The case of Syria could prove different
A dramatic change in Syria’s regime is not only a moral imperative, but also an Israeli interest.
View of Damascus from Mt. Qassyoun Photo: Reuters
The events in Syria present numerous questions. From Israel’s
perspective, the immediate question concerns Israel’s interests in the situation
which has emerged. However, the coldblooded murder being carried out by the
Syrian regime against innocent civilians raises pointed moral questions which
both Israel and the international community must face.
is no doubt one of the lowest points ever faced by the Syrian people. Despite
the fact that there were crises and bloodshed in the past, there has never been
such a prolonged wave of systematic and brutal killings. Nevertheless, one must
recall that the Syrian people have also known moments of greatness. Some
historical background can be illuminating in this regard.
Damascus is one
of the most ancient cities in the world and, together with Haleb (Aleppo),
served for a century (661-760 CE) as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate, which
stretched from Spain to the outreaches of Central Asia. The idea of a Syrian
homeland (“Watan”) was conceived by a group of Christian Arab intellectuals, the
most prominent of which, Butrus al-Bustani, is remembered for having envisioned
a Syria of tolerance, inter-communal trust and cultural unity.
withdrawal of France from Syria in April 1946, the country saw numerous
upheavals, with the eventual emergence on the scene of the Syrian version of the
Ba’ath party, embodying a combination of pan-Arabism, socialism and unique
Islamic influences. While Hafez Assad brought a measure of stability to the
country, he incurred the biting criticism of notable Syrian intellectuals, one
of the most prominent of which was the author and poet Nizar Qabbani.
his poem “Balqis,” named for his second wife who was killed in December 1981 in
a suicide attack on the Iraqi embassy in Beirut, he blamed the entire Arab world
for her death. His incisive insight into the failures of the Arab world gained
expression in numerous controversial poems, including the provocatively titled
“When will they announce the death of the Arabs?”
The intellectual and spiritual
legacy of this Syrian poet is of even greater relevance today than it was in
recent decades, as we witness a cruel tyrant killing innocents, day after day,
with the entire Arab world looking passively on. We see countless summits of the
Arab League, delegations of inspectors, a virtual ocean of talk and
declarations, but nothing more than words and again more words. In short:
it is all “Qalam Fadi” (empty talk).
This situation presents Israel with
difficult questions of both a practical and philosophical nature: what takes
precedence? Universal, humanistic values or interests? Can we, as Jews, who
throughout history have suffered countless pogroms, persecutions, prejudice and
Holocaust, suffice ourselves with a role as bystanders, especially in light of
the fact that moral considerations were an important component underpinning the
establishment of the State of Israel? On the other hand, Israel, like other
states, is bound by the universal principle of nonintervention in the domestic
affairs of other states, whether near or distant.
There are those who
argue, for example, that a weakened Syria, with a leader who has lost all
legitimacy in the eyes of the world and who faces tough international sanctions,
is preferable to a “new” Syria, headed by the Muslim Brotherhood and enjoying
broad Arab and international support.
The dilemma is a difficult one,
entailing far-reaching consequences for our future. The events we have been
witnessing over the past decade, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Tunisia,
Yemen or Egypt, represent an entirely novel and extremely complex
The main challenge of course is to identify and characterize
the possible alternatives to the current regime. What are the different
components of the opposition and what will happen the day after the regime is
toppled? We have seen that the international community is capable of bringing to
a relatively swift end the rule of a tyrant such as Saddam Hussein. It is far
more difficult to establish a functioning, enlightened alternative, which enjoys
the support of broad sectors of its society.
In this regard, it is
important to recall that one of the key conditions for the emergence of stable
and prosperous democracy is the presence of a strong, broad and successful
middle class, something sorely missing in most Arab states. Will Syria after
Assad degenerate into bloody sectarian conflict? Or will we see the emergence of
a new country that will engage in genuine introspection and aspire to a better
THE SITUATION in Syria also bears upon the question of the Golan. In
this regard, some rethinking would be appropriate for those who pressured Israel
in the past to reach a deal with Hafez and Bashar Assad, for the transfer of the
Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty. What would happen today had we
given in to this pressure? What legitimacy would such a treaty enjoy? How would
such a treaty be seen by those in Syria who have come out to protest the
Moreover, the naïve and simplistic notion that by giving up
the Golan, Syria could have been pried away from the axis of Iran, North Korea
and Hezbollah is today crashing against a reality in which the Assad regime is
effectively a hostage of Iran and Hezbollah. Had Israel sacrificed the Golan,
nothing would have been altered except for the fact that the Assad regime would
have enjoyed a tremendous strategic advantage due to the region’s topography,
precisely as was the case prior to 1967.
Thus, even in the event that a
democratic Syria emerges from the current turmoil, Syria’s new regime would have
to understand that any realistic option for a peace settlement would have to
provide for a continuation in Israel’s effective control of the Golan. Such a
democratic regime could engage with Israel in resolving the dispute
non-violently, much as democracies elsewhere resolve or manage such disputes.
Cases in point include the United Kingdom’s respective territorial disputes with
Spain and Argentina over Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands and Japan’s dispute
with South Korea over a number of contested islands.
The latter point
relates to a more general ailment of Israel’s peace-making efforts over the
years. The peace agreements that Israel has signed to date have all suffered
from the same problem, reflecting the unfortunate state of society and politics
in the Arab world. These agreements have all been signed with leaders, with
virtually no support for genuine peace with Israel within Arab public opinion or
the intellectual elites.
True peace agreements can be signed only with
leaders who faithfully represent their country and people. Only states that have
regime continuity and broad public support for foreign agreements and
commitments, as reflected in open, fair elections, reliable public opinion polls
and a consistent and cumulative body of supportive discourse, whether expressed
in the media, educational curricula or popular culture, serve as a reliable
counterpart for the signing of peace agreements.
In the absence of these
conditions, peace agreements remain flimsy and superficial instruments, which
cannot be counted on as guarantors of peace and stability. Thus, a dramatic
change in Syria’s regime is not only a moral imperative, but also an Israeli
interest, since a new regime will most probably break the radical axis between
Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, in which Syria serves as the connecting link. Such a
development, in turn, holds promise of opening the path towards genuine
democratization in both Syria and Lebanon.
Without Syrian backing and
without supply routes passing from Iran to Lebanon, through Syria, it is
doubtful whether Hezbollah will continue to be the dominant player in Lebanon.
Moreover, without the broad territorial expanse afforded to Hezbollah by Syria
and in the absence of the political and military support Hezbollah obtains from
the Assad regime, the 14 March camp will likely return to the forefront in
Lebanon. Under the new circumstances, these moderate forces will have a chance
to finally put an end to the entrenchment of the armed militias, which serve
Iranian, rather than Lebanese, interests.
Needless to say, this would be
a severe blow to Iran’s subversive activities in the region, given that Assad’s
Syria serves as a forward base for latter. Such a development would also
constitute a signal to the states in the region, which fear the strengthening
and penetration of Iran.
We can dream, and this dream, that we will find
ourselves part of a “democratic triangle,” Israel- Lebanon-Syria, is one which
we should take seriously. The main question, of course, is who will take
power in Syria after Assad. Will it be al-Qaida or militant groups affiliated
with the Muslim Brothers, who will continue to harbor hatred toward Israel and
the Jews? Or will we rather see the appearance of a leadership seeking to
establish an open, democratic state that respects human rights and international
This is indeed a big question. The prevailing view, particularly given the
events witnessed in Libya, is that radical groups will eventually take hold of
post-Assad Syria, leaving Israel in a situation even more problematic than
My view is somewhat different. It is precisely Syria that has an
encouraging social profile: well-educated youth, a well-established intellectual
elite, a merchant class steeped in a venerable tradition of commerce and trade
and dynamic businesspeople who are well acquainted and interwoven with the
external world. This is a Syria which could turn out to be the antithesis of the
Libyan model and join the enlightened democratic camp which the Middle East
needs so dearly.
Perhaps this is an unrealistic dream and perhaps not.
The outcry of a Syrian intellectual against the iniquities of the old Arab
world, and even more so, the humanistic spirit which it represents, provide some
hope that perhaps this time, things might turn out differently.
writer is the minister of foreign affairs.