Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 May 2008
Issue No. 895
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

The struggle for Syria

Israel's offer to return the Golan is a ruse betraying ulterior agendas, writes Hassan Nafaa*

The Struggle for Syria is the title of Patrick Seale's 1965 book in which he reviews internal and external Syrian developments from 1946 up to its merger union with Egypt that gave birth to the United Arab Republic on 22 February 1958. In retrospect, the book's accounting of Syria's regional situation and the modalities of its interaction with the surrounding international environment turned out to be nothing short of prophetic.

The struggle for Syria, which started since World War II, has not ended. A pattern seems to exist in which Syria acts as the region's tipping point. At crucial moments, Syria turns out to be in a position to call the shots and influence the direction and speed of events in the region. Those crucial moments have been recurring frequently of late. Even before the US invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, Syria managed to become a main player amid power relations that evolved in the region following the Camp David Accords, the Iranian Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq war.

Certain developments in the region allowed Syria to especially bolster its influence in Lebanon. Within a few years, Syria evolved to become the supreme power in Lebanese political life. Since then, Syria went into Kuwait with other coalition forces. It also participated in the Madrid peace conference.

Damascus, however, didn't keep all its eggs in one basket. It cultivated cordial ties with Washington but otherwise kept its options open. It negotiated with Israel, but refused to be pushed around. Syria's desire to retain room for manoeuvre may explain its firm, though flexible, opposition to the Oslo Accords Yasser Arafat signed in 1993 without consulting Damascus. The Syrians also forged close ties with Iran despite the latter's opposition to peace with Israel. And they continued to provide support to Hizbullah and Palestinian resistance factions.

While hedging their bets, the Syrians managed to: consolidate their position in Lebanon, take charge of the country's political scene, and link the Lebanese track of Arab-Israeli peace talks with their own; cement relations with Hizbullah and provide it, in coordination with Iran, with all the help it needed to stand firm -- as a result, Hizbullah managed to escalate its military resistance and eventually forced Israel to unconditionally withdraw from Lebanon in 2000; host the political and media offices of various Palestinian resistance factions, something that alienated the Americans while Washington knew it needed Syria on its side, particularly after the failure of the 1999 Geneva Conference on the Golan and the 2000 Camp David summit on Palestine.

The US administration kept cordial ties with Damascus up to the moment President Bush and his coterie of right-wing conservatives took power. Things took a turn for the worst following 9/11 and the US decision to invade Iraq. Syria's utter and firm opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the last straw breaking what used to be a workable relation. As the invading US army became Syria's next-door neighbour, all bets were off. Damascus was left with two choices. One was to cooperate with the new US policy, which meant agreeing to a settlement on Israel's terms and endorsing whatever regional map the US and Israel had in mind. The other choice was to reject US policies. Damascus didn't have to think long. Agreeing to US demands would have been suicide for the Syrian regime.

In effect, the Syrians were being asked to give up the regional influence they had long enjoyed. The US wanted Damascus to sever its relations with Iran, Hizbullah and the Palestinian resistance without giving it anything in return, not even a guarantee that Israel would withdraw from the Syrian land it occupied in 1967. What the Americans were really after was Iran and Hizbullah and the Syrians knew that. The US administration, having taken control of Iraq, was hoping to change the map of the Middle East, either peacefully or militarily.

Having assessed the situation carefully, the Syrians dug in their heels. Damascus refused to renew the term of president Emile Lahoud, despite promises it is said to have given to that effect. President Bashar Al-Assad perhaps didn't expect Chirac to make such a big deal out of the Lahoud debacle. But Chirac was eager to use the occasion to placate the US and expiate for his opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. Lebanon soon became a testing ground for newfound US-French cooperation, one that resulted in UN action. Security Council Resolution 1559 was the first shot in a new phase of the "struggle for Syria". In the ensuing drama many lives would be lost, including that of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

Even after the Syrians pulled out of Lebanon, Hizbullah wasn't left alone. The Lebanese resistance movement was asked to lay down its arms and be a strictly political party. When these pressures failed, preparations started for military action against the Lebanese resistance group. The right moment came when Hizbullah waged a military operation during which it captured and killed Israeli soldiers. This sparked the summer 2006 war in Lebanon.

The 2006 Lebanon war was but another chapter in the "struggle for Syria". Its main objective was to disarm Hizbullah and end Syria's alliance with Iran. The next step would have been a military strike against Iran. But this wasn't to be, for Hizbullah managed to teach the Israelis a lesson. Since then, Hizbullah has been coming under mounting pressure from its Lebanese opponents. And Syria was again asked, mostly in secret talks, to abandon its coalition with both Iran and Hizbullah. Were it to do so, Damascus was promised the Golan as reward.

Israel has seemingly just informed the Syrians that it would be willing to give up the land it occupied in 1967 in future talks. The offer, relayed by Erdogan, is but another episode in the "struggle for Syria". You would think that the shift in Israel's position removes a major obstacle to a peaceful settlement in the Middle East. But that would be wishful thinking. Israel's strategic position, in my view, remains unchanged. If news of the recent Israeli offer is confirmed, this can only indicate a tactical shift on the part of Israel -- an attempt to extract certain concessions from the Syrians. And even if the Israelis really mean what they say, their timing is suspicious.

Israel's overture towards the Syrians comes at a time when Palestinian-Israeli and Palestinian-US talks are stalled. It is highly unlikely that any progress will be achieved on the Palestinian track before the end of Bush's term. Even more remarkably, Israel has been building settlements at an accelerating pace since Annapolis, without a word of protest from the US. Meanwhile, various Arab mediators have been actively trying to reconcile the Palestinians in order to lift the blockade and provide a more favourable climate for peace talks.

Israel, in my opinion, is simply trying to distance Damascus from Iran, the Palestinians, and perhaps Hizbullah. The Israelis are feigning readiness to give up the Golan and to sit down and discuss all details. The whole exercise is designed to neutralise Damascus while Israel and US ponder strikes against Iran and Hizbullah.

No one can ask the Syrians to turn down an offer to get back the Golan. But one must question the sincerity of the Israelis. Even if they are sincere, they will inevitably ask Damascus to give up supporting Hizbullah and Hamas. Are the Syrians, with their well-known pan- Arab record, willing to play along?

* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

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