Analysis: Secret to figuring out Syria's intentions

Have pity on the Syrian intelligence officer whose job it is to try and make heads or tails out of the headlines coming from Israel on Sunday.

December 18, 2006 00:26
4 minute read.
bashar assad looking regal 298

bashar assad 298 88 ap. (photo credit: AP)

Have pity on the Syrian intelligence officer whose job it is to try and make heads or tails out of the headlines coming from Israel on Sunday. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is saying that we won't be speaking to Syria soon, and perhaps a bit more puzzlingly, so is his deputy, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres. Another deputy of Olmert's, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, is in favor of exploring the Syrian offers and, most surprising of all, the head of the opposition, Binyamin Netanyahu, is overtaking the entire government from the left lane and advocating entering into negotiations with the Syrians - at least that's what the front page of Yediot Ahronot proclaimed in a banner headline. It's not enough that Right and Left seem to be mixed up in responding to the Syrian challenge. Even in a normally monolithic party such as Shas, the ministers can't seem to agree. Shas leader Eli Yishai says that accepting Bashar Assad's entreaties would be "legitimizing the terrorist vermin," while another of his party's ministers, Yitzhak Cohen, is urging Olmert to test the Syrian president's intentions by inviting him to Jerusalem. Olmert said Israel "can't say the opposite" of the US, but that also is far from clear. All recent indications coming from the Bush administration are that for now, Syria is not a partner, but on the other hand the president has yet to respond to the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group that Israel immediately enter talks with Syria, ultimately leading to a deal that includes withdrawing from the Golan Heights. While Bush makes his mind up, three US senators, including the man who was almost president, John Kerry, are visiting Damascus, relieving Assad from his diplomatic isolation. The three received some light criticism from the White House press secretary, but according to Kerry, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't try to dissuade him from making the trip. What the hell are these crazy Israelis and Americans up to? Our friend the intelligence officer in Damascus is banging his head. Not that his counterpart in Israel is having an easier time. What does Syria want? For the last five months Assad has intermittently been threatening war and bearing olive branches. In interviews with Western newspapers and networks he's been inviting Olmert to sit down at the table with him, while in speeches to Arab audiences he's been singing a different tune, broadly hinting at the possibility of a military attack this summer to return the Golan to Syrian hands. Meanwhile, he's been backing up his words with a buildup on the Heights, and then standing down those forces but moving anti-aircraft missiles back and forth. This weekend his foreign minister, Walid Moallem, tried to be even more conciliatory toward Israel by saying that ceding the Golan isn't a precondition for negotiations. While all this nice talk is going on, Syria is still being a gracious host to all the anti-Israel terrorist organizations and a conduit for arms replenishing Hizbullah and jihadist reinforcements to the insurgency in Iraq. The military analyst is at his wits' end: Where is Assad going? I think I might be able to help out both officers. Instead of trying to understand inscrutable foreign leaders, start by explaining your own side first; you might find the necessary hints there to shed some light on the opposition. The muddle on the Israeli side is understandable to anyone who has been following the Jewish state's convoluted political scene for the last year or so. A discredited and unsure leader is incapable of keeping his ministers in line, especially the unpopular defense minister, who can be relied on to take an opposite position to him on every issue. When the government is so weak and disjointed, an opportunist opposition leader with no responsibilities can use the opportunity to leapfrog over his rivals and get a headline. Lacking the authority to back up his decisions, Olmert has no choice but to use the US position as a fallback, but the situation in Washington is scarcely more stable and Bush is looking increasingly isolated in the White House, a bit like his friend in Jerusalem. Now that we've sorted out one side, let's see what we can do with Damascus. Yes, of course, the US and Israel are democracies and no one has to be afraid of being hauled off to the dungeon for contradicting the president. Neither is Assad up for reelection any time soon, but that doesn't make him more secure in his palace. Just like Olmert and Bush, Assad lacks the credibility to take a unequivocal stand and knows that he has very few allies he can fully rely on. Six and a half years after succeeding his father, Bashar knows he hardly measures up to his old man. During his time in office, he has lost the exclusive Syrian hold over Lebanon, been forced to play second fiddle to Hassan Nasrallah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and failed to bring Syria any closer to regaining the Golan. Now he has the threat of an international trial for the murder of Rafik Hariri hanging over him. He realizes the long-oppressed Syrian masses are getting restless and that the elders within the ruling Alawite minority are wondering whether to replace the disappointing heir. Assad has little choice but to blow hot and cold, offering peace and preparing for war. Unsure of his personal future, he is gambling with his nation's fortunes. Just like the leaders on our side.

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