Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009
Will Syria Benefit from Israel’s Invasion of Gaza?
Joshua Landis, Syria Comment, 21 Jan. 2009
The question on the minds of many Syrians is whether Israel’s onslaught against Gaza will benefit Syria. Few speak about it because it is heartless to contemplate benefit at a time of loss for so many.
Clearly, everyone has lost because of the hatred and destruction caused by the Gaza invasion. Syria has broken off talks with Israel and set new conditions for re-engaging — the convocation of an international conference. This sets a higher bar for the resumption of talks, but there is plenty of wiggle room in such conditions. All the same, the benefits of bilateral Syrian-Israeli talks had reached their limits, making the need for broader multi-lateral talks urgent. Both Syria and Israel are demanding wider engagement. Syria wants the US involved. Israel wants to set conditions that involved both Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas. Lebanon wants the US to guarantee that Lebanese sovereignty will not be sacrificed. Both Syria and Israel have broader regional and international conditions for peace between them. Only talks recognizing the broader implications of peace and the broader interconnections of security issues can succeed. But even if the Gaza invasion has made bridging differences between Arabs and Israel more difficult, it underlined the urgency and importance of resolving the conflict. It is not a side issue; it is central.
Syria has benefited from the renewed international awareness that the Arab-Israeli conflict is crucial to any broader Middle East settlement. Obama will have to engage Syria if he wants to attenuate regional divisions and radicalism. Many advising Obama insist that he can ill afford to waste precious political capital trying to fix the hopeless Arab-israeli conflict. They urge him to limit his efforts to Iraq and Afghanistan. In short, they want Israel to get a pass on continued settlement and the Golan. The violence in Gaza proved how dangerous this argument is. America’s allies and regional clout are badly damaged by the ongoing injustices of the Israeli occupation. There will be no winning the war on terror until the festering Palestine conflict is resolved. It is a constant source of renewed hatred, frustration and radicalism throughout the Muslim world precisely because it is an issue over which the US has great influence. Moreover, it is a daily referendum on Washington’s attitude toward Arabs and Muslims.
The war also brought home to us how Iran’s involvement in Arab divisions is derivative. Many analysts insist that Iran is the problem, not Israel. In fact, they argue that Israel is the answer to America’s regional challenges, because Israel can work with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt in order to overpower and defeat America’s enemies allied with Iran. They bolster this argument by insisting that Hizbullah, Hamas, and Syria are Iranian surrogates. They demonize them and insist that they are warlike and terrorist by nature and not by contingency or necessity. But this argument is nonsense.
The “moderate” Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, work with the US and ally with Israel because they have resolved their conflict with the Jewish state. Saudi Arabia can do so because it never had one. In short, the “moderates” are moderate because they have no conflict with Israel. The radicals are radical because they do. Syria, the Shiites of Southern Lebanon, the Palestinians, and the broad opinion of Arabs, who sympathize with their Palestinian cousins are radical because Israel occupies their land. Syria is compelled to fan the flames of hatred and violence because it calculates — and perhaps correctly — that only militant passions can win back their land and restore lost dignity. They are convinced that America, and increasingly the “moderate” Arab governments, want them to cede their land to Israel in the name of Arab unity and fighting Iran. They will not do this.
It is not a coincidence that the Arab World is divided along lines defined by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran did not create this conflict, it merely exploits it. To restore Arab unity and restore the balance between Arab states and Iran, Washington must convince Israel to abandon its occupation. It must find a way to restore land taken from neighboring states. Of course the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the only conflict in the region, but it is central.
The invasion of Gaza has laid bare once again the ugly truths of the Arab-Israeli conflict, just as it has clarified how contingent on it are America’s prestige and policies. Stability, moderation, and balance will not reign until Washington addresses this issue honestly and forcefully. Syria is the leading Arab state involved in this conflict, leaving Obama little choice but to engage it seriously and soon.