Should Syria and Israel Start Peace Talks Now?

My latest contribution to the Creative Syria Think Tank is up and running, alongside those of my dear friend, Ibrahim Hamidi, Patrick Seale and Ghayth Armanazi. As usual, people can read and vote on the various contributions.

How should the two countries plan for the talks in order to enhance the chances of success? What other related issues should be dealt with as part of the final solution?

In order to answer this question in a meaningful manner, we should bear in mind that neither Syria nor Israel can actually plan such a major undertaking without first consulting their respective allies and supporters, namely Iran and the United States. Moreover, we should not be oblivious here as the current regional context in which these talks are to be held, namely: the ongoing investigation into the assassination for former Lebanese PM, Rafic al-Hariri, and the current stand-off with Iran regarding its nuclear programs and its regional ambitions.

Looking at the issue of talks from this prism raises several important points: can Syria conclude peace with Israel without the approval of its only remaining regional ally? Can the Assads really turn their back on their Iranian backers, not to mention Hezbollah, Hamas, and other radical groups that stood by them in their time of need?

As a matter of principles the Assads have always been willing to betray their allies and stab them in the backs, the Palestinians and the Lebanese have closet-full of stories in this regard. But then, principles are not really what’s at stake here, this is more about the realities that now exist on the ground, realities that are much different than those that existed back in 1991.

Indeed, in the interim period, especially in the years following the rise of Bashar al-Assad to power in Syria, relations with Iran assumed a different dimension for Syria. The parity between the two regimes gradually dissolved in favor of Iran, until, and in the last year, the entire relation was transformed, if not transmogrified on account of that little voodoo that Bashar & Co. managed to do, into a master-client relationship, along of the lines of the existing relations between Iran and Hezbollah. Worse. While Hezbollah, as a non-state actor, is free to develop its own tactics and plan its own moves, so long as they occur within the strategy set in cooperation with its main backers in Iran, and to a lesser extant, Syria, the Assads, in their newly acquired status as vassals, seem more obliged to pass all major decisions by the Iranians at this stage.

Syria and Iran has signed a mutual defense pact, which both sides seem to take pretty seriously, albeit for different reasons. Moreover, Iran is currently supplying the Syrian Republican Guard with much new and advanced weaponry, especially rockets and missiles. (Iran and, to a lesser extant, North Korea are Syria’s only remaining arms suppliers at this stage. The Russians talk about sending weapons, but so far no action has (has) taken place). As such, major decisions made by the Assads will have a major impact on Iran, more so than Hezbollah’s. Iran may not go to war on the Assads’ behalf, but they will try to support them by supplying them with arms, and motioning their allies in Lebanon and Iraq to bring the situation in their respective countries to a boil when circumstances warrant. The Iranians have also been quite busy since the visit to Syria by Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, buying up loyalties in the Syrian army and security apparatuses, by putting various business deals in the way of high-raking generals and their front men, including both Assef Chawkat and Maher al-Assad.

Indeed, the graft and corruption aspect in this entire sordid affair plays a very important role here, which should not be surprising really considering the Assads’ penchant for confusing their private business interests with the national interest. Iran now has major investments in Syria in a variety of sectors, including car-export and manufacturing as well as supplying different types of machinery and supplies to Syria’s rundown factories.

From all the above, it becomes clear that the notion that the Assads can act independently of the Iranians at this stage is nothing less than absurd. There will be hell to pay should they even try. The Iranians can play them against each other, can undermine their hold on power by activating their myriad agents in the country, and they can even create a crisis of legitimacy for them inside the Alawite community. After all, all these Iraqi and Lebanese preachers from Qom who have been busy converting Sunni villages to Twelver Shiism, has also been equally busy communicating with their Alawite counterparts, and many local Alawite shrines have been renovated thanks to donations from Iran, despite the religious differences between the Alawites and the Shia.

The Iranians then, got the Assads by the balls, by the throat and by everything they can lay their hands on, and they have no plans to let go anytime soon, if ever. They simply have too much riding on the Assads and on their potential usability as Iran’s first line of defense to let them stray too far.

(Let’s bear in mind here the fate of the late Lebanese President, Bashir Gemayel, after he signed a peace agreement with Israel contrary to Syria’s wishes. Iran will not let Syria go solo for very much the same reasons. They need Syria to keep on singing their tunes until their own problems with the international community are resolved. Indeed, Hafiz al-Assad’s shoes as a playmaker in regional politics were not filled by his son Bashar, but Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is the one who holds all the important cards now, and the current confrontational mood we see today in both Syria and Iran is the result of well-orchestrated policy on his part).

Popular perceptions will also play a role here. For having whipped up nationalist fervors to such a high extent in the last few weeks over the developments in Lebanon, the Assads simply cannot afford to turn their backs against their former allies so callously. Indeed, the Syrian public may not care much about the Iranians per se, but it does care about Nasrallah. Of course, the Assads cannot turn their back on one without the other. Betraying Nasrallah after confiscating his victory will be too damaging to the Assads’ internal image, which has, all of the sudden, become somewhat bright due to the Assads’ nationalist stand and their fallback on the rhetoric of national resistance.

The Assads simply do not have the strength and flexibility needed to turn on a dime and reverse all their erstwhile positions and actually get away with it.

Not that they are really inclined to do any of this. For in reality, the Assads realize that Iran is their only backer and they cannot just give up on it. On the contrary, their “faith” in this relationship has emboldened them to take rhetorical stands, not only vis-à-vis the US, France and Israel, but also Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Moreover, the Assads are also too paranoid to take a gamble on the basis of Israeli and US assurances, should they ever materialize that is, and they have plenty of reasons to justify their paranoia. They are already under international isolation and the Americans have been openly talking about regime change in Syria for years now. Since this is, naturally, the product of a Zionist conspiracy for them, they cannot trust Israel as well.

We also need to factor here the reality that the Assads might just be more interested in a return to Lebanon than to the Golan, and they will probably spend more time negotiating on this matter than on anything else. Indeed, the recent defiant and bellicose speech delivered by the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, focused much more on the Lebanese issue than on the Golan. Lebanon is simply much more profitable to the ruling clique than the Golan could ever be.

Bashar waxed even more belligerent and confident in his interview with Dubai TV, in which he criticized the Israelis and the Bush Administration, declared his opposition for deploying peacekeepers and monitors along the Syrian-Lebanese borders, and asserted that popular resistance will be the option should the peace process remain halted, and that the upcoming weeks and months will be decisive in this regard.

For all these considerations, then, the only possible way for talks to take place is through a new regional peace process, one that has to include Iran as well. The region needs to have all of its outstanding problems address and resolved now, a piecemeal approach will not work, because the issues are interlocking and there are simply too many states and parties around that can play the role of spoilers, if they had to.

Yet a Madrid II will not be enough here, for the US will lose all credibility it has left, should it back a purely political process, one that does not take under consideration the need for political reform and openness in the countries involved. What is needed here, then, is a mixture of Madrid I and the Barcelona Process, with monitoring mechanisms and some manner of holding states accountable to their failure in living up to their commitments, especially with regard to internal reforms.

But, unless Israel, the US and the EU are willing to sit down and negotiate directly with Iran as well, then peace in the region has no chance and bilateral talks between Israel and Syria, should they ever take place, will go nowhere. The very notion is indeed ludicrous.

(But just for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the Assads did indeed decide to take parts in peace talks, the Israelis still need to ask themselves this: with the perception of victory that the Assads have at this stage, with Iran on their side, with the possibility of opening the Golan Front now on the table, and considering the fact that, for the first time since 1967 at least, it is Israel that seems to be testing the waters for launching peace talks, what sort of attitude will the Assads bring with them to the negotiating table? Will they really be in a mood to compromise? Or, will the Israelis be willing to give the bulk of compromises this time around? True, the Syrians and the Iranians will be confident even should wider talks occur, but considering the complexity of the issues that will be involved in that case, initial triumphalism will soon be offset by the need to make some tough compromises).

Other complicating factors in this regard is the fact that the Iranian leadership seems hell-bent on developing its nuclear program regardless of what the international community has to say about that, this may not leave much room for compromise here. Meanwhile, the UN inquiry into the assassination of Rafic al-Hariri, which is quite an independent activity no matter what the conspiratorial minds in our region happen to think, will likely produce results that are too embarrassing for the Assad regime and which the international community cannot ignore, even if it wanted to. The whole affair is simply all too public.

So, taking all the above under consideration, how realistic is the prospect for such a major initiative in the near future?

Well, considering how regional and international actors have spent the last few years making diplomacy irrelevant, through a combination of unilateral actions and preemptive moves, all halfheartedly implemented and callously and poorly managed, the reactivation of the role of diplomacy at this stage seems to require more leadership skills and a much clearer vision than what is currently available in all relevant quarters.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the policymaking circles in the world, enjoy the fruits of your labor for the last few years, and be brave enough to face the consequences of your policies. Indeed, instead of fooling ourselves into thinking that peace is still possible, by some miracle, let’s just prepare for the oncoming war, which we have made all but inevitable. There is nothing worse than being taken by surprise when all hell breaks loose.