Security and Defense: Can Damascus be swayed?

Gabi Ashkenazi believes that breaking Syria’s alliance with Iran and Hizbullah through a negotiated peace deal is worth the Golan.

Ashkenazi 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ashkenazi 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi hangs up his uniform next month and vacates his office in the Kirya military headquarters, the main proponent for peace talks with Syria within the IDF will also be leaving.
While the public wouldn’t know it due to Ashkenazi’s steadfast refusal to grant media interviews throughout his four years in office (talking to Army Radio once a year during a military fund-raiser is not a real interview), he is a strong believer in peace with Syria or, more importantly, the effect it could have on the region.
Ashkenazi is mostly concerned with the danger that lies in the rapidly changing face of the Middle East. The most important changes he points to are in the two countries which are taking more dominant roles – Iran and Turkey. These two non-Arab states are replacing the traditional main players, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as the regional superpowers.
The Shi’ite crescent formed by Lebanon, Syria and Iran and the continued radicalization in Ankara are creating challenges Israel will not be able to independently confront, particularly if Iran succeeds in developing a nuclear weapon.
Ashkenazi has claimed that the one way to stop this is not by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities or making peace with the Palestinians but by taking Syria out of the equation. This can be done, Ashkenazi believes, by a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But not only that.
With Syria embroiled in a growing economic crisis, there is another way to break the axis, but for this Israel would need the US and Europe to provide billions of dollars in economic benefits for Damascus.
FOR THIS reason, there was a strange silence in Jerusalem last week after the announcement that US President Barack Obama had decided to sidestep Congress and appoint a new ambassador to Damascus despite Syria’s continued support of Hizbullah and Iran, mainly because Israel hopes that the US engagement with Syria will help moderate it.
The recent visit to Syria by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was officially not on behalf of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but there is no hiding the interest among some members of the government in renewing the Syrian track.
Ashkenazi’s thinking, shared by Maj.- Gen. Amos Yadlin, who retired as head of Military Intelligence a month ago, is that peace with Syria could break its alliance with Iran, thus increasing Teheran’s isolation and cutting off the main arms conduit to Hizbullah. This, of course, will only work if peace is sincere, something that can only be gauged by holding talks or more likely by seeing what happens after a treaty is signed.
The Military Intelligence assessment under Yadlin was that if President Bashar Assad was forced to choose between peace with Israel and Iran and his “negative assets” – Hamas and Hizbullah – he would choose peace.
Ashkenazi and Yadlin are also of the opinion that Israel needs to force Assad to put his money where his mouth is. Just two weeks ago, he said in an interview that Syria is interested in peace and even knows the formula for reaching a deal. “But we need a partner and we don’t have one so far,” he said.
“We need to test him and what he says,” Yadlin and Ashkenazi have both said on several occasions.
This is not a new opinion. In 2000, as OC Northern Command during the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, Ashkenazi was reportedly critical of the prime minister Ehud Barak’s decision not to coordinate the move with Syria.
He was also a member of the delegation to peace talks with Syria in Shepherdstown, Virginia that year.
Ashkenazi believes that the gravity of the economic crisis in Syria – 25 percent unemployment, dwindling oil reserves and a sharp drop in profits from agriculture sales – should not be underestimated.
A recent decision by Assad to reject a pact with the European Union which would have increased foreign investment has contributed to the crisis. That is why he thinks economic benefits from the US can help.
AT THE same time, there is no hiding the concern over Syria’s involvement in Lebanon. Since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, it has been the main facilitator for weapons transfers to Hizbullah – from its own stockpiles and from Iran. Recent reports about the transfer of Scud D missiles highlights the close relationship Assad has with Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who is believed to have a standing invitation to visit him whenever he wants.
Syria is also rearming at an unprecedented rate. In 2006, it had around 300 missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv; now it has more than 2,000. Its investment in air defense systems has also grown, as has its interest in trying to renew its aging air force. Assad’s decision to build a covert nuclear reactor – which was destroyed by the IAF in 2007 – also had to do with creating a new level of deterrence.
But this does not mean that peace with Syria is impossible. One interesting cable published recently by WikiLeaks summed up a visit to Syria in December 2009 by Iranian National Security Adviser Saeed Jalili, Vice President Mahammed-Javad Mahamadzideh and Defense Minister Ahmad Ali Vahidi.
According to the cable, Syria resisted Iranian entreaties to commit to joining in if fighting broke out between Iran, Hizbullah and Israel. “We told them Iran is strong enough on its own to develop a nuclear program and to fight Israel,” a Syrian official was quoted as saying.
“We’re too weak.”
There could also be a major diplomatic gain from resuming peace talks with Syria. With PA President Mahmoud Abbas continuing to give Netanyahu the cold shoulder and amid reports that Obama has decided to take a step back from his direct involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, talks with Syria could help Netanyahu establish the intimate relationship with Obama he clearly desires.
ASHKENAZI’S TERM can best be summed up by splitting it into two halves – before the so-called Galant Document Affair (also known as the Harpaz Affair) broke and after.
Had he not been so badly burned by his involvement in the affair, he would have gone down in history as the man who took a failing army after the 2006 war and stood it back on its feet. The Galant Document now overshadows everything, particularly since the depth of Ashkenazi’s involvement has yet to be fully disclosed.
One highlight of his term was Operation Cast Lead, which created a new reality for residents of the South but also brought unprecedented criticism from the international community.
As chief of General Staff, Ashkenazi put training at the focus of the IDF’s agenda, with an emphasis on conventional war with Syria from which, he believes, the skills required for anti-guerrilla operations in Lebanon or the Gaza Strip can be derived.
The main idea was to demonstrate a strong military that is prepared for future conflicts on any front even though, according to most estimates within the defense establishment, war with Syria has the lowest chance of happening.