Experts debate Syria's role

"Any settlement with Syria would only strengthen one of the most radical regimes in the Arab world."

assad 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
assad 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The question of Syrian involvement in Lebanon has become ever-more relevant as the fighting intensifies and rockets continue to rain down on Israeli communities. Some analysts say Syria is the only player that can keep Hizbullah in check, and that therefore it is in Israel's interest to negotiate with the Syrian government. Others argue that it is only Syria's provision of weapons, finance and a safe route for Iranian personnel and equipment that allows the Islamist organization carry out attacks in the first place. Thus, Israeli analysts either see Syria as a reasonable, stabilizing force in the region or as the root cause of the problems on the northern border. "The real issue is the broad context of the confrontation with radical Arab elements," says Dan Schueftan, a senior fellow at the capital's Shalem Center and a lecturer at the University of Haifa. "Unless Arab radicalism is defeated historically and permanently, he says, Israel can't survive in this hostile region." Therefore, he stresses, Israel should not negotiate with Syria. "It is not the price of a particular agreement" that is the problem, he says, "but rather the value of such negotiations in the context of the broad currents in the Arab world. "In a world in which Saddam is destroyed, Gaddafi is domesticated, Assad is frightened and permanently on the defensive, Arafat was quarantined and the new Palestinian government is in very deep trouble," a settlement would send the wrong message to the Arab world. "If you can be a radical and win," Schueftan says, there will be increased radicalism among the Arabs, "putting Israel in a more difficult situation." In this context, "any settlement with Syria would only strengthen one of the most radical regimes in the Arab world," he says. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy disagrees. A former head of Military Intelligence Directorate and the Ground Forces Command, Saguy sees the Syrian regime as a potential provider of stability for Israel's northern border. "Can we achieve the goals of this operation: a Lebanese army in the south, a return of the kidnapped soldiers and the disarmament of Hizbullah?" he asks. "I'm doubtful. The Lebanese government is simply not that strong." While he places the Syrians firmly in the "bad guys" category, he insists - not for the first time - that "hatred is not a policy." In his view, Syria can be brought to the table and can sign worthwhile agreements with Israel. "Syria has been pushed by events and external forces - and by its own policies - toward the Iranians," he insists. "They have become isolated politically and weak militarily and economically. They have almost no option other than to go with Iran." Even so, "This is about interests, not feelings or emotions. While what I say makes a lot of people angry, according to my understanding it is in Israel's interest to have Syria on our side." Asked if this goal is at all attainable, he points out that "Syria has much to lose by avoiding contact with the West." Furthermore, its alliance with Iran is not a natural one. "The majority of Syrians are Sunnis, ruled by a minority of Alawites. None are Shi'ites." He insists that during the negotiations in 2000, in which he was an instrumental figure, "Syria agreed to disband Hizbullah. Remember that in 2000, we almost had a peace treaty with Syria." For Saguy, that's what it's all about: keeping Syria out of the Islamist camp, since secular regimes can be reasoned with. Since, according to Saguy, "our main goal is to keep Syria from joining the radical Muslims," dialogue with the secular Ba'athist regime, for all its unpleasantness, is the only way to keep Israel's circle of enemies from expanding. The debate over Syria among Israeli analysts and policymakers is a microcosm of a much larger debate in the West between radically different assessments of the "Arab Mind." Does Syria's official secularism mean that it can be bought off with political or economic concessions? Will it surrender the dream of Greater Syria and Israel's destruction in exchange for reengagement with the international system? For Saguy, the answer is an obvious and resounding "yes." Long-term regional stability depends on engaging Syria. For Schueftan, this view represents yet another chapter in the West's mismanagement of its relations with the Arab world. "It would be a mistake similar to Oslo if we let Assad play the Arafat trick - to obtain what he wants in exchange for something that's not worth having."