Friday, May 10, 2013

Israel's Love-Hate Relationship with Syria

Henry Kissinger is credited with having said "In the Middle East there can be no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria." To scholars and others following events in the Middle East for the last few years this old saw is nothing new. But popular narratives tend to be short on history and long on politics and tribal ignorance. "Tribal" in this case refers more to American partisan politics than ethnic or cultural forms elsewhere, particularly the resurgence of xenophobic reactionary genes in the Conservative DNA. 

Here are two readings that flesh out a few details of Kissinger's statement. The sub-title of the first, published yesterday, says it all: Why Jerusalem doesn't want the Assad regime to fall.  In the second from Commentary, 2009, Michael J. Totten provides background crib notes that readers new to the discussion  need to know. It is fair to describe both writers as sympathetic to Israel. Efraim Halevy headed Mossad (Israel's equivalent of the CIA) for a few years and Michael J.Totten is a Libertarian-leaning journalist and policy analyst whom I have followed since 2006.

These readings shed light on nuances of international diplomacy of which critics of President Obama appear to be embarrassingly ignorant. It is during times like these that I am glad the Executive Branch has more control over foreign policy than Congress, blabbermouths and opposition demagogues notwithstanding. They also help explain why last week's air strikes by Israel near Damascus have not resulted in an outbreak of war between the two countries. Israel meticulously insisted that those air strikes, though inside the country, were aimed at Hezbollah targets, not Syrian.

Israel's Man in Damascus
Why Jerusalem Doesn't Want the Assad Regime to Fall

Efraim Halevy
May 10, 2013

In October 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin telephoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to inform him that peace was at hand between Israel and Syria. Two weeks later, Rabin was dead, killed by a reactionary Jewish Israeli fanatic; the peace agreement that Rabin referenced died not long thereafter. But Israeli hopes for an eventual agreement with the Assad regime managed to survive. There have been four subsequent attempts by Israeli prime ministers -- one by Ehud Barak, one by Ehud Olmert, and two by Benjamin Netanyahu -- to forge a peace with Syria. 
This shared history with the Assad regime is relevant when considering Israel’s strategy toward the ongoing civil war in Syria. Israel’s most significant strategic goal with respect to Syria has always been a stable peace, and that is not something that the current civil war has changed. Israel will intervene in Syria when it deems it necessary; last week’s attacks testify to that resolve. But it is no accident that those strikes were focused solely on the destruction of weapons depots, and that Israel has given no indication of wanting to intervene any further. Jerusalem, ultimately, has little interest in actively hastening the fall of Bashar al-Assad. 
Israel knows one important thing about the Assads: for the past 40 years, they have managed to preserve some form of calm along the border. Technically, the two countries have always been at war -- Syria has yet to officially recognize Israel -- but Israel has been able to count on the governments of Hafez and Bashar Assad to enforce the Separation of Forces Agreement from 1974, in which both sides agreed to a cease-fire in the Golan Heights, the disputed vantage point along their shared border. Indeed, even when Israeli and Syrian forces were briefly locked in fierce fighting in 1982 during Lebanon’s civil war, the border remained quiet. 
Israel does not feel as confident, though, about the parties to the current conflict, and with good reason. On the one hand, there are the rebel forces, some of whom are increasingly under the sway of al Qaeda. On the other, there are the Syrian government’s military forces, which are still under Assad’s command, but are ever more dependent on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, which is also Iranian-sponsored. Iran is the only outside state with boots on the ground in Syria, and although it is supporting Assad, it is also pressuring his government to more closely serve Iran’s goals -- including by allowing the passage of advanced arms from Syria into southern Lebanon. The recent visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Salehi to Damascus, during which he announced that Iran would not allow Assad to fall under any circumstances, further underscored the depth of Iran’s involvement in the fighting. It is entirely conceivable, in other words, that a post-Assad regime in Syria would be explicitly pro–al Qaeda or even more openly pro-Iran. Either result would be unacceptable to Israel. 
Of course, an extended civil war in Syria does not serve Israel’s interests either. The ongoing chaos is attracting Islamists from elsewhere in the region, and threatening to destabilize Israel’s entire neighborhood, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It could also cause Assad to lose control of -- or decide to rely more on -- his stockpile of chemical weapons. 
Even though these problems have a direct impact on Israel, the Israeli government believes that it should deal with them in a way that does not force it to become a kingmaker over Assad’s fate. Instead, it would prefer to maintain neutrality in Syria's civil war. Israel does not want to tempt Assad to target Israel with his missile stockpile -- nor does it want to alienate the Alawite community that will remain on Israel’s border regardless of the outcome of Syria’s war. 
Last week’s attacks were a case in point. Israel did not hesitate to order air strikes when it had intelligence that arms were going to be funneled from Syria to Hezbollah. Although Israel took care not to assume official responsibility for the specific attack, Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon publicly stated that Israel’s policy was to prevent the passage of strategic weaponry from Syria to Lebanon. But parallel with that messaging, Israel also made overt and covert efforts to communicate to Assad that Jerusalem was determined to remain neutral in Syria’s civil war. The fact that those messages were received in Damascus was reflected in the relatively restrained response from the Assad regime: a mid-level Foreign Ministry official offered a public denouncement of Israel -- and even then the Syrian government offered only a vague promise of reprisal, vowing to respond at a time and in a manner of its choosing. 
As brutal as the Syrian war has become, Israel believes that another international crisis is even more urgent: Iran’s continued pursuit of a nuclear program. Jerusalem has long believed that mid-2013 would be an hour of decision in its dealings with Iran. In the interim, Israel wants to focus its own finite resources on that crisis -- and it would prefer that the rest of the world does the same. 
That is not to say that Israel will make efforts to actively support Assad; like most other countries, Israel believes that it is only a matter of time until the Syrian leader is forced from power. But a country of Israel’s size needs to prioritize its foreign policy goals, and Jerusalem does not feel like helping shape an adequate alternative to Assad is in its interest or within its capacity. It will leave that task to others. Indeed, Israel has welcomed the initiative by Russia and the United States to organize a peace conference aimed at resolving the conflict. In the run-up to the conference, Jerusalem will be sure to remind both Washington and Moscow that they share an interest in preventing a permanent Iranian or jihadist presence on Syrian soil. 
In that sense, it is safe to say that Assad is not the only recipient of covert communications from Israel. That leaves two questions -- when the White House will decide what its own policy will be, and how it will implement it.

No Peace Without Syria
Michael J. Totten

August 31, 2009 
Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, flew to Damascus this weekend to cajole Syria into re-entering peace talks with Israel. He’s going to go home disappointed, if not now then later, just as every other Western diplomat before him has failed to put an end to the perpetual Arab-Israeli conflict. Bashar Assad couldn’t sign a peace treaty with Israel even if he wanted to — and he doesn’t want to. 
Assad and his late father and former president Hafez Assad have justified the dictatorial “emergency rule,” on the books since 1963, by pointing to the never-ending war with the state of Israel. Many Syrians have grown weary of this excuse after more than four decades of crisis, but Assad would nevertheless face more pressure to loosen up his Soviet-style system without it. 
An official state of war costs Assad very little. His army does not have to fight. His father learned the hard way in 1967 that Israel could beat three Arab armies, including Syria’s own, in six days. Assad can only fight Israel through proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, but that suits him just fine. Gaza and Lebanon absorb Israel’s incoming fire when the fighting heats up. 
Assad gains a lot, though, by buying himself some legitimacy with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Syria’s fundamentalist Sunnis have long detested his Baath party regime, not only because it’s secular and oppressive but also because its leaders are considered heretics. The Assads and most of the Baathist elites belong to the Alawite religious minority, descendants of the followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who took them out of mainstream Twelver Shiite Islam in the 10th century. Their religion has as much in common with Christianity and Gnosticism as it does with Islam, and most Syrians find it both bizarre and offensive that the Alawites are in charge of the country instead of the majority Sunnis. 
In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against the regime in the city of Hama. The elder Assad dispatched the Alawite-dominated military and destroyed most of the old city with air strikes, tanks, and artillery. Rifaat Assad, the former president’s younger brother, boasted that 38,000 people were killed in a single day. Not once since then have the Muslim Brothers tried to rise up again. 
In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman dubbed the senior Assad’s rules of engagement “Hama Rules.” They are the Syrian stick. The carrot is Assad’s steadfast “resistance” against Israel. No Arab government in the world is as stridently anti-Israel, in both action and rhetoric, as Assad’s. There is no better way for a detested Alawite regime to curry favor with Sunnis in Syria and the Arab world as a whole than by adopting the anti-Zionist cause as its own. 
Earlier this year, I met with Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who asserted that the Alawite regime is actually afraid of signing a peace treaty with Israel. As the leader of a religious minority himself, Jumblatt knows better than most how risky it can be to cross the majority.
“Suppose,” he said, “we go ultimately to the so-called peace. Then later on, what is the purpose of the Syrian regime? What is Assad going to tell his people? Especially, mind you, he is a member of the Alawite minority. This minority could be accused of treason. It’s not like Egypt or Jordan whereby the government has some legitimacy. Here you get accused of treason by the masses, by the Sunnis. So using classic slogans like ‘Palestine will liberate the Golan with Hezbollah’ is a must for him to stay in power.” Syria’s Alawite elites understand this very well, even if Western diplomats like Javier Solana do not. 
“When Hafez Assad was about to fix up the so-called settlement through Bill Clinton,” Jumblatt continued, “and before they met him in Geneva, a prominent Alawite officer in the Syrian army came to Assad and said, ‘What are you doing? We will be lost if you make peace. We will be accused of treason.’ ” 
I don’t know for sure whether Syria’s Sunni Arabs — who make up around 70 percent of the population — would actually accuse Assad of treason and seriously threaten to remove him from power if he signed a peace treaty. But that’s how many Alawites see it. As “infidels” they don’t feel they have the legitimacy to force Sunni Arabs to make peace with Israel. That is a risky business even for Sunni Arab leaders, as the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat shows. 
Most of Syria’s Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast, away from the Sunni heartland. They could, at least theoretically, be separated from Syria into their own Alawite nation. The Middle East would probably be a safer place if they were. They did have their own semi autonomous government under the French Mandate between 1930 and 1937, and again from 1939 to 1944, but their Latakia region has been a part of Syria ever since. 
Such a nation almost certainly would make peace with Israel, at least eventually, if it wasn’t ruled by Assad and his thuggish clan. Arab nationalism would lose its appeal among a people that would no longer need to demonstrate belonging to an ethnic majority to make up for its status as a religious minority. The strident anti-Zionism of the Sunni “street” could likewise ease. A free Alawite state might even be a natural ally of Israel for the same reasons the Middle East’s Christians and Kurds tend to be. 
In the meantime, the Assad regime rules a country that’s 70 percent Sunni Arab, and it must govern accordingly. Leading the Arab charge against Israel works for him, which is the reason he does it. And as long as he fears the Sunni “street” and the Muslim Brotherhood more than he fears the Israelis, he isn’t likely to change.

For those wringing their hands over the president's clearly cautious approach to the Syrian civil war, here's more food for thought. As recently as last October Halevy wrote in a NY Times op-ed:
Despite the Republican Party’s shrill campaign rhetoric on Israel, no Democratic president has ever strong-armed Israel on any key national security issue. In the 1956 Suez Crisis, it was a Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who joined the Soviet Union in forcing Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula after a joint Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt. 
In 1991, when Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Tel Aviv, the administration of the first President Bush urged Israel not to strike back so as to preserve the coalition of Arab states fighting Iraq. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir resisted his security chiefs’ recommendation to retaliate and bowed to American demands as his citizens reached for their gas masks. 
After the war, Mr. Shamir agreed to go to Madrid for a Middle East peace conference set up by Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Fearful that Mr. Shamir would be intransigent at the negotiating table, the White House pressured him by withholding $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel, causing us serious economic problems. The eventual result was Mr. Shamir’s political downfall. The man who had saved Mr. Bush’s grand coalition against Saddam Hussein in 1991 was “thrown under the bus.” 
In all of these instances, a Republican White House acted in a cold and determined manner, with no regard for Israel’s national pride, strategic interests or sensitivities. That’s food for thought in October 2012.


An afterthought regarding Obama's seemingly ambiguous response by Stephen Walt is worth mentioning here. 
Barack the buck-passer
Posted By Stephen M. Walt
...the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media. 
Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).

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