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Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria - Hopes Meet Reality

Written by George Friedman

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May 20, 2008
By George Friedman
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In geopolitics, we are frequently confronted with what appears to be a great deal of movement. Sometimes it is the current geopolitical reality breaking apart and a new one emerging. Sometimes it is simply meaningless motion in a fixed geopolitical reality — nothing more than the illusion of movement generated for political reasons as players maneuver within a fixed framework for minor advantage or internal political reasons. In other words, we need to distinguish between geopolitics and politics.

Nowhere is that more important than in the Middle East, which increasingly has come to be defined in terms of the Arab-Israeli equation for reasons we don’t fully understand. Leaving that aside, in recent months we have been chronicling endless happenings and rumors of happenings, trying to figure out whether the region’s geopolitics were redefining themselves or whether we were simply seeing movement within the old paradigm.

In the past few weeks, the noise has intensified, reaching a crescendo with U.S. President George W. Bush’s visit to the region. There were four axes of activity:

Talk of an Israeli-Palestinian Deal
Let’s begin with the talk of a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians and with the fact that this description is a misnomer. The Palestinians are split geographically between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and ideologically into two very distinct groups. The West Bank is controlled by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which as an institution is split between two factions, Fatah and Hamas. Fatah is stronger in the West Bank than in Gaza and controls the institutions of the PNA. It is almost fair to say that the PNA — the official Palestinian government — is in practice an instrument of Fatah and that therefore Fatah controls the West Bank while Hamas controls Gaza.

Ideologically, Fatah is a secular movement, originating in the left-wing Arabism of the 1960s and 1970s. Hamas is a religiously-driven organization originating from the Sunni religious movements of the late 1980s and 1990s. Apart from being Palestinian and supporting a Palestinian state, it has different and opposed views of what such a state should look like both internally and geographically. Fatah appears prepared to make geographical compromises with Israel to secure a state that follows its ideology. Its flexibility in part comes from its fear that Hamas could supplant it as the dominant force among the Palestinians. For its part, Hamas is not prepared to make a geographical compromise except on a temporary basis. It has made it clear that while it would accept a truce with Israel, it will not accept a permanent peace agreement nor recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Israel also is split on the question of a settlement with the Palestinians, but not as profoundly and institutionally as the Palestinians are divided. It is reasonable to say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a three-way war between Hamas, Fatah and Israel, with Fatah and Israel increasingly allied against Hamas. But that is what makes the possibility of a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians impossible to imagine. There can be a settlement with the PNA, and therefore with Fatah, but Fatah does not in any way speak for Hamas. Even if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could generate support within Fatah for a comprehensive settlement, it would not constitute a settlement with the Palestinians, but rather only with the dominant faction of the Palestinians in the West Bank.

Given the foregoing, the Israelis have been signaling that they are prepared to move into Gaza in an attempt to crush Hamas’ leadership. Indeed, they have signaled that they expect to do so. We could dismiss this as psychological warfare, but Hamas expects Israel to move into Gaza and, in some ways, hopes Israel does so that it can draw the Israelis into counterinsurgency operations in an inhospitable environment. This would burnish Hamas’ credentials as the real anti-Israeli warriors, undercutting Fatah and the Shiite group Hezbollah in the process.

For Israel, there might be an advantage in reaching a settlement with Abbas and then launching an attack on Gaza. Abbas might himself want to see Israel crush Hamas, but it would put him and the PNA in a difficult position politically if they just stood by and watched. Second, the Israelis are under no illusions that an attack on Gaza would either be easy or even succeed in the mission of crushing Hamas’ military capability. The more rockets fired by Hamas against Israel, the more pressure there is in Israel for some sort of action. But here we have a case of swirling activity leading to paralysis. Optimistic talk of a settlement is just talk. There will be no settlement without war, and, in our opinion, war will undermine Fatah’s ability to reach a settlement — and a settlement with the PNA would solve little in any event.

Talk of a Syrian-Israeli Peace Agreement
There also is the ongoing discussion of a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement. Turkey is brokering these talks, driven by a desire to see a stable Syria along its border and to become a major power broker in the region. The Turks are slowly increasing their power and influence under the expectation that in due course, as the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, a power vacuum will exist that Turkey will have to — and want to — fill. Turkish involvement in Syria represents a first step in exercising diplomatic influence to Turkey’s south.

Syria has an interest in a settlement with Israel. The al Assad government is composed of an ethnic minority — the Alawites, a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam. It is a secular government with ideological roots much closer to Fatah than to Hamas (both religious and Sunni) or Hezbollah (Shiite but religious). It presides over a majority Sunni country, and it has brutally suppressed Sunni religiosity before. At a time when the Saudis, who do not like Syria, are flush with cash and moving with confidence, the al Assad regime has increased concerns about Sunni dissatisfaction. Moreover, its interests are not in Israel, but in Lebanon, where the region’s commercial wealth is concentrated.

Syria dabbles in all the muddy waters of the region. It has sent weapons to Sunni jihadists. Hamas’ exiled central leadership is in Damascus. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria thus rides multiple and incompatible horses in an endless balancing act designed to preserve the al Assad government. The al Assads have been skillful politicians, but in the end, their efforts have been all tactics and no strategy. The Turks, who do not want to see chaos on their southern border, are urging the Syrians to a strategic decision, or more precisely to the status quo ante 2006.

The United States has never trusted the al Assads, but the situation became particularly venomous after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the Syrians, for complex political reasons, decided to allow Sunni fundamentalists to transit through Syria into Iraq. The Syrian motive was to inoculate itself against Sunni fundamentalism — which opposed Damascus — by making itself useful to the Sunni fundamentalists. The United States countered the Syrian move by generating pressure that forced the Syrian army out of Lebanon.

The Israelis and Syrians have had a working understanding on Lebanon ever since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Under this understanding, the Syrians would be the dominant force in Lebanon, extracting maximum economic advantage while creating a framework for stability. In return, Syria would restrain Hezbollah both from attacks on Israel and from attacks on Syrian allies in Lebanon — which include many groups opposed to Hezbollah.

The Syrian withdrawal was not greeted with joy in Israel. First, the Israelis liked the arrangement, as it secured their frontier with Lebanon. Second, the Israelis did not want anything to happen to the al Assad regime. Anything that would replace the al Assads would, in the Israeli mind, be much worse. Israel, along with the al Assads, did not want regime change in Damascus and did not want chaos in Lebanon, but did want Hezbollah to be controlled by someone other than Israel. And this was a point of tension between Israel and the United States, which was prepared to punish the al Assads for their interference in Iraq — even if the successor Syrian regime would be composed of the Sunni fundamentalists the Syrians had aided.

The Turkish argument is basically that the arrangement between Syria and Lebanon prior to 2006 was in the best interests of Israel and Syria, but that its weakness was that it was informal. Unlike the Israeli-Egyptian or Israeli-Jordanian agreements, which have been stable realities in the region, the Israeli-Syrian relationship was a wink and a nod that could not stand up under U.S. pressure. Turkey has therefore been working to restore the pre-2006 reality, this time formally.

Two entities clearly oppose this settlement. One is the United States. Another is Hezbollah.

The United States sees Syria as a destabilizing factor in the region, regardless of Syria’s history in Lebanon. In addition, as Saudi oil revenues rise and U.S. relations with Sunnis in Iraq improve, the Americans must listen very carefully to the Saudis. As we pointed out, the Saudis view Syria — a view forged during the 1970s — as an enemy. The Saudis also consider the Alawite domination of Syrian Sunnis as unacceptable in the long run. Saudi Arabia is also extremely worried about the long-term power of Hezbollah (and Iran) and does not trust the Syrians to control the Shiite group. More precisely, the Saudis believe the Syrians will constrain Hezbollah against Israel, but not necessarily against Saudi and other Sunni interests. The United States is caught between Israeli interest in a formal deal and Saudi hostility. With its own sympathies running against Syria, the U.S. tendency is to want to gently sink the deal.

In this, U.S. interests ironically are aligned with Hezbollah and, to some extent, Iran. Hezbollah grew prosperous under Syrian domination, but it did not increase its political power. The Syrians kept the Shiite group in a box to be opened in the event of war. Hezbollah does not want to go into that box again. It is enjoying its freedom of action to pursue its own interests independent of Syria. It is in Hezbollah’s interests to break the deal. Lacking many allies, the Iranians need the Syrians, as different as the Syrians are ideologically. Iran is walking a tightrope between Syria and Hezbollah on this. But Tehran, too, would like to sink the talks.

The Bizarre Events in Lebanon
Which leads to the bizarre events in Lebanon. The Lebanese Cabinet demanded that Hezbollah turn its proprietary communications network over to the Lebanese government. The demand amounted to the same thing as asking that Hezbollah go out of business. The Lebanese government did not have anywhere near the power needed to force Hezbollah to acquiesce, nor could the Lebanese have imagined for a moment that Hezbollah would do so voluntarily. Why the Lebanese government made an impossible and unenforceable demand that would inevitably lead Hezbollah to take offensive action is unclear. That it did happen is clear.

One theory is that the Americans encouraged Lebanon to do so to put Hezbollah on the defensive. The problem with that theory is that the only possible outcome of that move was the opposite result. Another explanation is that Syria got the Cabinet to do this to justify Syrian intervention against Hezbollah as part of the Syrian-Israeli-Turkish talks. The problem with that theory is that such intervention didn’t happen, and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is not a naive man. He likes commitments up front and in blood.

The other explanation is that Siniora knew perfectly well that Hezbollah would go ballistic and he wanted Hezbollah to do so. The Christians, Druze and Sunnis of Lebanon do not like Hezbollah, but many see Syrian domination of Lebanon as far worse. By increasing Hezbollah’s power and increasing the complexity and danger of Lebanon, Siniora wanted to increase the cost of Syrian intervention and increase the strength of those in Damascus who don’t want a deal with Israel. It is one thing for Syria to walk into a wide-open country. It is another for Syria to walk into a civil war that the Israelis wouldn’t touch. Under this theory, Siniora’s move was the Lebanese strategy for preserving its independence from Syria. The move might not work, but you work with what you have.

In all of this, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under investigation for accepting bribes. His defense is that he took the money but didn’t do anything in return. The whispers he is generating are that the entire investigation is an attempt by political opponents to discredit him. His opponents are whispering with equal intensity that the money he took is merely the tip of an iceberg of money from outside Israel — primarily from American Jews seeking to have their path into Israeli investments smoothed by Olmert.

Whatever the truth, Israel is in a massive political crisis, with no clear and popular successor to Olmert. This reality further undermines the probability that any decisive strategic settlements will emerge. For the Israelis to reach agreements with Fatah or Syria, to manage its interests in Lebanon and to manage its relations with the United States, Israel needs, if not political consensus, at least not political chaos. And political chaos is what Israel has at this moment, as everyone waits to see what actually comes of the investigations. For a merely political event, such chaos could not have come at a more strategic moment.

Geopolitics is being sucked into politics, and apparent breakthroughs are being turned into routine nonevents. The Israeli-Palestinian talks are being sucked into Palestinian politics. The Syrian-Israeli talks are being sucked into Lebanese politics and the complexities of American regional politics. The entire package of opportunities is being sucked into internal Israeli politics.

In the Middle East, apparent geopolitical opportunities are continually undermined by political realities. Or to put it a different way, the geopolitical opportunities are illusory and the real geopolitics of the region are intractable. We still see the Israeli-Syrian relationship as the most promising in the mess. But whether it can rise to the level of a formal agreement is dubious indeed.

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