Frustration in Damascus

Assad is accustomed to getting his way – except with Israel.

Israel has completed its withdrawal from the Golan Heights as stipulated in the Syria-Israel Treaty of Peace; ambassadors have been exchanged; embassies opened; direct flights established; an exhibit of ancient artifacts from Jerusalem's Bible Lands Museum has been loaned to the National Museum in Damascus. Asma Assad and Sarah Netanyahu are engaged in a series of collaborative civil society initiatives…
Bashar Assad understands the price he and the ruling Alawite minority would have to pay, in a country that is 74 percent Sunni, for a genuine peace with Israel. That is why in this week’s New Yorker, Assad frankly told Seymour Hersh that even if Syria regained the entire Golan, Israel, “cannot expect me to give them the peace they expect.”
Indeed, if Israel got the peace we expected, Assad’s de-facto truce with the Muslim Brotherhood would come undone. He’d have to expel Hamas leaders from Syria, a step the Brotherhood would find insufferable. A bad divorce with Teheran would ensue. Hizbullah would reorient Lebanon’s policies accordingly.
In short, Assad would be going down the path taken by the late Anwar Sadat: carving out a separate peace with Israel while the Palestinian issue festered, albeit due to the Palestinians’ own intransigence.
Naturally, if Assad got the Golan Heights on his terms, the legitimacy of his regime would be bolstered. But no Israeli government – not Yitzhak Rabin’s and not Binyamin Netanyahu’s – can come down from the Golan in return for a sham peace.
Assad will not risk a real peace that would force Syria to rethink its ideological identity in the absence of the Zionist bogeyman. How could he justify continued authoritarian rule?
Moreover, real peace would open Syria to progressive influences. The regime could come under pressure from now dormant liberal reformers. The 18,000 Druse and 2,000 Alawites on the Golan would be reunited with their co-religionists, but decades of life under the Zionists will have created social, economic and, yes, political expectations that could “contaminate” the larger Syrian polity.
So a strong argument can be made that the last thing Assad really wants is peace with Israel.
Yet if this assessment is excessively cynical and Assad is prepared to take major risks for peace – he needs to come to Jerusalem and ask for the Golan. His appearance at the Knesset podium would likely create an inexorable momentum for a total Israeli withdrawal.
REGRETTABLY, Assad cannot afford to make real peace. Worse still, through a series of military and rhetorical miscalculations – inspired, perhaps, by Iranian mischief-making – Assad is blundering toward a conflagration with Israel.
Assad’s brinkmanship has worn down his opponents in the Arab world and the West. The destabilizing policies that made Syria a charter member of the Axis of Evil since the early 2000s are unchanged, yet European leaders flock to meet with him, and Washington is fixing to return its ambassador to Damascus.
The dictator has reason to feel cocky.
Syria has lately supplied Hizbullah with weaponry that practically dares Israel to take action. Indeed, Arab press reports speculate that Assad may have made a strategic decision – no doubt egged-on by the mullahs in Iran – that his alliance with Hizbullah and Hamas is worth a confrontation with Israel.
IT’S IN this context that we read Assad’s remarks Wednesday to visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos that Israel is not serious about achieving peace and that Israel is pushing the region toward war. Clearly, Assad is attributing to Israeli decision-makers the very behavior that is motivating him. His foreign minister, Waleed Mouallem, accused Israel of “spreading an atmosphere of war.” He threatened that “a war at this time will be transferred to [Israeli] cities.”
And with that, this disciple of Gandhi invited the Jewish state to “follow the track of peace.”
Syrian bellicosity has caused some Israeli pundits to appeal to theirown government to make a peacemaking “breakthrough.” And so the primeminister repeated that he’s ready to negotiate with Assad withoutpreconditions, anywhere, any time, also through suitable third partymediation.
Assad is accustomed to getting his way – except withIsrael. Frustration, however, is a poor excuse to set in motion aseries of events that is bound to end in tears for both sides.