Israel, the Palestinians, the ‘known’ Assad(s) and the ‘unknown’ future of Syria, By Michael Bishku
Until recently the idiom ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ applied to attitude of the Israeli government and that of the Palestinian leadership toward President Assad of Syria -- and indeed even to his father Hafez -- who together have controlled the affairs of that country since 1970. Today, both Israel and the PA seem to share some ideas regarding Middle Eastern politics -- and they both want to avoid getting directly involved in the Syrian civil war The ambivalence on the parts of both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority toward Syria has historical roots. Of Israel’s immediate neighbors, Syria has been historically the most antagonistic toward the Jewish state in rhetoric and in its negotiating posture, and conversely the most sympathetic and supportive of the Palestinians’ quest for statehood. Yet, since the end of 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the border between Syria and Israel -- albeit the shortest in length of the Jewish state’s frontiers -- has been relatively quiet and military action involving or impacting on those neighbors has been most intense when operating through groups such as Hezbullah and Hamas that have had close ties with the Syrians (and Iranians).
Today, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) seem to share some similar ideas regarding Middle Eastern politics with other countries in the region. In addition to which, they would both like to avoid getting directly involved in the Syrian civil war. For Israel to do so would damage formal relations with Jordan, as well as informal understandings with Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf states, who seek stability in the Middle Eastern region and do not want to give Iran any justification for promoting its nuclear program or for interfering in the affairs of the Arab world. As for the PA, it is concerned about the safety of Syria’s Palestinian population, for which it is unable to provide protection, and is heavily dependent upon the political and economic support of the West and conservative Arab governments. Meanwhile, the US sees the current situation as providing an opportunity to reach a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the PA.
Naturally, over the years, as a result of emergence of pan-Arabism, the politics of the Cold War, the establishment of the Islamic government in Iran and greater support for Islamism in the Arab public, and lastly the overthrow of longstanding dictators in the Arab world, the geopolitics of the Middle East -- and more specifically the dynamics of relations between Israel and its immediate neighbors -- have changed significantly. While at this time the Syrian civil war appears to be the primary focus for all the countries in the Middle East (and one that has very important ramifications for world politics), the political and military actions of both Israel and the Palestinians
have been and continue to receive greater attention than any other issues affecting that region. What the future has in store for Syrian-Israeli, Syrian-Palestinian, and even Israeli-Palestinian relations as a result of the eventual outcome of the Syrian Civil War and the ongoing processes of the “Arab Spring” can only be surmised, but the unstable political situation in Iraq and the continuing sectarian strife and assertion of Kurdish rights in that country since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, as well as the secular-Islamist divisions in Egypt, may offer some insight.
ISRAEL, THE PALESTINIANS AND SYRIA: HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
In July 1949 Syria became the last Arab neighbor to sign an armistice agreement with Israel following the First Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49; Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan had preceded it. However, Syria’s military leaders Husni al-Zaim and Adib Shishakli explored the possibilities of signing a peace agreement with Israel in 1949 and 1952, respectively; under such accords Syria might have absorbed about 300,000500,000 Palestinian refugees in return for territory in around the Sea of Galilee. (Syria had accepted already about 100,000 Palestinian refugees after the 1948 war, and had given them the same opportunities as Syrians to attend universities, work in government service, and join labor unions and the army.) However, Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion regarded granting territorial concessions as a sign of weakness, and the Syrian leaders were anyway in weaker positions than King Abdullah of Jordan, who was assassinated by a Palestinian in 1951 after conducting very serious secret peace negotiations with Israel.
Also in 1951, the headquarters for the Arab League’s economic boycott of Israel was established in Damascus and over the years leading up to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the border area was the scene of armed confrontations as Syria opposed Israel’s use of lands in the area for agriculture and irrigational projects, as well as fishing on the Sea of Galilee. In 1954 Syria developed military ties with the Soviet bloc and the following year signed an alliance agreement with Egypt, then under the rule of the future pan-Arabist Gamal Abdel Nasser. Egypt had also developed military ties with the Soviet bloc. In 1956, Israel colluded with Great Britain and France in an invasion of Egypt in response to that
country’s blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba and support for Palestinian military attacks from Gaza; the British and French wanted revenge on Nasser for his nationalization of the Suez Canal, and also in the case of France for the Egyptian leader’s support of Algerian nationalist struggle for independence. Two years after the Suez War, Egypt brought Syria into the United Arab Republic, but the latter country reasserted its independence in 1961, and two years after that the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party came to power in Syria.
In 1963, Hafez al-Assad became head of the Syrian Air Force, and three years later was appointed minister of defense by fellow Alawite and Ba’athist Salah Jadid, who had become the leader of Syria that year. Assad blamed Jadid for the loss of the Golan Heights to Israel during the 1967 War and subsequently became a formidable rival, seizing power in 1970. Both Jadid and Assad encouraged attacks by Palestinian guerrillas against Israel, through neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, countries which attempted to prevent such incursions. Syria provided the Palestinians with two training camps and arms, and was the second country after Algeria to recognize Yasser Arafat’s Fatah -- founded in 1959, but remaining underground until the mid-1960s, just after the Arab League established the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964. Assad wanted to control Arafat and found the Palestinian leader to be too anxious to create an Arab-Israeli war, one that Syria was too weak to fight. In 1966, Assad imprisoned Arafat and a number of his associates for over a month, which drew the Palestinian leader closer to Egypt, where Nasser had supported the PLO then led by Ahmad Shuqayri. (Three years later, Arafat became chairman of the PLO as he had the largest guerrilla force in the movement, estimated to number about 15,000.) The PLO and Fatah played only a small role in the 1967 War, but would become far more active following that conflict, operating out of Lebanon and Jordan.
Full scale fighting took place in Jordan between the PLO and the Jordanian army during 1970-1971 as King Hussein regarded the Palestinian armed presence as a threat to his rule. Following its dispute with Arafat, the Syrian Ba’ath Party had created its own Palestinian faction called al-Sa’iqa, and Hafez al-Assad attempted to intervene in support of the Palestinian guerrillas engaged in what became known as “Black September,” but backed away after facing Jordanian resistance. King Hussein was reported to have requested Israel’s assistance. Naturally, the Palestinians felt betrayed. Three years later, Syria was unsuccessful in attempting to retake the Golan Heights militarily, but subsequently negotiated through US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a limited Israeli withdrawal. In 1976, Syria intervened in the Lebanese Civil War, originally in support of the Maronite Christians and against the PLO to maintain the political status quo and to deny Israel an excuse for intervening. The Israelis intervened anyway in 1978, and again on a much larger scale in 1982, establishing a security zone in southern Lebanon until 2000. In the process of the latter war, the PLO, which had been relocated to southern Lebanon following its defeat in Black September, was expelled from Lebanon.
SOME HAVE REFERRED TO HEZBULLAH AS A STATE WITHIN A STATE
THE EMERGENCE OF HEZBULLAH AND HAMAS
Syria, which had been the first Arab state to recognize the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 to counterbalance Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, whom it felt was giving covert aid to the Muslim Brotherhood, subsequently allowed Iranian Revolutionary Guards to operate in the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon to train Hezbullah to challenge Israel in guerrilla warfare. When the Lebanese Civil War ended following a negotiated settlement in 1990, Hezbullah was the only militia able to retain its structure and arms, and is today more powerful than the Lebanese army; it has continued to periodically conduct guerrilla warfare against the Israeli army, launch rockets into Israel, and to engage in attacks against Israeli officials and civilians abroad. Domestically it is represented in the Lebanese parliament (and with the help of its political allies has been able to exert extra influence within the government), provides social services, and has its own media outlets, despite having been implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Nevertheless, in 2006, Hezbullah gained a great deal of stature in the Arab world by militarily challenging Israel -- even though it resulted in numerous deaths. Some have referred to Hezbullah as a state within a state. They are definitely the most important political force in southern and eastern Lebanon, as well as in areas of Beirut, and clearly feel indebted to Syria. Indeed that
country was able to exercise extraordinary influence over Lebanon through its military presence there from the beginnings of the Lebanese civil war until the Cedar Revolution of 2005, and today there are many pro-Syrian politicians in the Lebanese government. As for Syria, during the 1990s its support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey was partially responsible for drawing that country closer to Israel; disputes over Turkey’s water usage of the Tigris and Euphrates also contributed to Turkish-Syrian tensions. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union affected both Syria and the PLO, as the state had been a major supporter of both Middle Eastern entities, while successor state Russia was weakened politically and economically. Furthermore, not only Russia, but the other successor states of the former Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and many countries in the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) either restored relations with or recognized Israel for the first time, especially after the PLO agreed to engage Israel in negotiations over their longstanding conflict in return for mutual recognition.
While Labor Party leaders in Israel appeared to publicly acknowledge the issue of the Palestinians, by the mid-1970s, they regarded it as a problem to be addressed in negotiations with Jordan, even though that Arab country was no longer able to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians due to an Arab League summit in Rabat in 1974 declaring that the PLO was the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The First Intifada, which began in 1987, together with the changed political situation in the Middle East in the post-Cold War era, caused Israel to reassess its position regarding the PLO in 1993. While Jordan followed suit and joined Egypt in signing a peace treaty with Israel the following year, Syria and Israel have not been able to settle their differences, even though relations between Syria and Turkey, which were on the verge of war, engaged in rapprochement after the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. This took place despite the fact that the Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam had described the Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership a few years earlier as the greatest threat to the Arabs since the events of 1948. When the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in Turkey a few years later they would not only improve relations with Syria, but also try to negotiate a peace agreement between that country and Israel. Well before then, Turkey attempted to balance its relations between Israel and the PLO. It had allowed the PLO to establish an office in Ankara in 1979, with the chief representative having the same rank as his Israeli counterpart, chargé d’affaires. In 1988, when the Palestinian National Council declared Palestinian statehood, Turkey became the 11th country in the world to recognize the new entity and the only member of NATO to do so. Three years later, following the jointly sponsored US-Soviet international Middle East peace conference in Madrid, Turkey upgraded its diplomatic relations with both Israel and the PLO to the ambassadorial level.
Turkey has continued to support the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and, during the Second Intifada (which began in 2000 and lasted about a half a decade) and afterward, Ankara at times expressed public dissatisfaction or outrage over Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Israel’s war against Hamas in December 2008-January 2009 soured relations with Turkey, which had established ties with the Palestinian organization. Hamas, a Sunni Islamist group founded during the First Intifada, won the majority of seats in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 and militarily challenged the secular Fatah, establishing undisputed control over the Gaza Strip the following year.
CURRENT DIVISIONS IN THE REGION
ISRAEL FOR THE MOST PART HAS SAT ON THE SIDELINES VIEWING CERTAIN DEVELOPMENTS IN THE ARAB SPRING
The Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in December 2010, came to Syria in March 2011. The most active opposition took place in Dara’a, a provincial city near the Jordanian border. Over the following month, protests spread to other parts of the country, while the army engaged in violent actions against civilians sending thousands of refugees into neighboring countries. By August, Western countries began calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey hosted a conference of leaders of Syrian opposition groups in İstanbul that formed the Syrian National Council (SNC). Two months later, Turkey gave sanctuary to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a militia originally composed of deserters from Syria’s armed forces. Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided financial support to acquire weapons. These countries together with Turkey, the US and France, created the “Friends of Syria” group in February 2012 to discuss policy and coordinate actions regarding Syria. Both former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi have tried unsuccessfully to mediate the conflict.
Meanwhile, Israel for the most part has sat on the sidelines viewing certain developments in the Arab Spring -- such as the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt -- as being detrimental to its interests. It welcomed Muhammad Morsi’s replacement with a military regime hostile to Hamas. Israel has provided medical assistance to Syrian civilians injured in the war and engaged in bombing raids designed to prevent Hezbullah from receiving Syrian weaponry, knowing that Syria would be either reluctant or unable to react militarily.
In return for Syrian political and Iranian financial support running to the billions of dollars, and despite vocal opposition from other Lebanese both from within government and outside fearing that their country could become a front in the Syrian civil war, Hezbullah committed several thousand fighters to assist Assad’s army in early 2013. They helped recapture the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border, in June, and in late October were deployed to the mountainous Qalamoun region, north of Damascus, to engage insurgents including the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. It also has hit squads whose task is to assassinate Sunni rebel military leaders. Most Palestinian groups, on the other hand, including Hamas, have disassociated themselves from the Syrian regime due to its brutality and the civil war’s having becoming a sectarian conflict -- or at the very least they have attempted to stay clear of taking sides (either within Syria or regarding actions associated with that conflict that have spilled over into Lebanon) for fear of retribution. Indeed, in July 2013, PA President Mahmoud Abbas on a visit to Lebanon assured his Lebanese counterpart Michel Suleiman of such. There are an estimated 350,000 Palestinians living in 12 refugee camps in Lebanon, and Abbas is well aware that Arafat’s support of Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait led that latter country to expel Palestinian residents who comprised about 30 percent of Kuwait’s population. He (and most others connected with factions in the PLO) prefer a negotiated internal political solution, but meanwhile feel responsible for looking out for the welfare of Palestinian refugees. During December 2012 and January 2013 Abbas offered to accept in the West Bank refugees from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, housing some 100,000 to 150,000 of Syria’s 450,000 to 500,000 Palestinians residing in 10 camps, but was rebuffed by the Israeli government. Syrian government forces had attacked the camp in support
of its Palestinian allies in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLPGC) led by Ahmad Jibril. While the PFLP-GC seems to be the only faction overtly supporting Assad’s regime, Palestinians remain much divided.
Indeed, The Economist summed the situation up quite well in May 2013: “Old loyalties die hard. Some Palestinians look to Assad’s Syria as the region’s last bastion of secular Arab nationalism, and deem the rebellion a conspiracy cooked up by Gulf and Western powers.” The same article points out that according to a poll by the University of Haifa, more than one in four Arab-Israelis support Assad: “but confusion abounds. Some like Azmi Bishara, a prominent Christian politician who fled Israel in 2007 amid allegations of espionage, have turned from defending to deploring Mr. Assad; liberals have retracted initial support for the rebels, shocked by their Islamist radicalism and violence.” 1
Nevertheless, Hamas’ leadership has taken sides, though they prefer a political solution to the Syrian civil war. In February 2013, Khalid Meshaal closed down Hamas’ office in Damascus, where he had resided since 1999, and left for Doha, Qatar, while his prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, who resides in the Gaza Strip, told Friday worshipers at Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque around that time, “I salute the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform.” 2
Since then, according to the UAE’s Gulf News, Hamas has denied categorically allegations emanating from “Western diplomats and sources in the Syrian opposition” that they are training FSA rebels. 3 Yet when Qatar-based Egyptian theologian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has urged Muslims to join the armed uprising in Syria, visited Gaza in May 2013, police clubbed demonstrators waving portraits of Bashar al-Assad. Qatar and Turkey’s strong opposition of Assad’s actions in Syria and of support for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt facilitated Hamas’ change in policy. Meanwhile, Israel was in the process of reassessing its position regarding developments in Syria
While Israel has welcomed a weakened Syria as well as Hamas’ break with Assad, it remains very concerned about Syrian (and Iranian) military support for Hezbullah and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Interestingly, most Arab states in the Gulf region are fearful of Iran, dislike Hezbullah, and are thankful for the Egyptian military’s overthrow of Morsi. Just after
his tenure as Israel’s ambassador to the US came to an end, Michael Oren stated the following regarding Syria in an interview in the Washington Post:
I would emphasize that Israel has no intention of getting involved in regime change in Syria. But having said that, Assad has long been viewed by Israel as a source of instability throughout the entire region. He was instrumental in providing 100,000 rockets to Hezbollah. He has tried to create a clandestine nuclear facility that doesn’t exist anymore, thankfully. He had made Syria the keystone in the strategic arc that extends from Tehran to Beirut, which is potentially a mortal threat to Israel. So his departure, even given the risks involved in who might replace him, would on balance be in Israel’s favor. 4 That, however, did not prevent Israel from engaging in negotiations over the years with both Assads as it first hoped to avoid dealing with the PLO and later felt that such could stabilize its borders and improve relations with other Middle Eastern neighbors. In fact, while much is known about Turkey’s efforts to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and Syria just before the brief war with Hamas at the end of 2008 and early 2009, there were reportedly secret US-brokered discussions between Israel and Syria through Dennis Ross, who was then a special assistant on Middle Eastern affairs for President Barack Obama, and Frederic Hof, a former State Department official, during the course of 2010. The Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot first reported details of the effort, which might have resulted in Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement and which was described by a former Israeli general Michael Herzog as an attempt “to drive a wedge in the radical axis of Iran-Syria-Hezbullah.” 5 In March 2011, Israel officials reportedly “confirmed” to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that, “although Assad is no friend, he’s probably better than the immediate alternatives, which could include civil war, an Iraqstyle insurgency or an Islamic takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood.” 6 However, by September 2013 Gen. Yair Golan, who heads Israel’s northern command, told Yediot Aharonot: “The Syrian enemy, with Hezbollah, and of course with a regional power like Iran in the background, is a far more dangerous enemy than elements of the Global Jihad [meaning al-Qaeda affiliates].” 7 He also expressed his belief that Assad was capable of holding on for a number of years.
While that remains to be seen, it cannot be denied that the Syrian civil war and indeed the Arab Spring have changed the geopolitics of the Middle East. Oren sees these recent developments as being positive for Israel: “In the last 64 years there has probably never been a greater confluence of interest between us and several Gulf States. With these Gulf States we have agreements on Syria, on Egypt, on the Palestinian issue. We certainly have agreements on Iran. This is one of those opportunities presented by the Arab Spring.” 8
Obviously, the US does not view things the same way; it is actively pursuing negotiations between Israel and the PA, and has worked together with Russia diplomatically on getting the Syrians to destroy their chemical weapons and to consider negotiations with the opposition as well as engaging in multilateral negotiations on a deal with the Iranians over nuclear issues in return for a relaxation on sanctions. Meanwhile, the Middle East seems to have divided into two distinct blocs that oppose Assad’s Syria, but disagree on other matters. 9 On one side is Turkey and Qatar -sympathetic to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood -- and on the other is Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Kuwait -- distrustful of Iran and supporting the military regime in Egypt. It is with this last bloc that Israel feels a bond. These countries depend heavily on US political support and feel abandoned by that power over its readiness to negotiate with Iran and Syria. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia feel threatened by Iran and feel that the relaxation of sanctions against the country is counterproductive to putting an end to its nuclear ambitions, and indeed emboldens Tehran to become more meddlesome in Middle Eastern affairs. Both countries also strongly supported US air strikes against Syria over its use of chemical weapons and feel that Assad, who was beginning to turn the tide of battle on the ground in part due to US equivocation over support for the rebels, was given new life by reaching
THE NETANYAHU GOVERNMENT SEEMS TO BE BIDING ITS TIME REGARDING A SETTLEMENT WITH THE PALESTINIANS
an agreement to destroy his weapons supply.
Thus far Assad has proven to be a survivor as he is skillful at taking advantage of the divisions within his opposition, showing restraint towards Syria’s neighbors, and in demeanor very much unlike Hussein “who placed an all-or-nothing bet in order to avoid losing face.” 10 Just like Israel and Saudi Arabia, the PA does not want to see Assad replaced with a Muslim Brotherhood government similar to one that was overthrown in Egypt as it would benefit its rival Hamas. Saudi Arabia and the PA would like to see a politically stable Syria; for the former, especially one that was not aligned with Iran, while the latter’s main concerns are the protection of Syria’s Palestinian population and gaining the upper-hand politically vis-à-vis Hamas. Israel, on the other hand, appears to benefit in the short term from instability in Syria. However, in the long term, it would like to see a stable state more concerned with internal affairs and perhaps allowing for Kurdish autonomy.
Meanwhile, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be biding its time regarding a settlement with the Palestinians. The US and other countries might ask: If not now, when? For the time being, who can predict how long Assad will stay in power or what the future has in store for the Arab Spring? Israel, the Palestinians and other neighboring states will have to adapt to the changing and increasingly volatile atmosphere not only in Syria, but also in Egypt, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. TR
Israeli soldiers in the Israelioccupied Golan Heights, near the border with Syria.
Israeli soldiers stand on a field overlooking Syria in the Golan Heights.
The ‘Friends of Syria’ group was created to discuss policy and coordinate actions regarding Syria (French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (L), British Foreign Secretary William Hague (2nd L), US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd R) and Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh).
Israel is worried about spillover attacks from the armed struggle against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.