Thursday, October 12, 2006

Israel and Syria: To talk or not to talk…

"Greetings from your Israeli reader and occasional correspondent. I'd be interested in hearing your views on the following matter.

Shimon Peres, Israel's inveterate devotee of the peace process, has ruffled a few feathers in the Prime Minister's office by calling for negotiations with Syria. This, in response to an apparent spate of newspaper interviews by Assad suggesting the peace process could move forward (ignoring, or winking an eye at Assad's simultaneous beating of the war drums). A prominent conservative Israeli economic columnist made an argument this morning in the economic supplement of Haaretz that now is the time for Israel to play the Syrian card, since Assad is opposed to Muslim fundamentalism, and peace with Israel could move him away from his alliance with Iran.

[These points come as] compelling arguments for Israelis politically adrift after the collapse of both the Oslo process (Barak) and unilateralism (Olmert). [They are] even more compelling for the Israeli left whose entire ideological fabric has been torn asunder. The questions this raises are obviously quite serious. Are Assad's flirtations a ruse to defuse international pressure over the Hariri assassination, an opportunity to move him in the right direction by use of a carrot, or both? Would heating up the Syrian-Israeli peace process strengthen a corrupt regime by shattering its isolation, lead to a simultaneous internal thaw and subsequent democratic change, or both? Would an Israel-Syria dialogue weaken the Assad-Ahmadinejad axis or allow it to continue under conditions of reduced international pressure? And as far as the hopes of the Israeli peace camp is concerned, is Assad another Sadat or another Arafat? No, you don't need to answer in black and white terms, but I'm sure these questions are relevant to the democratic camp in the Arab world as well as in Israel. Look forward to hearing from you."

Hi there,

These are some very interesting questions indeed. Let me put things in this succinct and to-the-point format:

* It will very embarrassing for Israel and the international community to embrace Bashar now only to discover in a few months time, when Brammertz issues the final report, that he, or high-ranking members of the regime, are actually involved in the Hariri assassination. For this reason, it would make much more sense for all the actors involved, the Israelis, the Europeans and the Americans, to say that negotiations with Syria could indeed take place but only following the conclusion of the investigation and depending on its outcome and on how the Syrian regime chooses to conduct itself in the interim period, and after. This is a very reasonable position to assume, and it shows that the international community, not to mention Israel, is not willing to jeopardize and waylay an ongoing investigation by embracing a suspect regime.

For attempting to actually “kill” the Hariri investigation, or to manipulate it by watering down its final conclusions is destined to backfire as it will end up sidelining the last few liberal figures and movements in the region, and will serve as a further argument in the arsenal of extremist forces regarding the hypocrisy of the international community, and the US in particular for all its democracy rhetoric.

** People will be wrong to conclude that the Assads' apparent desire to negotiate with Israel denotes a willingness to break with their Iranian backers. On the contrary, talks with Israel will be closely monitored and coordinated with the Iranians, and will serve as another instrument in the hand of the Iranian leaders to weaken the emerging international alliance against their nuclear designs, and to prevent its consolidation, by allowing the Iranians leaders to cast themselves in the garb of regional peacemakers.


Well, when public meetings and consultations continue to take place between the Assads and various high level Iranian officials all through the talks, and when some elements pertaining to Iranian concerns be put on the table, including certain issues related to Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Shebaa Farms, the Iranians can go on a PR campaign meant to polish their image making them appear more reasonable and pragmatic. Indeed, and in due course of time the successful conclusion of the talks will become intricately linked to launching negotiations with Iran as well.

Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, especially if you reconciled to accepting Iran’s “right” to develop its own nuclear program, and if you are willing to believe that weapons are not part of the plans, or that regional stability is still achievable even with a nuclear Iran, and that Iran’s nuclear successes are not going to inspire similar ambitions across the region (including in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, etc.) But if you have a problem with any of this, and if you are seriously thinking about ways to isolate Iran, then, you should really be aware here that peace talks with the Assads are in no way conducive to this end, and that they might in fact backfire.

*** We should also bear in mind that the Iranians could create a lot of problems for the Assads should they contemplate charting an independent course at this stage. They have too much riding on them. But, I do not think that this is a major concern for the Iranians really, for they have managed to establish a firm grip on the Assads to the extant that Syria's foreign policy is today being effectively drafted in Tehran. As such, negotiations with the Assads will come as indirect negotiations with the Iranians, and perhaps a (necessary?) prelude to them.

****As for empowering a corrupt and authoritarian regime, I wouldn’t worry too much about that, I think the Assads are beyond empowerment at this stage, peace or no peace. There is nothing that they or anyone else can do that will prevent the implosion of Syria at the not-too-distant future. But I will elaborate on this matter in a future posting.