May 27, 2008
Why is Israel negotiating with Syria and what happened in Lebanon? One of these events may be the Middle East's most important development for 2008. Hint: it isn't the first of them.
Let's consider why the two sides are "negotiating" including the fact that they aren't negotiating.
There isn't going to be a deal. Both sides know it, yet have good reason to be seen talking, indirectly that is.
Start with six factors that account for Israeli government policy.
Keep Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in power. It's not the only issue but sure it's there. Olmert wants to claim he's amidst such important negotiations that it's a sin to interfere. What's more important, he says, envelopes filled with cash or peace? Olmert has used this strategy with Palestinian talks for a while and is now jumping on a different horse. This doesn't mean he's going to give away national security assets to save himself. The beauty of this strategy is that he doesn't have to do that. Just making headlines achieves this goal.
Show everyone Israel wants peace. The country is indeed ready to take chances and make compromises--though only if sufficiently rewarded and proving this seeks to muster support from Western governments, media, and public opinion, and also to ensure its base within Israel.
Give Syria reason to show restraint. If Syria is gabbing away in contacts that are all-win, no-lose for that dictatorship--it doesn't want to wreck them by too much terror or another Hizballah war on Israel. Keeping things quiet in the north lets Israel focus on the south, the Gaza Strip.
Keep Turkey happy. Turkey is an important friend of Israel and has tied its prestige to this initiative. Not real important but should be on the list.
Show the Palestinians that Israel has an alternate partner, as a way of pressuring them. Israel gains a freer hand for dealing with them (see point 3, above) by at least momentarily widening the gap between Palestinian and Syrian interests. Many of those backing the Syrian track don't believe progress with the Palestinians is possible. If point 1 is most important for Olmert's political calculations; point 5 is central for coalition partner Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Media coverage and political statements ignore or misinterpret the fact that Israel isn't negotiating with Syria. It's merely holding more systematic, indirect contacts to establish whether Israeli preconditions for direct negotiations can be met. Even though the answer is "no," this means Israel can do this at little cost and no substantive concessions.
Thus, Israel is doing something totally different from the ideas of Senator Barack Obama which would bring disaster if he becomes the U.S. president. If Syria is ready to move away from Iran, stop backing terrorist groups, be ready to make full peace with Israel, and meet other conditions (limiting forces in the Golan Heights, early warning stations, etc.), talks can advance. When this doesn't happen the talks will either collapse or enter a long, obviously dead, slow-motion process.
This game, in my opinion, is not a good thing, since it weakens the struggle against the Iran-led bloc which is the region's most important issue, but it is unlikely to inflict material damage to Israel's strategic position.
What, then, are Syria's motives? It, too, has good reasons to play the game.
Syria's main problem is international isolation. The alliance with Iran as well as sponsoring terror against Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, has brought Syria serious diplomatic and economic costs. Negotiating with Israel bails it out of jail. The precedent is 1991-2000. Without concession or policy shift, the dictatorship survived a decade when it was vulnerable (USSR's collapse; America's Kuwait victory). Understandably, it wants to repeat this triumph.
The Damascus regime argues that if the West and Israel want it to talk peace, they better treat it right. Forget about investigating Syrian-planned murders in Lebanon; cancel the tribunal trying the regime's highest level to murder.
Ditto, forget about punishing Syria's building a secret nuclear weapon installation with North Korea. Ignore Syria's backing for insurgents in Iraq who kill Iraqis and American soldiers.
Demand more concessions which might be obtained without any of their own.
Stall for time in the belief that Obama will become president and follow a pro-Syria policy. This is what they're saying in Damascus.
Focus on what they really want: consolidating control over Lebanon without interference from abroad.
The world, including especially the UN and State Department, did nothing to stop Hizballah-Iran-Syria victory in Lebanon, then compounded the betrayal by pretending it was a step toward stability. This probably would have happened without the Israel-Syria drama but that couldn't hurt, so reasoned Syria's rulers.
Of course, the idea that Syria wants real peace, will recognize Israel, move away from Iran, abandon Hamas or Hizballah, and cease terrorist meddling in Iraq is purest nonsense. All these steps are against the regime's vital interests. Yet, as demonstrated above, it can play the talks' game without doing any of these things.
Meanwhile, Lebanon has fallen to Hizballah, another state added to Iran's bloc. This catastrophe is intensified by ignoring it. One day, this tragedy might be seen as equivalent to the 1938 sacrifice of Czechoslovakia at Munich to appease Germany. Bashar is no Hitler (perhaps closer in this parallel to Germany's junior partner, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini), but toward Lebanon the United States and Europe, especially France, acted like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich.
And this is even without Iran having nuclear weapons or Obama being in the White House. What could come next may be far worse unless the West wakes up.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online.