Mixed signals from Damascus

Assad builds anti-Israel alliances while leaving the possibility of peace open.

311_assad and russia (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_assad and russia
(photo credit: Associated Press)
IN THE SPRING OF 2010, MIXED signals emerged from Damascus.
Syria’s President Bashar Assad spoke of a “new cold war,” claimed to be part of an emerging anti-Western “northern alliance” that included Syria, Russia, Turkey and Iran, and continued secretly transferring game-changing missiles to Hizbullah forces in Lebanon.
Yet, in the same breath, he said that none of this meant he was renouncing the possibility of peace with Israel. “If Israel returns the Golan, we cannot say no,” he declared.
Assad outlined his strategic vision in a wide-ranging interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in late May. Two tectonic developments are reshaping the Middle East, he said: Russia’s resurgence as a world power and American President Barack Obama’s failure to deliver on the expectations he had raised in the Arab world. “From this failure, there emerge necessarily other alternatives: namely, a new geo-strategic map that aligns Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia, which are brought together by shared policies, interests and infrastructure.
One strategic region is taking shape, which connects the five surrounding seas: the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Gulf and the Red Sea. That is to say: the center of the world,” he declared.
A few weeks earlier, news broke in Israel regarding secret Syrian supplies of long-range Scud ballistic missiles and GPS-guided M-600 medium-range missiles to Hizbullah. A picture quickly emerged of missiles stored in secret depots in Syria, from which they are trucked across the border into Lebanon on a regular basis. In late May, The London Times revealed satellite images of one of the depots near the town of Adra, northeast of Damascus, where Hizbullah militants have their own quarters and a fleet of trucks they use to transfer the weapons, mainly to bases in the Bekaa valley.
According to Israeli intelligence sources, the secret operation is under Assad’s direct command.
Israel reportedly recently considered bombing one of the convoys as a message to the Syrians and the Lebanese, but the operation was called off at the last minute for undisclosed reasons. The Americans are said to have since convinced Israel to hold off while they try diplomacy to persuade Assad to stop the transfers.
This was apparently one of the key issues on US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry’s agenda, during a late May visit to Damascus.
In any event, Hizbullah already has approximately 200 M-600s and a much smaller undisclosed number of Scuds. Assad has vehemently denied transferring any Scuds, and some observers tend to accept this declaration at face value, on the grounds that the missiles are so big that their transfer could not have gone undetected.
The Israeli military, however, are far more concerned about the M-600s. A Syrian improvement on the Iranian Fateh-110 missile, the M-600, with a range of over 300 kilometers and a GPS-aided inertial navigation system, could target specific buildings or strategic installations anywhere in the north and center of the country, including Tel Aviv. Its accuracy is such that it can carry a payload of up to 500 kilograms to within a radius of 200 meters.
Israeli military experts argue that this turns Hizbullah from a terrorist organization haphazardly targeting civilians into a serious military threat, with the ability to hit power stations and airports, obstruct the mobilization of the reserve army or even disrupt the functioning of the General Staff in Tel Aviv.
“Hizbullah in 2010 is very different from Hizbullah in 2006 in terms of military capability, which has advanced a great deal (since the 2006 Second Lebanon War),” Brig. Gen.
Yossi Baidatz, head of research in military intelligence, told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in early May.
“And Hizbullah,” he added pointedly, “is now regarded by the Syrians as a component of their defense establishment.”
Nevertheless, despite the Syrian-controlled missile build-up, Assad insists that peace with Israel remains a Syrian goal. In the La Repubblica interview, he made it clear that he was not prepared to compromise on land. In other words, Israel would have to return the entire Golan Heights. But he said he was ready for concessions on other major peace parameters, for example security arrangements and the nature of the peace, a veiled hint at the possibility of scaled-down relations with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas as part of a peace package.
Assad, however, never says this directly. On the contrary, when asked, his public position is always that Iran backs a Syria-Israel peace, and that therefore there would be no need for any modification of ties between Damascus and Tehran. Military intelligence, however, believes that for a peace deal that entails the return of the Golan and better ties with the US, Assad would be ready, once an agreement is signed, to distance himself from Iran. But, the analysts say, he won’t initiate any moves in that direction because he doesn’t think peace with the current Israeli government is possible.
“Military intelligence believes Syria could radically alter its role, but Assad feels that political progress with the current Israeli government is impossible, and has therefore avoided confidence building measures,” Brig. Gen. Baidatz told the Knesset.
SO WHERE IS ASSAD HEADED? Does his geo-strategic vision coupled with Hizbullah’s qualitative missile buildup mean inevitable conflict? Or is it a more circuitous attempt to get the West to pressure Israel to make peace on Syria’s terms? Israeli analysts question the degree to which Hizbullah’s military buildup is designed to serve Syrian interests. Most argue that it is more a tool to deter Israel from launching a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities than a means of exerting pressure for Damascus. Either way, it has led to a tinder-box situation in the north, with whispers of an impending missile war as early as the coming summer. Or is Assad, well aware of the overall balance of power in Israel’s favor, more intent on playing a waiting game, keeping his powder dry in anticipation of a less hawkish Israeli government with which he will be able to cut a deal?
Israeli Syria experts see a pattern in Syrian strategic thinking and insist that there is nothing new or particularly threatening in Assad’s geo-strategic vision. Like his father, Assad likes to play a convoluted balancing game aimed at leaving Syria with as many diplomatic options as possible, says Eyal Zisser, head of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. The idea is to foster ties with the Russians to balance what he sees as a declining America, with the EU to balance Russia, Iran against the EU, Turkey to counter Iran, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas against Israel and so on.
The aim is through a string of fluid alliances to create a degree of strategic parity against any potential diplomatic or military adversary, without getting too close to any single power, and ultimately leaving Syria with as much freedom of action and decision as possible. “This approach, bringing in Turkey to balance Iran, Iran and Hizbullah against Israel, and Russia so that the Americans won’t become too dominant, is deeply embedded in Syrian thinking,” Zisser tells The Report.
This also explains Assad’s simultaneous building up of alliances against Israel, while leaving open the possibility of peace. For Assad, peace with Israel is one option of many, never an obsession. He therefore feels comfortable playing a waiting game, using other alliances to create pressure points. And if it ever comes to a serious peace negotiation, the Syrian leader will want to deal with Israel from a position of strength or at least “parity.” He therefore won’t offer confidence-building measures, which could be read as a sign of weakness, to break the current deadlock and get a process started.
“He won’t take active steps because that is not in the Syrians’ nature. They want Israel to do all the running,” says Zisser. “Therefore, I don’t say Assad ‘wants’ peace with Israel because that implies that he is eager. I say rather he is ready for peace if it materializes on his terms.”
For now, Syrian diplomacy seems to be working. In May, a succession of major world leaders beat a path to Assad’s door. In a first-ever visit to Damascus by a Soviet or Russian head of state, Dmitry Medvedev offered unspecified military aid and cooperation on nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. He was followed by the foreign ministers of Spain, France and Germany, and Senator Kerry, all trying to defuse tensions between Israel and Syria and to promote peacemaking. Before that Assad made a state visit to Turkey, where Syrian and Turkish troops carried out joint military exercises last month.
It was all a far cry from the international isolation led by former US president George W. Bush, following suspicions of Assad’s complicity in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Zisser, author of “Commanding Syria: Bashar al-Assad and the First Years in Power,” maintains that although the Syrians now feel they are riding high, their “alliances” have little concrete value. “Psychologically, it creates a feeling that they are breaking out of the isolation of the Bush years, removing the potential threat to the regime that posed. But take even the key alliance with Turkey. Will Turkey go to war for Syria’s sake? Will it give them arms? After all, it is a member of NATO,” he notes.
While Zisser acknowledges the alliances have contributed to Syria’s still-backward economy, he argues that Assad could only generate a major modernizing leap forward through closer ties with the US – which would entail distancing himself from Iran. But, says Zisser, because of his overall strategic outlook, he has chosen not to go that route: “He wants to stay where he is and for the Americans to come to him on his terms. He wants to be able to maneuver between Russia and the US, not to be an American ally like Egypt. Because when it comes to the survival of his regime, being a free agent suits him better,” he declares.
OTHER SYRIA EXPERTS ARGUE that Syria’s policy of diversifying diplomatic ties could actually be exploited to launch a peace process. In an early January article on the bitterlemons-international.org website, Moshe Maoz, emeritus professor of Middle Eastern history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, points to Syria’s improving ties with Saudi Arabia and insists that Asad would prefer diplomacy with Israel in alignment with the moderate Sunni states and the US to war on the side of Iran and Hizbullah.
To get him on board, Israel would have to offer upfront full withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the Shaba farms. In return, it could demand elimination of the anti-Israel clause in Syria’s military pact with Iran and disarmament of Hizbullah. Maoz, author of “Assad: the Sphinx of Damascus,” a biography of Assad’s father, claims the military establishment in Israel supports a deal along these lines, and believes it is possible.
So far, however, nothing seems to be happening on the Israel-Syria track even behind the scenes. Alon Liel, chairman of the Israel Syria Peace Society, claims that the Syrians have clamped down on informal “track-two” brainstorming, arguing that since nothing is possible with the Netanyahu government, it would be a waste of time.
“This weekend I was supposed to go to Turkey to meet two Syrian members of parliament. They both cancelled. People who used to participate in track-two meetings are being instructed to stay away,” he tells The Report. All that is left of the track-two efforts are a number of blogs on the Web, and they too are reportedly experiencing difficulties.
Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director general who was involved in a back-channel that led to official Israel-Syria talks three years ago, points to an inherent flaw in the structure of Israel-Syria ties that leads almost inevitably to deadlock. “Assad is incapable of understanding how Israeli democracy works. He thinks the more menacing he seems, the more that will force the Israelis to talk to him. But the Israelis have adopted the opposite thesis: that he is only worth talking to if he is nice and friendly. That’s why we are stuck,” he asserts.
If the parties can somehow get beyond the starting point though, Liel is confident a deal can be struck. He acknowledges that it would have to deal with a regional dimension that was not on the agenda a decade ago, when peace talks between the elder Assad and then-prime minister Ehud Barak collapsed. This time any agreement would have to include a modification of Syria’s ties with Iran, for which Syria would have to get a substantial American quid pro quo. Liel, however, does not think that makes a deal impossible. On the contrary, he says “every deal, by definition, will address this issue. Because if, at the end of the day, there are American and Israeli ambassadors in Damascus and a Syrian Ambassador in Tel Aviv, the Syrians will no longer get the big checks from Tehran,” he avers.
In mid-May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of trying to “stir up war between Israel and Syria.” Speaking at Northern Command Headquarters in Safed, he dismissed its claims that Israel was about to launch hostilities as “baseless lies spread in order to cause tension.” At about the same time, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos carried a message to Assad, assuring him that Israel had no hostile intentions.
STILL, ISRAEL IS TAKING THE possibility of war in the North very seriously.
Netanyahu made his comments after being briefed on an extensive reservist exercise, simulating war with Hizbullah. And a few days later, Israel conducted a huge nationwide civil defense exercise, testing procedures in the event of a multiple missile and rocket attack on large civilian population centers.
Besides the M-600s, Hizbullah has an estimated 40,000 less accurate missiles and rockets, and constitutes a bigger threat than it did in the Second Lebanon War in 2006; the IDF, though, is also in a very different place since then, with significantly enhanced firepower and maneuverability.
Most Israeli military experts, therefore, do not expect either Hizbullah or Syria to start a war in the summer. “On the assumption that Iran is not attacked in the summer, none of the players has any interest in starting a war,” says Brig. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, former head of research in military intelligence. According to Amidror, Hizbullah is nothing but a long arm of Iranian military power to be used against Israel if Iranian nuclear facilities are attacked.
Therefore, for Hizbullah to attack Israel without provocation makes little sense. It would be a waste of military power carefully built up for a different purpose. “It would be to repeat the mistake of 2006, which Hizbullah has since acknowledged as a mistake,” says Amidror.
“Then the Iranians came down hard on their proxies, because they had used their power too early, much of which was destroyed by Israel and had to be rebuilt.”
As for the Syrians, Amidror says they, too, have little reason to start a war. “For one, the balance of power between Syria and Israel is very clear. Secondly, the Syrians have been slowly regaining control of Lebanon. And there is no reason today for Asad to risk all of that,” Amidror opines.
If there is a war any time soon, though, Amidror says it will look very different from the war in 2006, which lasted 34 days, during which Hizbullah fired around 4,000 rockets at a rate of around 100 a day. The game-changer, says Amidror are the M- 600s, which make Israeli strategic and military installations far more vulnerable.
“Israel will, therefore, have to be very aggressive in its response and put a stop to any new hostilities as quickly as possible.We cannot afford to allow the war to go on for 34 days the way it did in 2006. This means the early introduction of large land forces and the use of very significant firepower,” he says.
In December 2008, Israel and Syria were on the verge of direct peace talks. The Israeli attack on Gaza that month put everything on hold. Since then Netanyahu has not been ready to pick up where his predecessor Ehud Olmert left off. Assad is most unlikely to make the first move. The ball for a peace initiative that could unscramble the mixed signals from Damascus is in Netanyahu’s court.