Syria: the peace of the weak

January 26, 2000


Syria: the peace of the weak

Last week, the latest round of peace talks between Israel and Syria began. In this article, abridged from Challenge magazine, YAKOV BEN EFRAT explains the probable consequences of the peace talks for Syria and the Arab world.

On the Israeli side, the necessity is perceived in economic terms. To keep up with the First World countries, Israel will rely on high-tech exports fuelled by foreign investment. It has a hard time attracting investors, however, as long as the Middle East is known as a place where war may flare up any minute.

After Yasser Arafat's surrender at Oslo, Syria stands as the final obstacle to official acceptance in the Arab world ("official" because peace with Arab regimes does not in the least imply peace with the Arab peoples). Israel cannot advance its global economic ambitions without cracking this last nut.

But why does Syria, all of a sudden, perceive peace with Israel to be necessary?


Syria agreed to resume the talks on conditions far worse than those that obtained in 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad then envisioned his country's future as a regional Arab power capable of matching Israel in strength. He was not about to give up this prospect merely to get back the small stretch of territory known as the Golan Heights.

The demise of the Soviet Union in 1990 had not undermined his vision, although it had brought about a change in alignment: Syria backed the United States in the Gulf War. It expected, in return, US recognition and reward. It received, indeed, a partial reward from Saudi Arabia, which supported it with petrodollars. But Syria remained on the US's list of "nations supporting terrorism".

Ever since talks broke off in 1996, however, Syria's strength has waned. The internal struggle for the succession to Assad has uncovered the basic fragility of a regime that has ruled for 30 years by crushing all criticism.

The corruption in the ruling bureaucracy has impeded development. The economy remains basically agrarian. Oil reserves have run low. "Growth" is in the negative. Water pipes go dry every night in Damascus. Electricity is rationed. Thirty per cent of the workers are jobless. The average annual salary is $1200. The per capita GDP is US$900 (it is $16,500 in Israel).

Assad cannot help but notice that in poverty-stricken nations elsewhere, autocrats have been toppled of late, even shot. In addition, his health is failing. There is no guarantee that, in the present situation, power will peacefully pass to his son.

After signing a treaty with Israel, Syria would receive a direct injection of much-needed cash and get itself off the US's "bad list". There is no other prospect for rescue.

Barak's cards

In addition, the US-sponsored alliance between Turkey and Israel (the two countries sandwich Syria in from north and south respectively) has forced Assad to take a new look at the geopolitical situation. Israel and the US maintain joint listening posts in Turkey on the borders of Syria, Iraq and Iran, and Israel's air force trains in Turkish skies.

With backers like these, Turkey had the clout a year ago to pressure Assad to expel Turkish leftist leader Abdullah Ocalan. Suppose now that Turkey shuts off Assad's water, or confronts him again because he backs the Kurds. Assad would find himself facing not only Ankara, but also Tel Aviv.

Assad can see, moreover, the kind of treatment Washington deals out to uncooperative leaders like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. He does not want to be next.

Syria has had to make a difficult choice: whether to cling to its pan-Arab aims, based on its longstanding alliance with Iran, or to join the global village under the US aegis. No doubt, the US helped Assad make up his mind. Such things are not usually said aloud, but the Syrian president must have understood that patience was running out.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak too helped him reach a decision. Israeli soldiers occupy a so-called security zone in Lebanon, Syria's vassal state. Its alleged purpose is to protect Israel's northern border from guerrilla attack. In fact, the Israeli soldiers themselves are vulnerable to attack by Hezbollah guerrillas, who depend on Syria for logistical support.

Israel would like to draw them back into safety. Fearing attacks across its border, for a long time Israel reckoned it could not withdraw except in the context of peace with Syria. This reasoning placed a card in Syria's hands: in effect, as long as Assad refrained from signing, he held the Israeli soldiers hostage.

Barak decided to stop playing this game. In an election pledge, he said he would pull out of Lebanon by summer, unilaterally if need be. Behind this decision lay a threat: following such a pull back, if Israel were to have border problems, it could pulverise the Lebanese infrastructure or even make war against Syria itself — with full US backing.

Syria is so weak militarily that an Israeli attack, backed by the US and Turkey, could easily topple the regime. Under the pressure of Barak's proclamation, Assad saw only one alternative: to keep his regime alive at the expense of the pan-Arab cause.

Peace in such circumstances does not bode well for the Syrian people.

The mechanisms of globalisation will go into effect. The World Bank or its avatars will no doubt prescribe "reform" for the Syrian economy, including austerity measures and abolition of trade barriers, with resulting unemployment.

The recent riots in Seattle focused on the kind of fate awaiting Syrian workers and farmers when their country opens up to the free traders of the world: more poverty and exploitation, while fat cat bureaucrats buy stocks in the global village.

Syria's fears

In his speech at the White House, during the January talks, Syrian foreign minister Farouq a-Shar'a refrained from mentioning the Palestinian question. In this way, Syria signalled an end to its role as the sponsor of the Palestinian cause.

Damascus abhors the Oslo agreement, especially the manner in which it has transformed Palestinian national leaders into minions of Israel. Yet the deal that Israel offers its northern neighbour is not much different. With tiny exceptions, indeed, the entire Golan Heights will doubtless be handed over. But the gain of territory does not make up for the loss of regional hegemony and economic independence.

The US-Israeli alliance will work toward reshaping Syria's army. Since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, that army is in shambles, unable to get replacement parts. Assad will have to ask for US military aid, and we may be sure that Washington will focus this in such a manner as to transform his army from one that can threaten Israel into a force whose main mission will be to preserve internal stability. Syria will be compelled to adopt the Jordanian and the Palestinian models, where the sole security concern is to protect the "peace regime" against internal troublemakers.

We may also expect Washington to extract a commitment from Syria — as it did from Jordan — not to enter into an alliance hostile to Israel. All the while, Israel will be permitted to maintain its nuclear force.

Syria has anxiously watched Israeli negotiating tactics on the Palestinian track. It saw how, at the very beginning, in the Declaration of Principles at Oslo, Shimon Peres persuaded Arafat to recognise Israel, although that was the only real card the PLO chief had. The Israelis could then keep shunting aside the issues important to Palestinians.

Now Israel proposes a similar scenario for negotiations with Syria. Barak wants to reach an Agreement on Principles. The moment it signs, Syria will have granted its tacit approval to the normalisation of Israel's relations with the Arab world — before Israel gives back an inch of Golan. As in the Palestinian case, the promise of normalisation is the sole card the Syrians have.

There is also, as mentioned, a Lebanese card, but it can be played either way. Suppose that Syria and Lebanon do make peace with Israel. In the Pax Americana [US-imposed world peace], Lebanon's economy will have more potential than Syria's, and the latter's army will decline in importance. Then the Lebanese may start getting ideas about freedom.

As the last hold-out before regional peace, Syria has the key that can open the Arab world to Israel. The latter will demand that as an advance. Then will come further demands. Syria will be asked again and again to prove its good intentions.

Barak has promised to submit the treaty to a nationwide referendum. In order to stay in office, he will need a clear Jewish majority. Thus Assad will find himself, as Arafat has, drowning in the currents of Israeli politics: "Give in, or deal with another Netanyahu!"

Finally, even if the two sides do manage to achieve agreement, it is by no means certain that the Assad dynasty will survive. At the hands of the Israelis and the US, regimes like his are constantly under pressure to tighten the screws on their subjects. Witness Arafat: the erstwhile national hero today faces a critical and bitter people.

A Syria-Israel agreement will come at a time when the Arab peoples have already learned that the Pax Americana brings them nothing but poverty and humiliation. When a regime has to seek external support to survive, its days are numbered.

[Challenge, a Jerusalem-based magazine of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can be contacted at <>.]

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