Saturday 6 February 2010

Which is the Road to Damascus?

The recent escalation in rhetoric on both sides of the Israeli-Syrian border has, once again, raised the profile of the relationship between the two countries. Defence Minister Ehud Barak told a gathering of senior IDF officers last week that, in the absence of a peace deal, Israel could find itself at war with Syria. Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem, responded by saying that an attack on Syria would result in an all-out war. Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman warned that a war with Syria would result in the Syrian President, Bashar Assad, losing power. All of this seems such a far cry from 2008 when peace talks were being conducted between Israel and Syria via the offices of the Turkish mediators. What has changed so dramatically in two short years? Like many other aspects of Middle East politics, I believe that the answer has everything to do with Iran.

Iran has long been a key player in regional politics. It was in 1984, only 5 years after the overthrow of the Shah, that Iran was designated for the first time as a state sponsor of terrorism by the US. As the main sponsor of groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Mahdi army, there can be no doubt that Iran is one of the world's most significant state sponsors of terrorism. It was one of the country's on President George W. Bush's "axis of evil", and with good reason. More recently, Iranian President Ahmadinejad has upped the ante by calling for Israel's destruction at every opportunity. Iran's continued threats along with its importance as a significant producer of oil mean that Iran is likely to continue to greatly influence Middle East politics in the near future.

On the face of things, Syria and Iran seem to have very little in common. Iran is a theocracy while Syria is secular. Iran is largely made up of Persians and Shiite Muslims while Syria is mostly comprised of Sunni Muslims. They do not share a border, although they do share Iraq and Turkey as neighbours. Behind the scenes, however, they have a great deal in common. Economically, Syria is drawn to its regional ally. In its position as a "pariah" state, Syria is forced to create economic links with all that will agree to have economic ties with her. As Syria's oil production declines and, eventually runs out, there is no doubt that Syria will be looking to Iran as a way to fill the gap that this creates in the local market. The main point that the two countries have in common is political - hatred of Israel. It is this fact that has drawn the two countries together over the years, a bond that currently seems to be stronger than ever. For Iran, Syria is vital in this link as Syria has a direct land border with Israel. This is even more pronounced when considering the control that Syria exercises over the Hezbollah forces in Southern Lebanon. Even though Iranian missiles could easily reach Israeli soil, a direct land invasion of Israel would require access via one of Israel's neighbours. Syria and Lebanon provide this access for Iran.

When Turkey offered the chance to engage with Syria, Israel smelled an important opportunity to try to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. The chance to isolate Syria from Iran and prise it out of Iranian clutches appears to have been the main driving force behind Israel's most recent attempts to negotiate a peace deal with Syria. There can be little doubt that such an agreement would weaken Iran's access to Israel and, with it, the significant threat that Iran continues to pose to Israel.

For Syria, the decision whether to change the strategy that it has pursued against Israel for more than 60 years is not easy. The insult that Syrians continue to feel as a result of Israel having taken the Golan Heights during the Six Day War in 1967 seems to be a significant factor in shaping its foreign policy towards Israel. The optimism that was felt in western circles when Bashar Assad took over from his father in 2000 has largely not been borne out. Even though Dr. Bashar was viewed as more progressive than his father, and with a higher likelihood of guiding Syria towards closer links with the west, this has not happened. Syria can choose to keep close with Iran, keep sponsoring terror organisations and continue its relatively close links within the Arab world. Its alternative is to pursue a peace agreement with Israel and gain favour with the US and other western countries. Economically, the second is likely to be a much better option for Syria. Added to the fact that Syria and Iran are not comfortable bed partners, this is not beyond the realms of reality. Politically, however, Syria does not seem ready for this right now.

In the absence of being able to entice Syria away from its Iranian sponsor, there seems to be only one other way in which Dr. Bashar can be tempted towards closer western ties. This is to hope that Ahmadinejad can be unseated and that economic hardships in Iran will force it to give up its links with Syria (and hopefully, with it, the sponsorship of international terrorism). Until then, Syria will continue to warmonger and insult Israel in the knowledge that Iran stands right behind these threats. After all, Syria knows that, militarily, it is no match for Israel. Military threats will remain just that until Iran decides it wishes to take further action.

For Israel, any peace agreement with Syria must clearly require ties with Iran to be broken, and the cessation of the support of terrorist organisations. This is obviously in addition to the other more issues of the Golan Heights, water resources, military ceasefire and others. The real advantage to Israel of any peace with Syria is the cutting off of Iran's supply route to its terror organisations. It is this issue that is driving Israel's efforts to reach a peace with Assad's regime. With the presence of Lieberman in the Israeli government and Dr. Bashar on the Syrian side, this seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

No comments: