The Shift Toward an Israeli-Syrian Agreement
By George Friedman and Peter Zeihan
The Middle East, already monstrously complex, grew more complex last week. First, there were strong indications that both Israel and Syria were prepared to engage in discussions on peace. That alone is startling enough. But with the indicators arising in the same week that the United States decided to reveal that the purpose behind Israel’s raid on Syria in September 2007 was to destroy a North Korean-supplied nuclear reactor, the situation becomes even more baffling.
But before we dive into the what-will-be, let us first explain how truly bizarre things have gotten. On April 8 we wrote about how a number of seemingly unconnected events were piecing themselves into a pattern that might indicate an imminent war, a sequel to the summer 2006 Lebanon conflict. This mystery in the Middle East has since matured greatly, but in an unexpected direction. Israeli-Syrian peace talks — serious Israeli-Syrian peace talks — are occurring.
First, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Israeli media that Israel had been talking to the Syrians, and then that "Very clearly we want peace with the Syrians and are taking all manners of action to this end. They know what we want from them, and I know full well what they want from us." Then Syrian President Bashar al Assad publicly acknowledged that negotiations with Syria were taking place. Later, a Syrian minister appeared on Al Jazeera and said that, "Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions, on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights to Syria." At almost exactly the same moment, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that, "If Israel is serious and wants peace, nothing will stop the renewal of peace talks." What made this statement really interesting was that it was made in Tehran, standing next to Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, an ally of Syria whose government rejects the very concept of peace with Israel.
We would have expected the Syrians to choose another venue to make this statement, and we would have expected the Iranians to object. It didn’t happen. We waited for a blistering denial from Israel. Nothing came; all that happened was that Israeli spokesmen referred journalists to Olmert’s previous statement. Clearly something was on the table. The Turks had been pressing the Israelis to negotiate with the Syrians, and the Israelis might have been making a gesture to placate them, but the public exchanges clearly went beyond that point. This process could well fail, but it gave every appearance of being serious.
According to the existing understanding of the region’s geopolitical structure, an Israeli-Syrian peace deal is impossible.
- The United States and Iran are locked into talks over the future of Iraq, and both regularly use their respective allies in Israel and Syria to shape those negotiations. An Israeli-Syrian peace would at the very least inconvenience American and Iranian plans.
- Any peace deal would require defanging Hezbollah. But Hezbollah is not simply a Syrian proxy with an independent streak, it is also an Iranian proxy. So long as Iran is Syria’s only real ally in the Muslim world, such a step seems inimical to Syrian interests.
- Hezbollah is also deeply entwined into the economic life of Lebanon — and in Lebanon's drug production and distribution network — and threatening the relationship with Hezbollah would massively impact Damascus’ bottom line.
- From the other side, Syria cannot accept a peace that does not restore its control over the Golan Heights, captured during the 1967 war. Since this patch of ground overlooks some of Israel’s most densely populated regions, it seems unnatural that Israel ever would even consider such a trade.
Forget issues of Zionism or jihadism, or even simple bad blood; the reality is that any deal between Israel and Syria clashes with the strategic interests of both sides, making peace is impossible. Or is it? Talks are happening nonetheless, meaning one of two things is true: Either Olmert and Assad have lost it, or this view of reality is wrong.
Let’s reground this discussion away from what everyone — ourselves included — thinks they know and go back to the basics, namely, the geopolitical realities in which Israel and Syria exist.
Peace with Egypt and Jordan means Israel is secure on its eastern and southern frontiers. Its fundamental problem is counterinsurgency in Gaza and at times in the West Bank. Its ability to impose a military solution to this problem is limited, so it has settled for separating itself from the Palestinians and attempting to break up the Palestinian movement into different factions. The split in the Palestinian community between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza helped this strategy immensely, dividing the Palestinians geographically, ideologically, economically and politically. The deeper the intra-Palestinian conflict is, the less of a strategic threat to Israel the Palestinians can be. It is hardly a beautiful solution — and dividing the Palestinians does not reduce the security burden on Israel — but it is manageable.
Israel does not perceive Syria as a serious threat. Not only is the Syrian military's capability a pale shadow of Israel's, Israel does not even consider sacrificing the Golan Heights to be weakening the Israeli military meaningfully. The territory has become the pivot of public discussions, but losing it hasn’t been a real problem for Israel since the 1970s. In today’s battlefield environment, artillery on the heights would rapidly be destroyed by counter-battery fire, helicopter gunships or aircraft. Indeed, the main threat to Israel from Syria is missiles. Damascus now has one of the largest Scud missile and surface-to-surface missile arsenals in the region — and those can reach Israel from far beyond the Golan Heights regardless of where the Israeli-Syrian political border is located. Technological advances — even those from just the last decade — have minimized the need for a physical presence on that territory that was essential militarily decades ago.
The remaining threat to Israel is posed by Lebanon, where Hezbollah has a sufficient military capability to pose a limited threat to northern Israel, as was seen in the summer of 2006. Israel can engage and destroy a force in Lebanon, but the 1982-2002 Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon vividly demonstrated that the cost-benefit ratio to justify an ongoing presence simply does not make sense.
At the current time, Israel’s strategic interests are twofold. First, maintain and encourage the incipient civil war between Hamas and Fatah. The key to this is to leverage tensions between neighboring Arab states and the Palestinians. And this is easy. The Hashemite government of Jordan detests the West Bank Palestinians because more than three-quarters of the population of Jordan is Palestinian, but the Hashemite king rather likes being king. Egypt equally hates the Gaza Palestinians as Hamas’ ideological roots lie in the Muslim Brotherhood — a group whose ideology not only contributed to al Qaeda’s formation, but also that of groups who have exhibited a nasty habit of assassinating Egyptian presidents.
The second Israeli strategic interest is finding a means of neutralizing any threat from Lebanon without Israel being forced into war — or worse yet, into an occupation of Lebanon. The key to this strategy lies with the other player in this game.
Ultimately Syria only has its western border to worry about. To the east is the vast desert border with Iraq, an excellent barrier to attack for both nations. To the north are the Turks who, if they chose, could swallow Syria in a hard day’s work and be home in time for coffee. Managing that border is a political matter, not a military one.
That leaves the west. Syria does not worry too much about an Israeli invasion. It is not that Damascus thinks that Israel is incapable of such an operation — Israel would face only a slightly more complicated task of eliminating Syria than Turkey would — but that the al Assads know full well that Israel is happy with them in power. The al Assads and their fellow elites hail from the Alawite sect of Islam, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that the Sunnis consider apostate. Alawite rule in Syria essentially is secular, and the government has a historical fear of an uprising by the majority Sunnis.
The Israelis know that any overthrow of the al Assads would probably land Israel with a radical Sunni government on its northeastern frontier. From Israel's point of view, it is far better to deal with a terrified and insecure Syrian government more concerned with maintaining internal control than a confident and popular Syrian government with the freedom to look outward.
Just as Syria’s defensive issues vis-à-vis Israel are not what they seem, neither are Syrian tools for dealing with Israel in an offensive manner as robust as most think.
Syria is not particularly comfortable with the entities that pose the largest security threats to Israel, namely, the main Palestinian factions. Damascus has never been friendly to the secular Fatah movement, with which it fought many battles in Lebanon; nor is it comfortable with the more fundamentalist Sunni Hamas. (Syria massacred its own fundamentalists during the 1980s.) So while the Syrians have dabbled in Palestinian politics, they have never favored a Palestinian state. In fact, it should be recalled that when Syria first invaded Lebanon in 1975, it was against the Palestinians and in support of Lebanese Christians.
That invasion — as well as most Syrian operations in Lebanon — was not about security, but about money. Lebanon, the descendent of Phoenicia, has always been a vibrant economic region (save when there is war). It is the terminus of trade routes from the east and south and the door to the Mediterranean basin. It is a trading and banking hub, with Beirut in particular as the economic engine of the region. Without Beirut and Lebanon, Syria is an isolated backwater. With it, Damascus is a major player.
As such, Syria’s closest ties among Israel’s foes are not with the two major indigenous Palestinian factions, but with the Shiite group Hezbollah. The Syrians have a somewhat tighter religious affinity with Hezbollah, as well as a generation of complex business dealings with the group's leaders. But its support for Hezbollah is multifaceted, and anti-Israeli tendencies are only one aspect of the relationship. And Hezbollah is much more important to Syria as a tool for managing Damascus' affairs in Lebanon.
The Basis of a Deal
Israel and Syria’s geopolitical interests diverge less than it might appear. By itself, Syria poses no conventional threat to Israel. Syria is dangerous only in the context of a coalition with Egypt. In 1973, fighting on two fronts, the Syrians were a threat. With Egypt neutralized now and behind the buffer in the Sinai, Syria poses no threat. As for unconventional weapons, the Israelis indicated with their bombing of the Syrian research facility in September 2007 that they know full well how — and are perfectly willing unilaterally — to take that option off Damascus' table.
Since neither side wants a war with the other — Israel does not want to replace the Alawites, and the Alawites are not enamored of being replaced — the issue boils down to whether Israel and Syria can coordinate their interests in Lebanon. Israel has no real economic interests in Lebanon. Its primary interest is security — to make certain that forces hostile to Israel cannot use Lebanon as a base for launching attacks. Syria has no real security interests so long its economic primacy is guaranteed. And neither country wants to see an independent Palestinian state.
The issue boils down to Lebanon. In a sense, the Israelis had an accommodation with Syria over Lebanon when Israel withdrew. It ceded economic pre-eminence in Lebanon to the Syrians. In return, the Syrians controlled Hezbollah and in effect took responsibility for Israeli security in return for economic power. It was only after Syria withdrew from Lebanon under U.S. pressure that Hezbollah evolved into a threat to Israel, precipitating the 2006 conflict.
This was a point on which Israel and the United States didn’t agree. The United States, fighting in Iraq, wanted an additional lever with which to try to control Syrian support for militants fighting in Iraq. They saw Lebanon as a way to punish Syria for actions in Iraq. But the Israelis saw themselves as having to live with the consequences of that withdrawal. Israel understood that Syria’s withdrawal shifted the burden of controlling Hezbollah to Israel — something that could not be achieved without an occupation.
What appears to be under consideration between the supposed archrivals, therefore, is the restoration of the 2005 status quo in Lebanon. The Syrians would reclaim their position in Lebanon, unopposed by Israel. In return, the Syrians would control Hezbollah. For the Syrians, this has the added benefit that by controlling Hezbollah and restraining it in the south, Syria would have both additional strength on the ground in Lebanon, as well as closer economic collaboration — on more favorable terms — with Hezbollah. For Syria, Hezbollah is worth more as a puppet than as a heroic anti-Israeli force.
This is something Israel understands. In the last fight between Israel and Syria in Lebanon, there were different local allies: Israel had the South Lebanese Army. The Syrians were allied with the Christian Franjieh clan. In the end, both countries dumped their allies. Syria and Israel have permanent interests in Lebanon. They do not have permanent allies.
The Other Players
The big loser in this game, of course, would be the Lebanese. But that is more complicated than it appears. Many of the Lebanese factions — including most of the Christian clans — have close relations with the Syrians. Moreover, the period of informal Syrian occupation was a prosperous time. Lebanon is a country of businessmen and militia, sometimes the same. The stability the Syrians imposed was good for business.
The one faction that would clearly oppose this would be Hezbollah. It would be squeezed on all sides. Ideologically speaking, constrained from confronting Israel, its place in the Islamic sun would be undermined. Economically speaking, Hezbollah would be forced into less favorable economic relations with the Syrians than it enjoyed on its own. And politically speaking, Hezbollah would have the choice of fighting the Syrians (not an attractive option) or of becoming a Syrian tool. Either way, Hezbollah would have to do something in response to any rumors floating about of a Syrian deal with the Israelis. And given the quality of Syrian intelligence in these matters, key Hezbollah operatives opposed to such a deal might find themselves blown up. Perhaps they already have.
Iran will not be happy about all this. Tehran has invested a fair amount of resources in bulking up Hezbollah, and will not be pleased to see the militia shift from Syrian management to Syrian control. But in the end, what can Iran do? It cannot support Hezbollah directly, and even if it were to attempt to undermine Damascus, those Syrians most susceptible to Tehran’s Shiite-flavored entreaties are the Alawites themselves.
The other player that at the very least would be uneasy about all of this is the United States. The American view of Syria remains extremely negative, still driven by the sense that the Syrians continue to empower militants in Iraq. Certainly that aid — and that negative U.S. feeling — is not as intense as it was two years ago, but the Americans might not feel that this is the right time for such a deal. Thus, the release of the information on the Syrian reactor might well have been an attempt to throw a spoke in the wheel of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
That might not be necessary. Nothing disappears faster than Syrian-Israeli negotiations. In this case, however, both countries have fundamental geopolitical interests at stake. Israel wants to secure its northern frontier without committing its troops into Lebanon. The Syrians want to guarantee their access to the economic possibilities in Lebanon. Neither care about the Golan Heights. The Israelis don’t care what happens in Lebanon so long as it doesn’t explode in Israel. The Syrians don’t care what happens to the Palestinians so long as it doesn’t spread onto their turf.
Deals have been made on less. Israel and Syria are moving toward a deal that would leave a lot of players in the region — including Iran — quite unhappy. Given this deal has lots of uneasy observers, including Iran, the United States, Hezbollah, the Palestinians and others, it could blow apart with the best will in the world. And given that this is Syria and Israel, the best will isn’t exactly in abundant supply.