An Empty Package


At this past Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a public statement relating to the revived negotiations with Syria. The talks, the prime minister wished to assure us, were “serious” and would be conducted with “all due caution.” All the ingredients familiar from peace processes past were present in Olmert’s statement: the gravitas; the quiet sense that history is presenting us with a chance that must not be missed; the necessary discretion. However, in the manner now familiar from Olmert’s tenure as prime minister, what we were presented with was the form of something, without its content.

The revelation of negotiations with Syria last week came wrapped in the packaging of a diplomatic breakthrough. But it was nothing of the kind. The basic flaw relates not to Israeli domestic politics (though this may certainly be a factor). The reason why the current negotiations are almost certain to lead nowhere relates to the Syrian regime, and to its perception of its own interests. Syria should not be expected to break with Iran, for the following, central reason: The Iranians and their friends are winning. The Iran-led bloc can look around the region today, and feel a quiet sense of satisfaction. In all the various areas in which it is engaged in its long war with the West, Iran is gaining ground.

Hamas, hosted by Syria and increasingly sponsored and trained by Iran, is holding on in Gaza. In doing so, the Hamas enclave there offers living proof of the muqawama (resistance) doctrine to which the Iranian-led bloc adheres. According to this doctrine, Iran and its clients can paralyze their enemies’ decision-making ability, by making the cost of a preferred action too high. Israel knows that it ought to conduct a large-scale military operation in Gaza, in order to remove a regime that makes any peace process with the Palestinians an impossibility. But Israel doesn’t act, because of the cost in lives that such an operation would entail. For Iran and its allies, this confirms a basic dictum: namely, that the shiny outward appearance of Western and Israeli strength conceals an inner weakness – a lack of will.

Iran and its clients have just scored an additional major victory in Lebanon. This, similarly, was gained by raw intimidation. The result was that in Doha last week, Hezbollah gained the key demand for which it has been campaigning over the previous 18 months: veto power in a new cabinet.

This is of direct relevance to the Syrians. The Assad regime’s interests have been aptly described as regime survival, returning to a position of influence in Lebanon and regaining the Golan Heights – in that order. If Assad is currently interested in talking, it’s because he genuinely would like to gain the third item on this list – but not if it has implications for the other two items, which are more important. If quitting the Iran-led bloc is the price, it has direct relevance to both the stability of the regime and the Lebanese question.

Hezbollah’s new strength in Beirut will enable it to block and perhaps kill the tribunal investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. The tribunal has been one of the chief fears of the Assad regime since the assassination, in February 2005. More fundamentally, the rise of Hezbollah to the status of arbiter of power in Lebanon represents a very significant and clear gain for the Iran-led bloc in what has been one of the key arenas of its contest with the United States and its regional allies.

Now, if Syria were to depart the Iran-led bloc, its place in all of this would evaporate: no more blocking of the Hariri tribunal, because there would be no more backing of Hezbollah. No return to Lebanon – with its many economic opportunities – because its new American friends will want to respect Lebanese sovereignty. No more influence over the Palestinians through the support of Hamas. Instead, the Assad regime would gain the basalt plateau of the Golan Heights – the absence of which causes it no tangible discomfort – and would in return become a vulnerable, minority-led dictatorship with no immediately obvious justification for its own existence.

Why would the Syrians go for such a deal? Why would they leave the tutelage of a power that appears to be successfully defying the West over its nuclear program, and whose allies are managing to hold up well across the region? The answer is that they wouldn’t, which is why the process is packaging without substance.

Indeed, the very desire of Israel at the present time to break with American attempts to isolate Syria offers further proof that defiance works. Who is splitting whose alliance in this process, exactly?

The bottom line is that peace will become a possibility in the region only when the pro-Iranian alliance is challenged and faced down. The attempt to decouple elements of it at the moment of its ascent is worse than useless. It conveys confusion, disunity and hesitancy at a time when the precise opposites of all of these are urgently needed.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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