14 April 2009

* The Shift Toward an Israeli-Syrian Agreement

...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.

..


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.




(st.for)

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Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.