Perthes and Dobbins on Damascus' Role - Syria Comment

Perthes and Dobbins on Damascus’ Role

By James Dobbins
Thursday, September 20, 2007
International Herald Tribune 

WASHINGTON: On Sept. 6, Israeli aircraft bombed Syria and also seem to have violated Turkish airspace. So far, the Israeli government has offered no explanation. Does this mean we on the verge of another Middle East war, to accompany those underway, recently suspended, or in the offing in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza?

Is the United States trying to head off this latest conflict, or has it given Israel the green light?

Of course, Israel has a good case for bombing Syria. The Syrians are helping resupply Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon so that they might at some point begin lobbing rockets at Israel. But then Israel and Syria have never lacked for reasons to go to war. Israel, for example, has occupied a substantial chunk of Syrian territory since 1973. So the issue is not whether one or the other is justified in going to war, but rather what either can hope to gain from one.

On the face of it, neither country has anything to gain from war, since neither can possibly prevail. Syria is too weak reconquer its lost territory and Israel is too small to take and hold much more of Syria.

Both, however, have more subtle objectives in view. Israel wants to restore the prestige and deterrent credibility lost last year in its ill-conceived invasion of Lebanon. Syria wants to sustain pressure upon Israel via its Lebanese proxies with a view to boosting its stature in the region and ultimately ending the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.

The real issue is what Washington has to gain from another Middle East war. The Bush administration has acknowledged that Israel attacked Syrian last week, but has not given any indication that the United States sought to prevent it, or discourage a repetition.

That Israel was considering such an attack has been widely known in official circles for several months, so Washington could have weighed in with Tel Aviv had it chosen to do so.

Unnamed American officials have been quoted suggesting that Syria has a nuclear weapons program. So does Israel, of course. That Syria could hide such an activity for any length of time does seem improbable.

The world had decades of notice regarding the Indian, Pakistani, Iranian and North Korean programs before they reached fruition. It would be quite surprising if Syria were anywhere close to acquiring and mastering the needed technologies. Maybe North Korea has gone into the business of selling ready-made bombs, but that too seems unlikely.

In any case, one would like to know more.

In the run up to last year's Israeli attack on Lebanon, which was sparked by Hezbollah's cross-border raid and capture of an Israeli army soldier, the White House is reported to have actually encouraged an invasion. It has also been widely reported that the Bush administration has discouraged any discussions between the Israeli and Syrian governments designed to address the issues at the heart of their conflict, most notably recovery of the Golan Heights.

Given this recent history, it is reasonable to ask what, if any, signal the Bush administration sent leading up to, or in reaction to, this latest attack.

The American people have been understandably focused on the war in Iraq over the past weeks.

It is important to recognize, however, that Iraq is only one of half a dozen civil and international conflicts that are underway, in tenuous suspension, or in prospect throughout that region.

A Middle East literally in flames from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean is by no means a distant or unrealistic prospect. So finding out exactly what the United States is doing to forestall a war between Israel and Syria would seem important.

James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state, directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization

By Volker Perthes
Thursday, September 20, 2007
International Herald Tribune 

DAMASCUS: Meeting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria these days gives you the impression of a much more relaxed, self-confident and, some Syrian observers would add, mature decision-maker than the man who assumed power upon the death of his father seven years ago.

This is not so much the result of his "re-election" in a referendum this summer, whose results were never in doubt, as of the fact that Assad is clearly in control of his regime – even if that regime may not be totally in control of all parts of the country. Assad makes the decisions, with no old guard or serious contenders in his way.

Syria is a complex and complicated country, not simply a rogue state. Even if the international tribunal establishes that members of the governing elite and some of their friends in Lebanon were responsible for the killing of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and other political murders, politics won't end. Syria remains a key element in any serious attempts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

In certain respects, Syria already plays a helpful role in the region. The country today hosts at least 1.2 million Iraqi refugees. Even though it has decided to restrict the entry of Iraqis, up till now it has been the only country that kept its doors open for those fleeing violence and chaos in Iraq.

Iraqis who reach Syria are given free access to Syria's overburdened education and health system. In proportion to Syria's population, the 1.2 million refugees in Syria would equal 6 million in Germany or more than 20 million in the United States.

Little wonder that Syrians increasingly complain that they have to pay an enormous part of the costs for a U.S. experiment in their neighborhood that went wrong.

Syria's main interest with regard to the region concerns Israel and the prospect of regaining the Golan Heights. Having followed Syrian affairs for some 20 years, and after recent discussions with the highest decision makers in Damascus, I believe Assad and his regime would grasp at the chance for a peaceful settlement with Israel if it was in the cards.

They want a settlement not out of any pacifist motives but out of enlightened self-interest. Assad knows that he would boost his legitimacy at home if he were to bring back national territory his father lost 40 years ago. Finding a peaceful settlement with Israel would also bring him back in sync with Syria's traditionally most important partners in the Middle East – Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Peace with Israel would improve his relations to the United States, and it would make the region a more attractive place for foreign investors who today are concerned about the tension in the region.

Attracting more Arab, Asian, European or even American capital is clearly part of Assad's vision for his country – not a democratization, but a modernization project.

Syria is also afraid of being left out if Israel was to make peace with the Palestinians and settle its remaining territorial issues with Lebanon. Syrians are probably right in assuming that in such a situation, there would be less interest internationally in resolving the Golan issue.

There have always been voices in Israel arguing that Syria is not really interested in an outcome of negotiations, but only in the process. Israel will only find out if it tries. What is certain now is that Syria seeks to avoid any confrontation that could undo the chances of a renewed process.

Whatever it was that Israeli fighter jets hit earlier this month in northern Syria, Damascus chose to react only with diplomatic protests. Israelis should also be aware that Syrians, even liberal elements critical of the regime, share the same doubts regarding Israel's intentions.

What I found particularly interesting during my latest discussions in Syria was that in contrast to the situation in the last couple of years, the Syrian leadership today has very concrete ideas about how negotiations should be brought back on track, where difficulties remain and where there might be movement.

They have certainly reviewed the experience of earlier negotiations – something they would not do if they were not interested in a different outcome.

If foreign powers are indeed interested in reaching a comprehensive, regional peace and nudging Syria into a more constructive role in the region, they should seize the opportunity which Syria's internal disposition offers.

Concretely, this means the Bush administration should invite Syria to the planned Middle East conference in November. Even if the main focus of this conference is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Syria would underline that eventually a settlement has to be achieved on all tracks, and would acknowledge Syria's role as a legitimate stakeholder in a regional settlement – at least on a par with Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

Europeans should both continue their quiet diplomatic efforts to narrow the gaps of understanding between Jerusalem and Damascus, and help Syria prepare for a regional environment with open borders, economic and societal exchanges, and competition that includes Israel.

Negotiations for an association agreement between the European Union and Syria were concluded three years ago. If it was implemented, the agreement would give a boost to the economic reforms in Syria, and it would also institutionalize a political and a human-rights dialogue with Damascus.

Rather than continuing to keep the agreement on hold, the EU should begin the ratification process and thereby make use of an instrument designed to influence, not to reward Syria.

Such agreements are certainly not intended as instruments for regime change. But they can help the foundations for gradual, and thereby more sustainable, socioeconomic and sociopolitical exchange.

Volker Perthes is director of the the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

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