Syria sta­tus quo serves whom?

The Financial Daily - - MONEY & FOREX -

The fate of Syrian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad is one of those rare sub­jects where Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans largely see eye to eye. They want him to sur­vive.

There is no love lost be­tween Is­rael and Damascus, and many Pales­tini­ans are wary of As­sad, whose ad­min­is­tra­tion has tried to blame them for the un­rest roil­ing Syria.

But he is a pre­dictable part­ner and his oust­ing would lead in­evitably to pro­longed un­cer­tainty.

"Both sides would pre­fer As­sad to stay in power. It is a case of 'bet­ter the devil you know'," said Gabriel Ben­Dor, di­rec­tor of na­tional se­cu­rity stud­ies at Haifa Univer­sity. "Nei­ther side thinks that any­thing bet­ter will nec­es­sar­ily come out of these par­tic­u­lar dis­tur­bances, and they fear that if As­sad goes there would be a long pe­riod of in­sta­bil­ity." Is­rael has been forced to re­view its strate­gic op­tions on a weekly ba­sis this year. Hav­ing seen the over­throw of its most trusted Mid­dle East ally, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, it now faces pos­si­ble up­heaval in its heav­ily armed north­east­ern neigh­bour.

Un­like Egypt, Syria never made peace with Is­rael fol­low­ing a 1973 war, but it has stuck rig­or­ously to its dis­en­gage­ment com­mit­ments, es­tab­lish­ing a se­cu­rity sta­tus quo that has suited both sides down the years.

Much less to Is­rael's lik­ing is the fact that Syria backs two of its most ac­tive en­e­mies -- Lebanon's Hezbol­lah and the Pales­tinian Ha­mas Is­lamists -- and some an­a­lysts sug­gest change in Damascus could even­tu­ally ben­e­fit the Jewish state. But oth­ers ar­gue that should the protests shak­ing Syria even­tu­ally lead to the oust­ing of the coun­try's lead­er­ship, as has hap­pened in Tu­nisia and Egypt, then Sunni Mus­lim ex­trem­ists could fill the vac­uum and make Damascus much more rad­i­cal.

"The idea that these regimes will be re­placed by lib­eral democ­ra­cies is too good to be true," said Moshe Ma'oz, a Syria ex­pert and pro­fes­sor at He­brew Univer­sity in Jerusalem.

IN­CU­BAT­ING FAC­TIONS Just as the Is­raelis are silently mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Syria, so too are the Pales­tini­ans in Gaza, which is run by Ha­mas, and the West Bank, ruled by a pro-West­ern ad­min­is­tra­tion.

"What hap­pens in Syria may have a greater im­por­tance for Pales­tini­ans than events else­where for sev­eral rea­sons. Firstly, 400,000 Pales­tini­ans live there, and the of­fices of many fac­tions are also there," said Waleed Al-Awad, a leader of the Pales­tinian Peo­ple Party, a PLO fac­tion. Syria has been the in­cu­ba­tor for sev­eral rad­i­cal Pales­tinian groups, and the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ships of both Ha­mas and Is­lamic Ji­had, whose mil­i­tants in Gaza reg­u­larly fire rock­ets into Is­raeli ter­ri­tory, are based in Damascus. An­a­lysts be­lieve nei­ther group wants As­sad un­seated, and say Pales­tini­ans could be acting as a but­tress for his gov­ern­ment, dis­miss­ing hints from Damascus that un­named "for­eign­ers" might be or­ches­trat­ing the dis­con­tent. "The pres­ence of the main Pales­tinian re­sis­tance fac­tions gives Syria's regime some in­ter­nal strength,"said Pales­tinian po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Talal Okal, who lives in Gaza. Ha­mas and Is­lamic Ji­had would al­most cer­tainly have to find new homes should As­sad fall and be re­placed by any proWestern gov­ern­ment with am­bi­tions to dis­tance it­self from Shi'ite Iran. That would be the best case sce­nario for Is­rael, which fears Iran's nu­clear am­bi­tions and wants to see it ut­terly iso­lated. "Syria plays an in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant role in Iran's ef­fort to in­flu­ence and con­trol the re­gion," said Josh Block, a fel­low with the Pro­gres­sive Pol­icy In­sti­tute in the United States.

"If As­sad were to go it would se­verely weaken Ha­mas, Hezbol­lah, Iran; all the forces that op­pose the peace process."

GOLAN HEIGHTS The emer­gence of a less hos­tile ad­min­is­tra­tion in Syria could also fi­nally open the door to a long-elu­sive peace deal with Is­rael, op­ti­mists say.

All pre­vi­ous at­tempts to se­cure a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment be­tween the old foes have failed -- most re­cently in 2008 when in­di­rect talks bro­kered by Tur­key broke down af­ter Is­rael at­tacked Gaza in a bid to end Ha­mas's re­peated rocket strikes.

Is­raelis are sharply split over whether it is worth pur­su­ing peace with Syria, which would in­evitably in­volve re­turn­ing the Golan Heights, a bor­der plateau seized by Is­rael in 1967 and later an­nexed, in a move re­jected in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Ad­vo­cates of do­ing a deal say Is­rael has to nor­malise re­la­tions with all its neigh­bours if it wants a se­cure fu­ture. Op­po­nents say Syria has noth­ing to of­fer Is­rael that would jus­tify the mil­i­tary, eco­nomic and psy­cho­log­i­cal costs of giv­ing up the Golan, home to some 20,000 Is­raeli set­tlers. But any talk of a peace deal at present is ab­surd. Is­rael has said it needs a sta­ble en­vi­ron­ment to talk peace and an­a­lysts doubt whether suc­ces­sors to As­sad would rush into ne­go­ti­a­tions, for fear of harm­ing their cred­i­bil­ity at home with a do­mes­tic au­di­ence weaned on anti-Is­raeli rhetoric.

"Any new regime is not go­ing to be able to com­pro­mise its le­git­i­macy by reach­ing any agree­ment with Is­rael," said Haifa Univer­sity's Ben-Dor.

How­ever, should As­sad hold on to power, he might prove more flex­i­ble with the West in an ef­fort to strengthen Syria's econ­omy and quell pub­lic anger over poverty and un­em­ploy­ment.

"If he stays he might prove more prag­matic," said Syria ex­pert Ma'oz, ar­gu­ing that As­sad wanted per­ma­nent peace. "He wants the Golan Heights from Is­rael. His fa­ther lost it ... and the pres­tige in­volved is very im­por­tant to him."-Reuters

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