Analysis: Assad skillfully plays East against West

Analysis Assad skillful

In the decades following the Cold War, of which 1973's Yom Kippur War was a seminal moment, the Middle East has coalesced into two opposing camps: the "radical" and the "pragmatic." Iran leads the radical camp, with Hizbullah, Hamas and Syria as its satellites. Egypt has been thrust, albeit unwillingly, into leading the pragmatic camp, while Saudi Arabia operates behind the scenes. For Cairo and Riyadh, the Iranian threat is not just one of nuclear weapons; it is over the leadership of the Islamic world, over the direction Islam is taking, over radicalization and extremism versus moderation. Egypt and Saudi Arabia see themselves in a cultural war with an increasingly bellicose Iran striving for nuclear weapons. They see Iran as the "mother ship" of all the rejectionist movements in the region. Thirty-six years after Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War, Israel's relations with Egypt can be characterized as one of cold peace, although new opportunities have recently materialized for strategic cooperation against the mutual threat from Iran. Both Jerusalem and Cairo see their peace as a strategic asset of the highest order, and while diplomatic disputes may erupt from time to time, neither wants to endanger the benefits that peace and cooperation bring, though in the long term, it is not yet clear which direction the successor to President Hosni Mubarak will take Egypt. While Israeli eyes are on other fronts for now, there is always a calculation that Egypt may one day turn unfriendly again. The IDF performs exercises for that eventuality from time to time. So does Egypt. In the meantime, however, Egypt and Israel are apparently cooperating on a range of issues, including the fight against arms smuggling into Gaza, and Hizbullah and al-Qaida infiltration into the Sinai. Egypt also recently allowed Israeli warships to sail, openly, through the Suez Canal, as a signal to Iran. On the northern front, Israel and Syria are still technically in a state of war. Syria has been fighting Israel for years through its Hamas and Hizbullah proxies. The Golan Heights has been Israel's quietest border for decades, but Syria periodically threatens to retrieve the strategic plateau, either through talks or by force. While Turkish-mediated talks between Jerusalem and Damascus have stalled, the Israeli defense establishment is hoping that Syria will be enticed to abandon, or at least reduce, its strategic alliance with Iran, which in any case is not a "natural" one, as Syria is a secular Sunni nation, while Iran is a religious Shi'ite country. The IDF wants Syria taken out of the equation of potential violence, and is pushing the political echelon to pay the necessary diplomatic price. Current Western assessments posit that, given the chance, Assad will go for peace with Israel if he is given back the Golan Heights to the 1967 lines. A Syrian-Israeli peace, while unlikely in the short term, could radically change the Middle East picture, leaving Iran isolated in the new alignment. In the meantime, Syria is pleased with the status quo. In 2008, President Bashar Assad was a worried man. The UN probe into the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri pointed at direct involvement of senior members of the Assad regime. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was pursuing a probe of a nuclear facility, which according to foreign media, was bombed by the Israel Air Force. Assad was also nervously watching for any last-minute surprises by a departing George W. Bush, who hated the Syrian regime with a passion and wanted to avenge the deaths of US soldiers killed by foreign fighters that reached Iraq via Syria's borders. In the final stretch of the Bush presidency, about 25 to 30 percent of the Syrian army was deployed along the Syria-Iraq border in a defensive posture for this reason. Assad was also warily monitoring departing prime minister Ehud Olmert, who had already, according to foreign reports, attacked the Syrian nuclear facility and who he believed assassinated Hizbullah's top general, who was in Syria at the time. Imad Mughniyeh's assassination in Damascus was a serious embarrassment for Assad. Syria also has some serious internal problems. Unemployment is rampant, with over one million Syrians living abroad in Lebanon and the Gulf States due to a lack of work back home. Syria's economy, while growing steadily, is doing so at a slower rate than the Middle East as a whole. Syria has a drastic water shortage, and it doesn't have enough money or expertise to build desalination plants. There are some neighborhoods in Damascus where authorities switch off the water at night. Syria's oil is also running out, and Assad still hasn't figured out how to supplant that cash cow. Diplomatically, Syria's only real friend is Iran, and Iran is facing increased international pressure and isolation. Despite all these knocks, Assad maintains a strong hold on power in Syria, and in 2009 he can afford to smile. Bush has left the scene, and so has Jacques Chirac, who really loved Hariri. Whenever he feels threatened, he can allude that he's willing to conduct peace talks with Israel, and everybody smiles at him. Assad now has leverage over both the pragmatic camp and the radical axis. Both sides want him to come over fully. Assad is being courted by an American president keen on dialogue, while Iran is making it even more difficult to break away. Europe sees him as part of the solution. At present, Assad is skillfully playing both sides against each other, but is not really moving in any direction. Assad still has to decide where along the East-West axis he wants to position his country. On the military side, the Syrian army, not placing its focus on conquering territory, has boosted its strength in surface-to-surface missiles that could damage the Israeli home front. Syria has also focused on air defenses and commando forces. Assessments in Israel are that if a war between Syria and Israel were to erupt, Hizbullah would act against Israel. It is uncertain if Syria would act if Hizbullah and Israel were to engage in another round, or what Damascus would do if Israel and Iran were to fight. It is not only Hizbullah that is building up military means inside populated villages. On its side of the Golan Heights, Syria is also using villages as a defensive line against the IDF. Over the past 20 years, the Damascus government has encouraged people to move to the Syrian Golan and become farmers, offering them hefty tax exemptions. The number of new farming villages on the Syrian Golan has increased dramatically over the past two decades, and with it has come a population explosion in the area. But the development of these villages also serves as a defensive posture. If in the years following the Yom Kippur War it would have taken the IDF hours to break through the Syrian defensive lines on their side of the Golan Heights, now that mission would likely last days, perhaps weeks. The Syrian artillery repertoire has been built up to be able to fire very quickly across the entire Golan Heights. Like Hizbullah, the Syrian military has placed missile launchers on the back of trucks. The Syrian air force is still no match for the IDF, but they have focused their attention on air defense systems, some of which they are also trying to give to Hizbullah. The Syrian army is training more often than in previous years. All levels of the army are involved. The Syrian army's elite commando courses are considered to be world-class, extremely tough, producing professional servicemen. The army exercises are very organized and commanded by experienced, highly motivated officers. In the Syrian army, only men with academic degrees can become officers, although the military is still subject to a lot of political appointments. If intelligence estimates were based entirely on military means, and not also on political intentions, the IDF would have to mobilize a large part of its standing and reserve army on the Golan Heights 365 days a year. But according to Western assessments, Assad does not currently want war, and is unlikely to attempt a symmetrical war with Israel. He knows his army and country are vulnerable, and he doesn't want his regime to collapse. For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs