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.


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.



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.



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


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.

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