Two separate editorials on the same day in the Israeli press last month underlined the confusion that informs analysis on Syria’s intentions regarding the resumption of peace negotiations with Israel.
The right-wing Jerusalem Post castigated Syria for its “derisive” response to attempts by the Obama administration to engage with Damascus after the years of isolation under George W. Bush. A day after George Mitchell, the United States Middle East envoy, met with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to further hopes of a resumption of Israeli-Syrian accord, Russia confirmed it would honor its agreement to supply Syria with P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles. The Jerusalem Post surmised that the missiles would probably end up in Hezbollah’s hands, enabling it to fulfill General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah’s vow in May to target shipping along Israel’s entire coastline.
In fact, Hezbollah probably already has acquired anti-ship missiles larger than the Iranian Noor/C-802 system it used in 2006 to disable an Israeli warship off the Beirut coast. Iran produces a longer-range version of the Noor called the Raad, which could theoretically hit Israeli shipping off the coast of southern Israel from launch sites as far north of the border as Beirut.
The Jerusalem Post also noted that Assad “made it clear with whom his loyalties lie” when he met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the Iranian president stopped briefly in Damascus a day after Mitchell’s visit.
“It has become abundantly clear that the Obama administration’s attempt to ‘engage’ Syria… has been a resounding failure,” the Post said. In contrast, the liberal Haaretz newspaper interpreted Ahmadinejad’s visit to Damascus as showing his “fear that Syria will weaken its strategic relationship with the Iranians.”
Haaretz blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the lack of progress on the Syria-Israeli track and urged him to heed the advice of the Israeli military establishment, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and accept Assad’s offer to resume talks. The conflicting viewpoints of these two Israeli newspapers may have earned a smile of satisfaction in Damascus. The Syrian regime is a master at fence-straddling, turning what normally would be a tactical ploy into a permanent strategy. Playing all sides at once ensures a degree of relevance and a steady queue of regional and international envoys knocking on Assad’s door. Critics of Syria insist that the regime’s ambiguity disguises an insincerity over its commitment to a peace deal with Israel. Peace would alter the geo-strategic environment of the region and compel Syria to make some hard decisions, such as reconfiguring its relationship with Iran and, therefore, also with Hezbollah.
There may or may not be some truth in such analyses, but we will not know because successive Israeli governments in the past decade have shown almost no interest in forcing Damascus to make those hard choices by pursuing peace. The last meaningful negotiations between Syria and Israel were in early 2000. Even then, Barak, the prime minister at the time, who enjoyed a broad mandate to pursue peace and the active support of the Clinton administration, got cold feet and could not bring himself to offer what he knew Hafez al-Assad wanted — the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Syria — fearing it would not be accepted in Israel. No successive Israeli prime minister has shown any genuine interest in resuming talks with Damascus. Why would they? The border with Syria has been quiet since 1973.
The US is incapable of compelling Israel to talk to the Syrians if the Israelis are not interested. Given Israel’s succession of frail government coalitions, no prime minister is willing to risk his job for the sake of peace with Syria. Israeli leaders already have to contend with an increasingly militaristic and violent settler movement in the West Bank, so why antagonize the settlers in the Golan Heights as well?
I was once told an anecdote that well illustrates Israel’s reluctance to change the status quo with Syria. During a meeting of the Israeli cabinet in 2004, then Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom recommended attacking Syria and changing the regime. Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister, shook his head and said that that was a very bad idea.
“If we did that one of two things would happen,” he said. “Either we get the Muslim Brotherhood running Damascus or we get a democracy, and then we would have to make peace with it.”