Syria First

Iran Syria and Hizbullah

Is Bashar al-Assad the Rational Actor
and Key to Elusive Peace with Israel?

What is often called the “rejectionist” position in the Middle East has for some time had the upper hand in the dynamics governing inter-Arab rela­tions. A quick glance at the inter-­Arab interaction reveals that Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas have glued their alliance with one objective in mind; to make the American strategy in the region fail while concurrently bringing down the relative weight of moderate Arab re­gimes. These forces, strongly supported by Iran, have firmly lodged themselves in a posi­tion that aims to undermine any peace process that they dislike.

Assad with Ahmadinejad in Tehran

For this reason, many west­ern analysts have begun to talk about “Syria first”, a term used to describe the act of luring Syria away from this formida­ble alliance.

In Washington, a school of thought has emerged over the last few years that argues why engaging Syria would herald a process whereby Syria would be apt to leave the alliance with Iran and the other state and non-state actor adversaries. This assumption has yet to be tested.

Interestingly, this debate has moved into the Israeli scene. Nowadays, it is not unusual to find articles in the Hebrew press calling on Prime Min­ister Benjamin Netanyahu to seize the moment and make peace with Syria even if the quid pro quo is to relinquish the entire Golan Heights.


CAPTION: Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has arrived in Tehran on a trip aimed at reassuring Iranian leaders that the alliance between the two countries is solid despite Syria’s improved relations with the US.

Zvi Bar’ el from Haaretz called on Netanyahu to make peace with Syria lest he should face inevitable war. Bar’ el ar­gued, rightly so, that by holding on to the Golan Heights even in the presence of balance of threat will in the long run only increase the chances for war.

In Israel, there are two schools of thought regard­ing peace and war with Syria. Netanyahu, his associates in the government and advisers such as Uzi Arad argue that the imminent threat is not com­ing from the lack of peace with Syria. At the end of the day, Syria is a rational actor and will not run the risk of getting into a military clash with Israel, particularly when Syria understands well that the cost of such a military clash will be unbear­able for it. To them, the most promi­nent threat comes for a nuclear Iran.

The security and military apparatuses do not see eye to eye on the political echelon. They argue that the chances of war are increasing in the absence of peace. Syria, according to them, has learnt from recent confrontation between Israel and Hizbollah that the Israel Defense Force is no longer invincible. The Syrian army has introduced new tactics that will certainly raise the cost if Israel attacks Syria.

Additionally, they argue that all Syria is looking for is to regain its land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, no more and no less. Syria, according to this thinking, will not hesitate to withdraw from its alliance with the rejectionist camp and join the moderate Arab camp if Israel withdraws from the en­tire Golan Heights. If that does not happen, Syria is not apt to leave its alliance with these formidable forces.

It is not yet clear which di­rection the Israeli government will take when it comes to peace with Syria. President Bashar Assad made it clear that while he is seeking peace with Israel, Netanyahu has not reciprocated in kind. It is enough to observe the Israeli government’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians to see that Assad is correct in his assertions.

It appears that the ball is now in the court of the Israeli government that needs to show if it really means business. Time and again, Assad ­has articulated his desire to sign a peace treaty with Is­rael, but not at any cost.

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