’s efforts to develop nuclear and advanced technologies, the US helps Israel to improve its own advantages. It transfers advanced missile and weapon technology to Israel. It also protects Israel from any censure by the UN for developing a full panoply of nuclear capabilities.
Practically all of Syria’s friends and allies have been designated as “terrorist” organizations or rogue countries and criminalized accordingly. In the meantime, Israel is protected from international efforts to stop its settlement of and expropriation of Palestinian and Syrian territory. This is a tremendous help to Israel. Israelis understand that they can “play” the US; knowing that no president will dare cross them.
The only reason Israel re-opened indirect negotiations with Syria last year is because of its fear of Iran and Hizbullah. The US has done everything in its power to eliminate these two compelling incentives to negotiate, all the while stating that it encourages negotiations. This contradiction is apparent to Syria and convinces it that the US is not serious about helping Syria to regain the Golan or to encourage the final application of international law on borders.
When the State Department insists that Syria must give up all support for Hizbullah and Hamas before gaining US support for negotiations or engagement, Syria can only understand this as a demand to surrender. ‘Non-interference in Lebanon” means helping to disarm Hizbullah and allowing pro-US and Israeli Lebanese to gain the upper hand there.
Were Syria to actually cut relations with Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran before negotiating with Israel, there would be no negotiations. Israel would have won. It would have no incentive to give up the Golan. As Netanyahu has stated many times, “the Syrian border with Israel has been Israel’s safest for 35 years.” Syria can only pressure Israel across the Lebanese border or by supporting Palestinian resistance. Once these fronts are quite, Israel will have the peace it demands – but without making painful concessions on the Golan.
Step by Step Diplomacy will not Work
The US is playing a difficult game with Syria. It insists on making Syria pay for every diplomatic concession with an equal concession of its own. The problem with this chit-for-chit game is that Syria has few chits to play. Yes, Syria can reopen the American school it closed a few months ago. It can once again agree to issue visa’s to Fulbright professors and American scholars. It can allow Amid-East and other State-Department funded organizations back into Syria. It can let out a few political prisoners, such as Michel Kilo, but these small tokens will quickly be exhausted. The US has a rich array of sanctions and privations it has placed on Syria that it can lift one at a time for many years. Syria has nothing of comparable worth, save support for Hizbullah, Lebanese sovereignty (which, to America, is practically the same thing as disarming Hizbullah) and support for Hamas. These cards absolutely necessary for successful negotiations over the return of the Golan. Syria cannot give them up before getting back the Golan, as the US and Israel are demanding.
Syria cannot trust the US. Even if US diplomats and politicians assure Assad that they will help Syria get back the Golan if it shows good faith by giving up Hizbullah and ending support for Hamas, Syria cannot bank on such promises. The US has demonstrated no ability to force such concessions from Israel since Eisenhower pressured it to give up the Sinai following the 1956 Suez Crisis. Bush the father had to cave on the issue of halting settlement expansion. Clinton failed to get Barak to give up all the Golan in 2000, a expectation that led Hafiz al-Assad to travel to Geneva to meet with Clinton.
How will the Obama administration square its contradictory policy demands: one, that it wants Israel-Syria peace; and two, that Syria must cut relations with Hizbullah and Hamas prior to engagement for such a peace?
Israelis argue that they cannot trust Syria to break with Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran once Syria has gotten back the Golan. In fact they are not even convinced that “flipping” Syria is worth the Golan. Syria will not trust Israel to give back the Golan once Syria has broken with its allies. In fact, Syria does not believe it should have to break with its allies to get back its rightful territory.
What is clear, however, is that Israel will not offer the Golan to Syria unless the US helps restore the skewed balance of power between Israel and Syria. Secretary of State Clinton has promised that the US will demand that Syria give up its bargaining cards before sitting down at the table. Obama in his interview of al-Arabiyya stated that “Israel’s security is paramount” to the US. He underlined this promise by vocalizing US support for Israel’s Gaza invasion. Israel was made to pay no price for invading Gaza, just as it paid no price for invading Lebanon in 2006, or bombing Syria in 2007. These freebe operations have convinced Israelis that they do not have to make concessions or compromise with their enemies. The confirmation that war works for Israel can be found in elections earlier this month. Israelis moved squarely to the right. They know that war works; the two state solution no longer has to be entertained, and that the US will side with Israel when it decides to use force rather than diplomacy. For these reasons, it is very difficult to envisage a scenario in which Syria will actually get back the Golan. Yes, there will be talks and plenty of discussions and process, but no peace.
See Richard Haass’ Newsweek article: Obama Should Talk To Syria Now:
….It may be difficult to make peace with Syria, but it will be all but impossible to make peace in the region without it. President Obama correctly views dialogue as a tool, not a reward. It is time to put the tool to use, and to see what can be built.
Also See Aluf Benn in Haaretz: “Can Israel make peace with Syria without leaving Golan?” This is important as it may reflect Netanyahu’s approach.
On the eve of the election, while visiting the Golan and planting a tree for Tu Bishvat (Hebrew Arbor Day), Netanyahu declared that, “Gamla will not fall again” and “the Golan will remain in our hands.” According to him, “For 35 years this has been the quietest border we have because we are on the Golan, not below it.” On other occasions, he has declared that withdrawal from the Heights would turn it into “an Iranian base.” He sees the indirect negotiations Prime Minister Ehud Olmert conducted with the Syrians as having offered concessions without recompense, as a useless move that served only to extricate Syrian President Bashar Assad from international isolation. An agreement that would include only a limited withdrawal, however, in which Israel would “remain on the Golan,” does not contradict Netanyahu’s principles.
The following is a small portion of a recent email interchange I had with a military analyst who was tasked with gaming US negotiations with Syria:
I am thrilled about our new approach to diplomacy. But we have to be VERY careful with Syria. I genuinely believe Bashar wants to leave the dark side- but I think he believes he is in the cat-bird seat and will get more than he’ll have to give. With Syria’s record, that’s not acceptable.
If I am terrible off track, please let me know!
Analyst on the Hariri tribunal
The analysts I have spoken with here agree that the Tribunal will not find enough evidence to implicate Bashar. They might be able to implicate some Syrian intel officers who Syria won’t turn over the Tribunal. So either way it is sticky. But I am not so sure nothing will be found on Bashar. The Saudis hate Bashar and have already accused Syria of 30 years of political assassinations- including Hariri- and of fermenting turmoil in the region. What if they are able to provide information? (Which they might do if Bashar does not cooperate and pull back on his support to resistance groups and move away from Iran.) If the west is deep in its courtship of Bashar, this could all prove very embarrassing and we’d have to do a 180. From a Red Team perspective, that is what I am writing on.
I think Syria sees things quite differently. You write:
“I genuinely believe Bashar wants to leave the dark side- but I think he believes he is in the cat-bird seat and will get more than he’ll have to give. With Syria’s record, that’s not acceptable.”
Syria, of course, does not believe it exists on the “dark side.” It believes America exists on the “dark side” because of its support for Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians, responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, filling Syria with Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, and support for Israeli’s recent killings in Lebanon and Gaza.
The failure to understand each others’ point of view is a fundamental problem. Both sides have demonized the other and believe that they are blameless and acting honorably when they kill people. Syria believes that it has protected its people from civil war as both Iraq and Lebanon failed to do, or the loss of a state, as the Palestinian leadership failed to do. Syria remains independent, free from terrorism, a defender of “Arab rights,” a regional power — all things that make Syrians proud. Of course they have sacrificed for this in low economic preformance and diplomatic isolation, but, they are not without pride and righteousness.
Syria may believe it has some good cards to play, but it believes that the US and Israel will cheat it because Syria is weak – and Syrians are only too conscious of their military weakness. They must depend on their alliances with Hizbullah, Hamas, and Iran to make up for their own military weakness.
Syria worries that Washington will demand its long list of concessions from Syria and will be unable or unwilling to force Israel to deliver the Golan. This is what happened the last time when Hafiz believed he had the promise only to discover in Geneva that it was not true and Clinton would be a “rug merchant.”
In fact Americans do not know and cannot say with any confidence that they can deliver the Golan.
Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas are crucial levers to Syria in negotiating with Israel which is so much stronger than Syria. The US wants Syria to abandon them before sponsoring Golan talks. Syria will not do this because it feels certain that Israel and the US only want to divide and conquer – separate it from its allies so it can isolate and destroy it.
As for whether the Saudis have any evidence on Syria that they have held back, I don’t know about such things.