Washington watch: Bashar Assad’s bar mitzva

The Syrian president is as ready to make peace with Israel as he is to commit to the Jewish mitzvot.

Syrian President Bashar Assad had two high profile visitors last week bringing startling different messages: This is a good time to make peace with Israel, and don’t you dare.
First came US peace envoy George Mitchell to say Washington wants to see a comprehensive peace and promising the Israeli-Palestinian talks would not conflict with restarting the Israeli-Syrian track.
That prompted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to quickly jet to Damascus to make sure Assad had no plans to desert the Terror, Inc. camp. He declared Iranian-Syrian relations were “solid and strategic with a unified view on all issues.”
He also made it clear that Iran not only opposes any peace with Israel but would “disrupt” efforts to “change the political geography of the region.” Assad likes to declare his desire for peace, but that message can be lost amid his more frequent threats of war.
Some on the Israeli Left criticize Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for failing to engage Assad, but the Syrian dictator has done nothing to back up his rhetoric.
Why should he? He has the best of both worlds right now – wooed by the West to join its camp and by Iran to remain in its camp with more like-minded players like Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida. Two of his old enemies have become friends, thanks to the American removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the election of an Islamist government in Turkey, which is shifting its focus from West to East.
WASHINGTON’S GREATER interest is not in restarting the Syrian track but in protecting the Palestinian talks from outside interference. When those began last month President Barack Obama sent a message to Assad warning him and his pals not to sabotage the Netanyahu-Abbas negotiations.
Obama’s outreach to Assad has been fruitless. The US is returning its ambassador to Damascus and has lifted some trade and travel restrictions, but it has gotten nothing in return. Arms continue to flow to Hizbullah; Assad is reoccupying Lebanon with no resistance from Washington or Paris, continues to give sanctuary to terrorist groups, refuses international inspection of his nuclear program and staunchly stands by his Iranian ally.
Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres have all in recent days reiterated Israel’s readiness for peace with Syria, although there are indications that may just be for show. The French and the Turks are competing to see who will be Syria’s go-between, but peace with Israel is the last thing on Assad’s agenda.
That’s the assessment of Oded Zarai, an expert on Arab affairs. “Syria will play the game of peace but it won’t reach peace. Assad can’t afford the price Israel and the West wants, namely to give up his relationship with Iran and those other evil players,” he said.
“The most important thing for Assad is survival of the regime. His standing in the area is very high because of his relations with Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, al-Qaida and now Turkey. Without them, Syria is zero. Because of them, Israel and the West are paying attention to him.
“They treat him like he’s important and tell him they want him to be the new [Anwar] Sadat, a bold peacemaker, but to him that means being killed by the extreme forces inside his own country. The moment Assad will sign peace with Israel, the Assad family will disappear and he will be assassinated,” Zarai said.
There is no great motivation on either side to make peace. Assad would like to regain the territory his father lost in two wars, but he is unwilling to pay Israel’s price and unable to take it by force.
“Getting out of the Golan is worthless because we get nothing in return,” said analyst Dan Schueftan.
“The only thing Israel wants is to cut Syria off from Iran. Assad is getting best deal he ever had with Iran and Turkey and chances he will abandon that for Israel are nonexistent.”
Assad may be as ready to make peace with Israel as he is to be bar mitzva, but that doesn’t mean the US should stop pursing dialogue with his regime in an effort to ease regional tensions and to do everything possible to prevent Damascus from moving further into Teheran’s orbit.
Syria may support and encourage Islamist groups outside its borders, but inside it is growing uneasy with their influence in a traditionally secular society.
In 1982 Assad’s father massacred as many as 40,000 followers of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama when he thought the organization was getting too strong.
The younger Assad likes to talk tough, but he cannot want his more radical – and religious – friends in Iran and Hizbullah to further inflame the volatile situation in Lebanon and draw him into a war with Israel.
Assad’s greatest goal is not, as his father once said, getting back the Golan Heights and wading in the Kinneret. It is the survival of his regime in a fastchanging region. And for now that means not turning his back on his Iranian brothers.