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(photo credit: )
Recent Syrian offers to launch peace talks "without preconditions" are generating a heated debate within the political system and intelligence community.
Reportedly, the Assad regime is even prepared to create joint ventures with Israel on the Golan Heights, wait 20 years before receiving the Heights back as part of a peace deal, demilitarize much of what sprawls between Tiberias and Damascus, and allow Israelis to drive in their cars through Syria all the way to Turkey.
Optimistic interpretations of Syrian intentions are inspired by Military Intelligence, while the skeptics are nesting in the the Mossad. As Mossad chief Meir Dagan et al. see it, the Syrians have undergone no epiphany, and rather than reflect a strategic change of attitude toward Israel, their statements merely echo momentary diplomatic distress.
Damascus, according to the Mossad, is anxious that the momentum generated by the UN's newly approved sanctions against Iran will reach Syria, whether because of its role in fanning terror's flames in Iraq or because of the investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syria is a major suspect. By this thinking, Syria is desperate for renewed international legitimacy, and a high-profile dialogue with Israel is the best way to obtain it.
The debate also runs through the government. On the one hand, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last month that the Syrian proposal "should be explored," and on the other, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would not deal with Syria as long as it is involved in terror - an involvement for which the Bush administration has been scolding Damascus. Lastly, the Foreign Ministry's Research Department believes Syria wants a deal, but only one that will not jeopardize its close relationships with Iran's mullahs and Lebanon's Shi'ites.
The common denominator among all these insights is that they focus on the Assad regime's intentions and ignore its foundations.
Much has been said in America in recent years about the Middle East's democracy deficit and consequent lack of political legitimacy and social delivery. The Bush administration's conclusion that the people should be made to rule, even if through external military help, seemed impractical to many Israeli experts, who on the whole recommended continuing to deal with local powers that be.
Yet Syria's power-that-be is different even as such, since unlike other Arab autocracies it is short not only on political legitimacy but also on social roots. Nowhere else in the Middle East is there a regime whose ruling elite represents a minuscule minority that comprises, even by the most generous estimates, fewer than one in five citizens.
They are called the Alawites.
ORIGINALLY A secret sect with Shi'ite roots, the Alawites see in the prophet Ali (hence their name) God himself; they build no mosques; and they celebrate Christmas and Easter while playing down Ramadan. In Western eyes this may all seem happily ecumenical, but to the Sunnis who dominate the Arab world, and constitute 75 percent of Syria's population, the Alawites are heretics. To the Shi'ites, at the same time, they are lost brethren.
This is the backdrop for Syria's alliance with Shi'ite fundamentalism, and this is what keeps it alive now, as Teheran agitates in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Lebanon.
This is also the light in which the Assad regime's much celebrated "secularism" should be seen. The original aim, as conceived by the Ba'ath Party's ideologue Michel Aflaq (1910-1989), a Christian from Damascus, was to incorporate Syria's disenfranchised minorities through a secular nationalism that would offset their historic abuse by the Sunnis. In reality what turned out was a small minority's brutal dictatorship that aroused the hostility of the Sunnis, Druse and Kurds.
This is also the backdrop for Assad's widely misunderstood enmity with the Sunni Saddam Hussein, and this is the real context of the bloody suppression in 1982 of a Sunni uprising in the city of Hama; as British-Lebanese historian Albert Hourani (1915-1993) observed, fundamentalism was not the cause, but the result of the Alawite oppression of the Sunni majority.
Now, striking deals with the Alawite regime means not only legitimizing its dubious rule over Syria, but also betting on its long-term survival. Yet the regime's eventual toppling by the Sunnis is not only likely, but probable, and maybe even predestined. And while a deal with Assad would clearly help prolong his rule, it is also prone to eventually be seen by his victims the way the shah's victims came to see Britain, America and Israel.
Now most Israelis, though sharing a love for the Golan, are generally prepared to negotiate its surrender, as were many prime ministers, from Yitzhak Rabin to Binyamin Netanyahu.
True, unlike some hawks, who have seen the Promised Land mainly on maps and through bus windows, Middle Israelis have hiked through the perennially green and frequently gushing Yahudiye, Daburiyeh and Sa'ar creeks, dived into the chilly Zavitan, Dvora and Meshushim natural pools and admired flocks of eagles taking off from the top of the Gamla waterfall toward dusk, searching for prey as they glided west toward the easily visible northeastern Kinneret shoreline. Middle Israelis have also done numerous military maneuvers on the Heights, and need no lectures about its tactical significance. Even so, they believe that its beauty is no more of an argument than was the Sinai's, which we returned for peace, and that the Golan's tactical merits can be offset by a broad demilitarization arrangement.
Middle Israelis also remember the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren's ruling that as far as Jewish law is concerned, and with all due respect to the region's ancient synagogues, the Golan was not part of the Promised Land and, as such, even he, a prominent messianic and superhawk, said he would compromise it for peace.
So yes, Israel should be prepared to strike a costly peace deal with Syria. However, it should do so with a government that can be counted on to serve its people and endure the tests of time. Assad's is likely to do neither.