No such thing as the better devil

Syria is and will remain a dangerous, unstable country, regardless of who succeeds Assad.

Swiss bankers usually have a good sense for where the wind is blowing. So Syria’s Bashar Assad has every reason to be worried by the announcement that Swiss banks might freeze his personal accounts. Is this the beginning of the end of the 41-year Assad family regime in Syria? We may not know the answer for some time, but indications are that it will never be the same.
So is that good or bad – and does it make a difference? More or less everything in the Middle East has in recent months revolved around the so-called “Arab Spring” and the supposedly dichotomic changes in the Arab world.
Some, especially in America, view this as a great popular movement in the spirit of Jefferson and Madison, inspired by the teachings of Locke and Voltaire – while others, more realistic, like political scientist Robert Kaplan, have warned that in the Middle East, as central authority dissolves, the issue is not democracy but the threat of anarchy, and one might add autocracy or theocracy – and any or all of those developments are conceivable – certainly in Syria. Though it is a unified state, it isn’t a unified people; tribal and denominational differences far outweigh any joined identity (just as the Palestinians are basically a tribal society, boding ill for possible statehood).
One cannot, of course, discuss Syria without mentioning its central role as an agent of terror. In the US there are voices which hold that with the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the war on terror is over. This would mean, at least implicitly, that there are different sorts of terrorists, and that the criteria applied to al-Qaida or its Pakistani host do not necessarily fit Hamas or Hezbollah and their protector, Syria (there is justified anger in the US at the fact that bin Laden’s headquarters was located only a few miles from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad – but what about Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s headquarters, plumb in the middle of Damascus?) US administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have had a largely unfocused view about relations with Syria, as did quite a few Israelis – with the result that American policy was to engage rather than confront. There was a brief moment after the demise of Saddam Hussein when this could have been changed, but the Bush administration didn’t pursue it. The Obama administration naively tried to open a new chapter with Damascus – to no avail, misinterpreting the real priorities of the Assad dictatorship.
Sometimes détente works; it worked in Europe and it worked with Egypt after the Yom Kippur war – president Sadat wanted to rid himself of the Soviet Union and cast his lot with America. The eventual Egyptian-Israel peace treaty was part of that. But are there any convincing reasons to believe that Syria wants to sever its ties with Iran and cast its lot with America? Syria, which murders its citizens? Syria, which (with the help of North Korea) tried to build a nuclear reactor? Syria, which has amassed the largest missile arsenal in the world, many with chemical warheads? Syria, which refuses to loosen its stranglehold on Lebanon, and which, with Iran, is one of the world’s biggest founts of terrorism? BUT WHAT about Israel, or more to the point, the chances for peace between Syria and Israel? Conventional wisdom, which in the Middle East is often more conventional than wise, maintained that as the Assads’ regime had kept the Golan border quiet, why risk toppling it? True, it has kept it quiet – and why wouldn’t it, with the IDF sitting more or less on top of Damascus? But was the Syrian-Israeli border quiet until 1967, when the Golan was Syrian? It was nothing of the kind – in fact, it was Israel’s most dangerous border, with civilians in the north almost continuously under attack. Neither before 1967 nor after did Syria’s rulers have a real interest in peace with Israel, among other things because the state of war served as an excuse for maintaining their brutal military hold. Four Israeli prime ministers – Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak and Olmert – explored the possibility of peace with Syria, only to be disabused by Syria’s disingenuousness, including its insolent demand to keep the eastern shore of the Kinneret and the Hamat-Gader region, a part of mandatory Palestine which it had grabbed by force after the establishment of the State of Israel.
Turkey’s real or sham efforts to broker a deal between Damascus and Jerusalem look somewhat suspect in light of its behavior since then. Those who over the years urged Israel to renounce helter-skelter its claim to the Golan – supposedly in order to come to an arrangement with the Assad regime (“everyone knows what the price for peace is”) now look pretty foolish.
Syria is indeed a dangerous place, more than Libya even.
Nothing positive can be said about its present regime, but nor is there any certainty about who could or would replace it. Another army general? Extreme Sunni Muslims? Nobody knows. As for Israel, contrary to the state of affairs with Egypt, about which the concern is that a reasonably stable situation might unravel – with regards to Syria, an already bad situation can only become worse. So this is not a case of “better the devil you know” – but rather that one of the candidates – Assad or those who might replace him – might be a dangerous and questionable lot.
The writer is the former Israel Ambassador to the US and currently heads the Prime Minister's forum of US-Israel Relations.