Skip links

Analysis: Does Syria want peace?

Against the background of Syria’s invitation to the Annapolis conference and the eagerness with which politicians and the defense establishment have supported its participation, we should try to analyze the Syrian leadership’s strategic considerations vis-à-vis a peace process with Israel.

I have always considered Syria the key to a stable and pacific Lebanon and a disarmed “political” Hizbullah. Syria – not Iran – has provided the most important support for Hizbullah’s terrorist and guerrilla activity against Israel from the north. Without Syria’s overall strategic umbrella, specific military and political coordination and pressure on Beirut to give the organization free rein in southern Lebanon, Hizbullah could not have achieved its current status. Syrian aid in heavy weaponry alongside Iranian support has transformed Hizbullah into a strategic partner and operational arm of the Syrian army.

Syria is also heavily involved in the support of all the radical Palestinian organizations and factions and actively participated in the derailing of the peace process between Israel, the Palestinians and other Arab states.
But Syria is also extremely important in the attempt to isolate Iran in the region by denying the Teheran regime its only ally in the Arab world and the direct operational link to the Palestinian radical organizations acting from Damascus. Without that alliance, Teheran’s negative influence on the Palestinian arena and on the peace process would be significantly curtailed.

It is possible that the combined efforts of the European Union leaders, the Bush administration and the Israeli leadership will convince the Syrian leaders of their sincere wish to strike a deal and offer Damascus the return of the Golan Heights and generous economic incentives. Still, in my view, Bashar Assad’s regime actually has other priorities that outweigh the Western and Israeli potential incentives.

Fear of the fall of the regime

One could posit that success in the peace process would be profoundly destabilizing for Damascus. It is therefore important to imagine how any changes in the peace process would affect the calculations of its decision makers.

Syria lacks internal coherence due to its diverse population and minority-dominated regime. To survive, the regime needs transcendent slogans like Arabism. The regime requires conflict and radicalism as tools for maintaining internal control.

Damascus correctly assumes that any strengthening of US influence in the region will run counter to Syrian interests, so it is no accident that the regime has become the most systematically anti-American state in the Arab world. Defiance and resistance to American pressure will win Assad the support of the Syrian public, and even popular Arab support at large, and ensure the survival of his regime for many years to come.

For Syria, Lebanon is much more important than the Golan Heights. While the senior George Bush’s administration saw the Syrian occupation as a temporary necessity to be gradually rolled back, the Clinton administration saw it as a longer-term palliative to draw Syria into peace with Israel and a means of preventing Lebanon’s 350,000-plus Palestinian refugees from obstructing a comprehensive peace settlement that failed to recognize their “right of return.”

Although US policymakers publicly hinted that the United States would help bring about a “Lebanon free of foreign forces” once a peace treaty was concluded, they sent Damascus unmistakable signals to the contrary. American officials failed to recognize that Assad would be prepared to sign a peace treaty only if the expected benefits outweighed the guaranteed political, strategic, and economic returns of the occupation of Lebanon.

Lebanon is, of course, important to Syria for political and military reasons, but this tends to overshadow the economic aspect of Syrian-Lebanese relations. The direct and indirect income derived from Syria’s presence in Lebanon has over time become an almost indispensable factor in the Syrian economy.

The Baker and Hamilton Iraq Study Group report proposed cooperation with Syria in stabilizing Iraq. But what Assad wants is a cancellation of the investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and the corollary international tribunal approved by the Security Council, a free hand in Lebanon and possession of the Golan without conditions. Are these acceptable conditions?

A Syrian peace agreement with Israel foretells a peace agreement of Israel with Lebanon – which means the Cedar country will be lost forever as a Syrian protectorate.

Palestine part of Greater Syria?

The legitimacy of the establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine by “imperialism” was not accepted at any cost and Syria developed a pivotal role in defense of all-Arab causes, above all the struggle against Israel. Syria’s relations with the former components of the Levant (bilad al-sham) – Jordan, the Palestinians and especially, Lebanon – were influenced by what it considered its special rights and responsibilities over these territories. As Patrick Seale, a leading British writer on the Middle East, points out, Syria perceived itself in a struggle with Israel over the Levant, in what amounted to a contest between “Greater Syria” and “Greater Israel.”

This Syrian regime probably still dreams of seeing the national Palestinian movement, like in the 1920s and 30s, part of a Greater Syria.

Waiting for the Iranian nuclear umbrella

Should Iran succeed in completing its nuclear project and declare a nuclear weapons capability, Syria would face a conflicting situation. On the one hand, its devotion to the Arab cause would compel it to share a sense of anxiety. On the other hand, more than other Arab states, it would be untroubled by an Iranian nuclear capability due to the strategic partnership between the two states. Syria would see an Iranian bomb as a useful deterrent against Israel and a newly assertive Iraq and as an important constraint on US freedom of action in the region.
As the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, editorialized: “Nuclear Iran has eradicating the nuclear prestige of Israel.” That’s the sort of rising star to which Syria would like to be hitched.

Syria’s presence at the Annapolis conference could be disruptive, as Damascus has always acted in all the pan-Arab and international forums to advance agreements contrasting Israeli or Western interests. Specifically, Syria was responsible for the negative changes in the original Saudi plan during the March 2002 Arab League summit which led to the present Arab plan, including the right of return of the Palestinian refugees.

In this author’s view, a real change in the Syrian regional strategy could happen only if Assad evaluates that the US, or Israel with US support, would attack the nuclear facilities in Iran and thus bring even more direct pressure on the rogue elements in the Middle East.

Possibly, the September 6 Israeli air attack against the presumed “nuclear facility” has shaken the Damascus leaders’ confidence in the Iranian invincibility on the nuclear front and they want to use the conference as a feeler for the future US plans and a kind of insurance in case…

The US, Europe and the other powers present at Annapolis should insure that Syria’s participation at the conference will not be used to bestow on its regime “incentives” like the “liberation” of the Golan, recognizing its “rights, interests and positive role” in Lebanon, or the closing of the investigation into Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

The Damascus regime should see at the conference a united front which presses it firmly, first and foremost, to stop the support to Hizbullah and the Palestinian radicals and to exit the strategic alliance with Iran.