Powerful countries know that it is dangerous to be seen to flinch, because enemies take heart and allies’ knees begin to knock. A great power also knows that if it sets out on a military adventure without setting achievable goals, it can get into bad trouble. What’s true for great powers is doubly true for beleaguered Israel, which failed to dismantle Hezbollah’s power over Lebanon. But the Lebanon war’s failure may yet provide an opening to peace if Israel is bold enough to seize it.
The world has two chief aims in the area between Cairo and Teheran: to maintain peace in the wider Middle East so that oil flows freely through the Persian Gulf; to steer the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians toward a settlement that guarantees the safety of Israel in its internationally recognised borders, while meeting the Palestinian people’s legitimate national aspirations for their own state. The two issues have long been connected, but the main link is now President Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria.
Isolated, desperate for allies, Syria has been helping Iran in its quest for regional hegemony. Since Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution evicted Syria last year, the Syrians have sought to haul Lebanon back within their sphere of influence. They back Hezbollah – and help Iran send it weapons – because Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s shock troops keep the government in Beirut weak. The Syrians also like to present themselves as the last real Arab defenders of the Palestinian cause.
In short, Syria, with its geographical position, its Iranian links and weapons, and its brutal Ba’athist regime, has become the lynchpin of developments between the Mediterranean and the Gulf. To secure Lebanon, and to bring Hamas to the bargaining table with Israel, it is Syria that Israel and the United States must deal with, one way or another.
Syria’s position and interests should make it amenable to a deal. Of course, Syria still believes in a “Greater Syria” and never fully accepted Lebanon’s sovereignty. Syrian intelligence and troops – present in Lebanon since 1976 – were forced out in 2005 only under enormous international pressure and $1billion were lost in smuggling revenue last year much of which previously flowed to the Syrian military. Many of the Hezbollah rockets that rained on Israel bore the markings of Syria’s Defence Ministry.
Yet Syria has one redeeming feature: it is a secular country that traditionally recoils from Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, President Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father, massacred up to 38,000 mainly Sunni fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood insurgents in Hama in 1982. Today, parts of the ruling Ba’ath elite worry about Syria’s deepening alliance with theocratic Iran and Islamist Hezbollah.
That alliance reflects fear, not commitment. The moderate Sunni Gulf Arab emirates, suspicious of growing Shia ascendancy and of Iranian irredentism in the region, have stopped propping up Syria’s economy due to its alliance with the ayatollahs of Iran. Labelled by the US as part of the “axis of evil,” Syria has also seen Saudi financial aid dry up and fears that the trade benefits that would come with ratification of its Association Agreement with the EU will never materialize.
Both Syria’s reluctant alliance with Iran, and its economic desperation, provide openings that Israel and the West should test. But what might Syria want? Like most Arabs, Bashar Al-Assad views Israel from the perspective of pan-Arab anguish at Palestinian dispossession, but also sees a chance to use the Palestinians to strengthen his regime’s power by putting his own imprint on any settlement.
Like his father, Assad is cautious. So long as Egypt remains neutral, he is unlikely to risk another war with Israel, let alone a war with America or with America and Israel combined.
The big puzzle is what Assad wants with Lebanon. If his aim is a government in Beirut that takes into account Syria’s genuine security concerns, Israel can live with that. Besides, widespread revulsion against Syria for its alleged role in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, particularly among Lebanon’s Maronites, Sunnis, and Druze, means that Lebanon is unlikely to ever become totally subservient again – that is, unless Hezbollah gets to call the shots.
Israel now faces three options. It can flinch while pretending not to; it can carry on more or less as before, hoping for some positive new development; or it can try to decouple Syria from Iran and Hezbollah. The latter option is the only scenario that could stop the Islamist drift in the Middle East. But prying Syria from Iran’s embrace means, eventually, reopening the Golan Heights question.
A deal with Syria is not impossible, given the ambiguities in Assad’s position. On the Israeli/American side, it would include recognition that Syria has security interests in Lebanon. If Syria in turn accepts Lebanon’s sovereignty, and if it helps force Hezbollah into becoming a political force shorn of its military power, Israel and America ought to persuade Lebanon’s government to accept that Syria and Lebanon need to consult each other in security matters. For Syria, a peace deal would also include an understanding that Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights is to be settled by serious negotiation, not war.
Such a diplomatic opening may be hard for Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to accept, let alone to sell to Israelis. So America and Europe must help him reach this conclusion.
America and Israel must drop their refusal to talk to Syria. Indeed, the time is ripe to offer assurances to the isolated Syrian regime that blocking Hezbollah’s rearmament, stopping Islamist fighters’ passage into Iraq, and improving the country’s appalling human rights record would bring valuable diplomatic and economic benefits, including a strengthened association agreement with the EU.
Israel would gain much by talking to its enemy. Conscious of its vulnerability to rocket attacks, Israel knows that needs a defensible state, safe from external aggression. Removing Syria as a threat is a key element in achieving this strategic objective.