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.

March 13, 2012 23:15
View of Damascus from Mt. Qassyoun

View of Damascus from Mt. Qassyoun . (photo credit: 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.

Historically, this 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.

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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.

After the 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.

In 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 phenomenon.

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 future?

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 oppressive regime?

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 law?

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 today’s.

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.

The writer is the minister of foreign affairs.

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