What's driving Syria?

There is no great love in Damascus for the Iranian fundamentalist allies.

assad ahmadinejad 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
assad ahmadinejad 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
I am not revealing any secrets if I say that in the course of my work in previous years I used to meet a number of Syrian nationals. "The Hizbullah people," one of them once said to me, "are very useful to us both regarding Israel and in strengthening our hold on Lebanon. But, he added, "We don't like them. We are a secular society. We can't stand their extreme religious, fundamentalist views." The same could be said today of Syria's attitude to Iran. Its alliance with Iran is of great value for Syria, both for its strategic implications and for its financial benefits, yet there is no great love in Damascus for these fundamentalist allies. Syria would much rather be embraced by Saudi Arabia and the West - provided there are no strings attached - than by Teheran. Moreover, together with Iranian money comes missionary zeal; reports speak of new mosques - Shi'ite mosques - springing up in various parts of the country, especially in central Syria and the north. The announcement this week of peace negotiations between Damascus and Jerusalem must be viewed against the backdrop of Syria's relations with Iran. Was the announcement coordinated with Teheran? Did it have Iran's blessing? Or should it be seen as an opening move by Damascus to weaken Iran's grip on Syria? We naturally view Iran's danger to us principally through its efforts to become nuclear, and this is, of course, the prime existential danger facing us. Yet even without the bomb, Iran has become our most dangerous enemy. Its strategy has been to close us in, with pro-Iranian Syria and Hizbullah in the north and pro-Iranian Hamas in the south. Hizbullah has today 30,000 to 40,000 rockets and missiles in its possession; Syria has thousands of missiles that can reach any part of Israel. Wars of the Yom Kippur genre are a thing of the past. We won't be seeing hundreds of tanks clashing in fierce combat on the Golan Heights. We could, however, if the Iranians were to translate their threats "to wipe Israel off the face of the map" into deeds, witness the unleashing of these missiles against our civilian population in a future war at Iran's bidding. Farfetched? Possibly. Israel, of course, has its own capabilities that should not be underestimated; from that point of view the Second Lebanese War was a vital dress rehearsal, where we learned many lessons from the mistakes we made. From a purely military and security point of view, the northern front - Syria and Lebanon - is far more dangerous than anything we face against the Palestinians, Hamas and Gaza included. From that perspective the need to seek an accommodation with Syria and to weaken Iran's grip on our northern borders is more urgent than our talks with the Palestinians, though the one need not be at the expense of the other. Indeed, the announcement made by Prime Minister Olmert makes it clear that the peace talks will be "comprehensive" - following both the Syrian and the Palestinian tracks simultaneously. THE SYRIANS have, unsurprisingly, already announced that their alliance with Iran will not be a subject for negotiation. Indeed, they could hardly have stated otherwise. Yet it should be obvious that Teheran is far from pleased with the latest developments, and views with alarm a possible accord between its ally Syria and Israel. Any such agreement can only be attained if, on the one hand, the United States gives its blessing and becomes actively involved, and, on the other hand, we understand it as weaning Syria away from the iron grip of the Iranians. Without such an understanding it would be foolhardy for us to enter into such an agreement. The Americans are still lukewarm to the new development. They have not opposed it, but nor have they blessed it. When I was in Washington some time ago I was told by American officials that they had tried, time and again, to reach a quid pro quo with the Syrians in which they would modify their hostile policy to Damascus if the Syrians took a number of steps including closing their border with Iraq to insurgents, ceasing to support terror groups and stopping their involvement in the internal affairs of Lebanon. The Syrians never played their part in that equation, I was told, and the US will not change its policy regarding Syria until they do. The Syrians dearly want the US to become actively involved in the negotiations. They want to end their isolation, both in the West and in the Arab world, and believe that negotiations with us will help them achieve that aim. They would like to see American dollars - lots and lots of them - replace the moneys they are receiving from Iran. They have taken note of the Egyptian precedent - the American billions that poured into Cairo after the peace accord between Egypt and Israel. They know that to achieve these aims there is a price, above all the ending of their marriage of convenience with the fundamentalists of Iran. The contacts between Israel and Syria, which began more than a year ago through the good offices of Turkey, will soon blossom into full-fledged direct negotiations. Will Hizbullah try to scuttle the negotiations by starting a new war, with the active help of Iran? That danger exists, and must not be taken lightly. Flushed with victory over its pro-Western rivals in Beirut, the powerful Shi'ite militia may be prone to do so, especially if it is encouraged to take action by the Iranian ayatollahs. The negotiations will not be a quick affair. The complications will come with the details: Can Israelis continue to live on the Golan under eventual Syrian sovereignty? Can the Golan be leased to Israel under nominal Syrian sovereignty? What timetable will be accepted for the takeover? Demilitarization? Continued use of the lookout post on Mount Hermon? The meaning of normalization? Free access to the Golan for Israelis? How will the continued flow of water to the Sea of Galilee be guaranteed? Special arrangements for the area bordering the eastern banks of the Sea of Galilee? The agreements on these and many other issues will affect the Israeli public's degree of support of the for the final draft of an Israeli-Syrian peace accord - if we ever get to that stage.