About Carsten Wieland
Carsten Wieland is a political consultant and journalist, specialising in the middle east. His latest book is A Decade of Lost Chances: Repression and Revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring (Cune Press, 2012). He studied history, political science, international relations and philosophy at Humboldt University (Berlin), Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and Duke University (North Carolina), before working as a research fellow at Georgetown University (Washington). He is the author of Syria - Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism and Secularism in the Levant (CUNE Press, 2006) and Syria at Bay: Secularism, Islamism and ‘Pax Americana' (C Hurst, 2005). His website is here
Articles by Carsten Wieland
This week's guest editors
Crisis in Ukraine
Carsten Wieland is a political consultant and journalist, specialising in the middle east, where he lived for several years. He studied history, political science, international relations and philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and Duke University in North Carolina, before working as a research fellow at Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He is the author of Syria - Ballots or Bullets?
The strategic and political reverberations of Israel's military operation in Gaza are being felt across the middle east. Amid intense diplomatic efforts to end the continuing violence and to agree a framework for Gaza's reconstruction, all the major players involved in the core Israeli-Palestinian conflict - including the United States and Iran - are sifting through the rubble in search of opportunity.
Carsten Wieland is a historian and political scientist, specialising in Syria and the middle east. He lived in Damascus for several years, and worked as a correspondent for DPA in Tel Aviv. His books include Syria: Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant (Cune Press, 2006) and Syria at Bay: Secularism, Islamism and ‘Pax Americana' (C Hurst, 2006).
His website is here
Also by Carsten Wieland in openDemocracy:"Syria's quagmire, al-Assad's tunnel" (9 November 2006)
"The Syrian conundrum" (16 April 2007)
"The Syria-Israel talks: old themes, new setting" (27 May 2008)
How, then, will the three-week war affect the course of developments in the region in 2009? The answer to this question depends in turn partly on an assessment of the likely consequences of the Gaza events for the previously "secret" Israel-Syria talks, whose revelation was one of the major stories of 2008 (see "The Syria-Israel talks: old themes, new setting", 27 May 2008).
A walk on ice
The timing of the war was in narrow terms well calculated by its architects. Israel's campaign began on 27 December 2008, near enough to the scheduled general election in Israel to have a political impact; and ended on 17 January 2009, thus avoiding any overlap with the moment Barack Obama stepped into the White House three days later.
At the same time, the results have been inconclusive for Israel - even in terms of its immediate aim of preventing Hamas's (or other militias') rockets being fired into it from Gaza. Its wider strategic implications, moreover, are far from comforting (see Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance", 17 January 2009).
When it was revealed in May 2008 that Turkey had been mediating the process between the two bitter enemies for a year, the news was welcomed with relief by many observers. Now, after Gaza, the talks are on ice. The Syrian government bitterly condemned the Israeli attacks, and the fallout of the destruction included a spectacular public criticism of Israel by Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The immediate "fronts" on both the Israeli and Syrian sides - and across the region - also seem as hardened as ever, a condition if anything accentuated by the internal politics of (pre-election) Israel and of the Palestinians in the wake of Hamas's survival of an intense assault (see Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war", 15 January 2009).
The war has also made the calculations of the incoming administration in Washington more fluid. It became clear in think-tank circles there towards the end of 2008 - but before the attack on Gaza - that Barack Obama intended to begin his middle-east policy via the "Syrian front". The idea was to create a more peaceful (or at least predictable) neighbourhood for Israel before tackling the increasingly complex Palestinian problem. A part of this reasoning was to loosen Syria's alliance with Iran by returning to Damascus the Golan heights, occupied by Israel since 1967; this would have the additional benefit of weakening Hizbollah in Lebanon.
The diplomatic fallout from Gaza for the moment complicates this line of thinking. How far it may be pursued in 2009, as was planned, now also depends on the evolving regional dynamics across the middle east (see Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza", 27 January 2009).
A lost chance
In many respects the news of the Syria-Israel talks in May 2008 should not have come as a surprise. The states were in contact frequently since the Madrid peace talks in 1993 - even in times of high crisis such as after the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In many ways, everything that has to be discussed by the countries already has. Many possible compromises have been proposed regarding the few dozen hectares of land that are the core issue of dispute, including transforming the Golan into a demilitarised nature-park with access for both sides.
Among openDemocracy's articles on the Gaza conflict of 2008-09:
Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)
Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)
Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)
Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)
Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)
Mary Robinson, "A crisis of dignity in Gaza" (13 January 2009)
Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)
Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)
Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)
Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)
Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)
Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)
Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)
Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)
Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)
Hugo Slim, "NGOs in Gaza: humanitarianism vs politics" (30 January 2009)
Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)
The situation in the early months of 2009 seems less favourable to a settlement than did the same period in 2000 - when Syria's ailing president, Hafez al-Assad (who was to die in June that year, and be succeeded by his son Bashar) met Israel's prime minister Ehud Barak (now defence minister, and notably hawkish during the Gaza war).
The two sides convened at Shepherdstown, West Virginia. For a short time, Israel was ready to return the Golan heights in exchange for far-reaching concessions by Syria in the areas of security and the normalisation of relations. But at the end of the negotiations, Barak - fearing public opinion at home - pulled back. Hafez al-Assad considered this an affront, and refused to concede a single metre east of Lake Galilee. A golden opportunity was wasted.
A fist of four
Indeed, there are four reasons that make a rapprochement between the two sides more unlikely today than in 2000 - yet (below) seven reasons why cautious hope is still justified.
The four more pessimistic factors are as follows:
First, Israel has experienced consistent shelling from the Gaza strip since its withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005. The new Israeli government formed after the election on 12 February 2009 will in these circumstances have a harder time selling to its voters the idea of giving up another stretch of occupied land - namely, the Golan heights.
The way that Hizbollah renewed its strength in southern Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 - and again quickly rebuilt its force levels following the July-August 2006 war - reinforces the Israeli public's sense of insecurity. This makes it even more essential that security arrangements and promises are credible. But trust between Tel Aviv and Damascus, despite the Turkey-mediated talks, remains low.
Second, the governments of Israel and Syria are weaker today than in 2000. They are alike confronted with threatening domestic enemies (in Israel, a strong opposition and splintered party landscape; in Syria, hostile groups who threaten domestic peace). In order to succeed, peace talks need governments strong enough to keep their promises and convince their populations to accept an agreement even against prevailing public sentiments. In addition, the infirmity of the George W Bush administration for several years before its departure has had negative effects on peace prospects in the middle east.
Third, Syria has since the war in Iraq began in March 2003 increasingly drifted towards alliances with anti-western actors: mainly its traditional ally Iran, but further afield with Venezuela and North Korea. This has been in large part the result of a lack of of foreign-policy alternatives in the context of Washington's polarising and exclusionary approach. It will be very difficult now to persuade Syria to break from allies that have stood by its side in threatening times.
Fourth, Syria's alliances with Iran and Hizbollah have acquired particular importance for Syria since the early 2000s. Hizbollah's political weight in the fragile fabric of Lebanon has markedly increased (see Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state", 21 May 2008). Indeed, it is arguable that Syria today is more dependent on Hizbollah than vice-versa, a reversal of the situation when Hafez al-Assad was in power.
In addition, both western and Israeli politicians have demanded that Damascus stop sheltering radical Palestinian organisations and leaders. In September 2008, some media outlets reported that Hamas leader Khaled Mashal would be asked to leave Syria. This has not yet happened - and the war in Gaza has made it less likely.
A hand of seven
These four factors reflect the greater insecurity in the region situation since 2000. Yet there are seven reasons for cautious optimism.
First, political developments in Israel-Palestine also favour negotiations with Syria. After the Gaza war, Israel's situation with the Palestinians seems even less solvable; and in Palestine's more fissured political as well as territorial landscape, Fatah has lost ground to its more militant rival Hamas. This encourages leading decision-makers in Israel's political and intelligence community to voice support for negotiations with Syria.
Some politicians, such as prime minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni, favour a "two-track" approach that deals with Syria and the Palestinians at the same time. But even if the hard-right Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu becomes prime minister after the 12 February election, there is a possibility that negotiations with Syria could advance, if only to settle one flank and be able to pursue a tough line on the Palestinian issue.
Second, it is an advantage that the Syrian and the Palestinian portfolios have been separated. In May 2003, Bashar al-Assad picked up the secret concession his father had made at Shepherdstown in January 2000 - and declared his readiness to accept any decision by the Palestinian leadership in peace negotiations with Israel. This implies that Syria could be ready for peace with Israel even before the Palestinian question is satisfactorily resolved.
Third, also in 2003 Syria ended its practice of stating preconditions before resuming negotiations with Israel. This implied that Syria would get back the whole Golan within its 1967 borders, a promise first given by Israel's then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Damascus's greater flexibility offers a further modicum of hope for progress.
Fourth, neither Israel nor the United States currently has an interest in a forced regime-change in Damascus. The bitter experience of the US war in Iraq has empowered a pragmatic-realistic school that considers a dictatorial but secular regime in Syria to be better than intervention which creates the probability of ethno-religious violence and a political vacuum perhaps to be filled by radical Islamists and terrorists.
Fifth, the fact that a regional actor like Turkey has come to play a pivotal role in the Syria-Israel talks has introduced a new dynamic. Washington and Brussels at different times and for different reasons failed as mediators in the middle east. Now, for the first time, a region-centred constellation has a chance.
Sixth, however, the negotiations will require some United States involvement. Syria especially puts great stress on the need for any peace deal to be in the end mediated and guaranteed by Washington. In January 2009, Bashar al-Assad again underlined (in an interview with Der Spiegel) that he was ready to cooperate with Barack Obama.
The Israeli political scientist and diplomat Shlomo Avineri has pointed out too (in an article for the Heinrich Böll Foundation) that Washington plays its most influential mediating role in the middle east in one of two scenarios: when it gets involved in a situation of open war, or when contending local parties have already laid the groundwork for negotiations but need external pressure to clinch the deal. The latter scenario could be on the horizon.
Seventh, Syria has in the second half of 2008 taken remarkable steps to end its isolation from the west and prepare the way for future negotiations. For example, it normalised relations with Lebanon: this included exchanging ambassadors for the first time in the history of these states, regulating open-border issues, and declaring a commitment to non-intervention in each other's internal affairs. Damascus's changed attitude has calmed Beirut's long political crisis.
A fine balance
A number of indications suggest that Syria's toughest period of isolation is over. They include invitations to attend the political meetings of western groups, such as the European Union summit in Paris on 12 July 2008 that founded the Mediterranean Union (see Fred Halliday, "Mediterranean mirage: Europe's sunken politics"). Even an academic delegation of Americans close to the Barack Obama camp visited Syria at the end of 2008.
Damascus has also tried to please Washington with stricter controls at the Syrian-Iraqi border in order to prevent the infiltration of Islamist militants. It may also be that the Syrian secret service knew of and tolerated the controversial US military operation in the vicinity of Abu Kamal, eastern Syria, in October 2008, which killed several Syrian citizens. Only when the mission had obviously failed and created innocent victims forced Damascus to express indignation. In any case, Syria and the United States have a common historic interest that could come to the forefront again: the fight against radical Islamism and its terrorist outgrowths.
But Bashar al-Assad has, like his father, many interests to balance. He must at the same time preserve Syria's alliance with Iran and Hizbollah and pursue a rapprochement with the United States and the European Union; maintain influence in Lebanon while accommodating the interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia; allowing Syrian jihadis the safety-valve of access to Iraq while pursuing good relations with Baghdad and Washington; nurturing ties with Hamas and Hizbollah yet negotiating peace with Israel.
The international situation is more complex than during the cold war, and Bashar al-Assad lacks some of the political instincts of his wily father. But he has managed to widen his room of manoeuvre by well-judged and important concessions. The political reforms he announced when he came to power in 2000 were under more pressing conditions of regional instability and domestic opposition succeeded by a focus on tight internal security. The suffocation of any internal opposition, no matter how moderate and secular, has been another negative repercussions of Syria's isolation. A diplomatic opening could also have internal political benefits that include a greater measure of freedom for elements of Syria's civil society.
It will be another hard balancing-act. Yet because Syria has the potential to be both problem and solution in the Levant, it remains indispensable to any plan for regional peace and security. At present, the time for successful peace negotiations with Israel is not yet ripe. The protagonists are interested, but not yet strong enough to contemplate the painful compromises and secure the political backing that will be necessary.
But the progress made in 2008 may yet survive the destruction and embitterment of the Gaza war, and bear fruit in 2009. Syria and Israel are, in the right conditions, ready to move. When the domestic situations in Israel and the United States have consolidated, further steps could follow. Until then, the negotiations are in the safe hands of Turkey.
The flow of rumour, speculation and argument about negotiations between Syria and Israel has oscillated over many years and around many occasions. Even at times of the highest tensions, close observers of the region would be able to make a sure bet that some kind of channel (as informal or as indirect as it may be) between these adversaries remained open. This makes the most recent revelation of intermediated peace talks between Syria and Israel, on 21 May 2008, less surprising than the often breathless reportage and commentary that accompanies the news suggests. The question, now that an expectant world has had time to digest the story, is whether this phase represents a new beginning or merely a rehashing of old constellations and positions.
Carsten Wieland is the author of the book Syria - Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant (Seattle, Cune Press, 2006), published in Europe as Syria at Bay: Secularism, Islamism, and "Pax Americana" (C Hurst, 2006)
Also by Carsten Wieland in openDemocracy:
"Syria's quagmire, al-Assad's tunnel" (9 November 2006)
"The Syrian conundrum" (16 April 2007)
A first inspection might favour scepticism. It is difficult to imagine a new take on such issues as the Golan heights, security guarantees, or demanding that Syria renounce terrorism. After all, previous negotiations have addressed these issues in the form of a demilitarised zone in the Golan and the creation of a natural park, and even clear borders between the two states.
Moreover, a deal between Syria and Israel was within close reach in the January 2000 negotiations in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. United States participants testified that Syria's then president, Hafez al-Assad, had made exceptionally far-reaching concessions in security issues and in matters of normalising relations (involving, for example, diplomatic exchange and trading across open borders). But his counterpart, prime minister Ehud Barak sensed growing opposition among the Israeli population to the return of the Golan heights to Syria. Barak retreated from compromise on this crucial issue and on a commitment to a complete withdrawal to the borders of 4 June 1967. Syria saw this as a betrayal. These negotiations were a missed opportunity.
In Geneva in March 2000, the then US president Bill Clinton made an attempt on Barak's behalf to persuade the terminally ill Hafez al-Assad to surrender land east of Lake Galilee that had - according to the international borders of 1923 - belonged to Syria before 1967 (and in which the Syrian leader had reputedly splashed around as a child. Al-Assad remained unbending in what proved to be the last big decision of his life. He refused to take part in any further discussions and in a rage flew back to Damascus where he died on 10 June 2000.
The difficulties then notwithstanding, peace talks and possible compromises looked more plausible in 2000 than they do today, when the circumstances of any negotiations are far more difficult. Even a few years ago - say, before the 2003 war in Iraq (after which Syria drifted further away from the orbit of western politics) or as recently as before the Hizbollah-Israel war in Lebanon in summer 2006, the respective states' positions did not seem as entrenched as in 2008.
Also on Syria and the region in openDemocracy:
Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005)
Hazem Saghieh, "Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)
Anoushka Marashlian, "Syria cracks down on dissent" (19 June 2006)
Abigail Fielding-Smith, "Out of cold peace" (13 September 2006)
Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)
Avi Shlaim, "Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall' revisited" (8 May 2008)
Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)
A change in the weather
In the intervening period, seven developments have occurred which make a rapprochement look more remote than before:
* Any Israeli government will have a harder time now selling to its voters the idea of giving up another stretch of occupied land, after parts of the country have experienced relentless shelling from the Gaza strip after Israel's withdrawal in August 2005. The strength of Hizbollah on the northern border after the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000 - exemplified in the 2006 war - further contributes to induce a sense of insecurity in the Israeli public
* Israel's negotiations with authorities in the Palestinian territories as a whole are much more difficult after the intra-Palestinian split between Fatah and Hamas. Indeed, on both sides, insecurity and unpredictability rule the agenda
* Both the Israeli and the Syrian governments are, for different reasons, at present relatively weak and threatened by domestic adversaries. But peace talks need strong governments that can fulfil their promises and persuade their people to accept tough decisions
* After the war in Iraq, Syria has increasingly drifted towards making alliances with anti-western actors such as Iran, and even Venezuela and North Korea. This is mainly due to a lack of foreign-policy alternatives after isolationist measures from the United States and its allies - fuelled by Washington's manichean "war on terror" and by the European Union's disillusionment with Syrian politics
* To ask Syria to cut its links with Iran and Hizbollah is an even harder demand after Hizbollah's demonstration of force against its domestic adversaries in May 2008, which enabled it to acquire an increased veto-capacity within Lebanon's delicate political fabric (see Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state", 21 May 2008). In addition, Syria's oil reserves are fading, while Iraq, Iran and Venezuela's strong resources have increased their own strategic importance
* The post-2006 political developments in Lebanon have encouraged Syria partially to regain its lost grip on its close neighbour, with the help of Hizbollah. However, whereas Syria was the main actor in this relationship during the Hafez al-Assad era, the roles now have changed: Syria seems to need Hizbollah more than Hizbollah needs Syria
* In contrast to 2000, the Israel-Syria talks are not sponsored by the United States. Moreover, they are taking place in counterposition to the foreign-policy concept of George W Bush, who insists on ignoring and isolating "rogue states" on the extended "axis of evil" instead of engaging them. Indeed, Israel has turned more pragmatic than its most important ally.
An unsettled climate
These seven developments offer solid reasons for pessimism. Yet the present situation is less wholly bleak than dialectical - requiring careful inspection to locate the kinds of initiative that could genuinely shift matters forward. Two points in particular (at first sight contradictory) can be made here: peace efforts in the region can only become stable and sustainable if an overall solution is found that includes all actors in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Lebanon, since they are so interrelated; yet it is an advantage that the Syrian and the Palestinian portfolios have been separated.
In May 2003, Hazez al-Assad's son and successor Bashar al-Assad promised to accept any decision by the Palestinian leadership in peace negotiations with Israel. Until then, Syria had always officially insisted on co-representing the Palestinians, though in the January 2000 peace negotiations with Israel in West Virginia, Hafez al-Assad had already secretly signalled that he would accept a peace settlement even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had not been satisfactorily resolved.
This strategy of pragmatism concerning the Palestinian issue could help to break the vicious circle. However, the Syrian political analyst Samir Altaqi said in an interview in November 2003: "Syria is not able to make any further concessions (in the Palestinian issue) ... This would harm the regime's identity." Altaqi himself is now said to be part of the negotiation team with Israel.
Bashar al-Assad signalled his readiness to hold talks with Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war; he has repeated his offer several times since (most prominently at the end of 2003, and despite the continuation of the second Palestinian intifada). He is said to have sent his younger brother Maher al-Assad to Amman for secret negotiations with Israeli representatives.
As tensions and hopes run high, every incident, no matter how minute, is subject to worldwide public scrutiny. This was certainly true of the first handshake between a Syrian and an Israeli president, which took place at the funeral of Pope John Paul II on 9 April 2005, in Rome. When speculation arose, the Syrians hastened to clarify that this gesture between Bashar al-Assad and Iranian-born Moshe Katzav was nothing but "a formality".
In Israel, especially within the intelligence community and within moderate political camps, there have been more voices calling for serious negotiations with Syria, though with no preconditions. Syria had always insisted on resuming negotiations at the point where the two sides had broken off in March 2000. Under these conditions, Syria would regain the entire Golan heights in line with the borders of 1967.
At the end of 2003, Bashar al-Assad surprisingly dropped this condition - which was based on a promise from the assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin - thus placing Israel in a temporary predicament. Bashar directed his strategy toward Washington in order to demonstrate his goodwill and avert pressure on Syria. He has reaffirmed his readiness to negotiate without preconditions several times, as in the speech to parliament in Damascus on 5 March 2005, when he announced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
The Syrian minister of expatriates, Buthaina Shaaban, insisted in an interview in 2004 that "Syria would be prepared to resume peace negotiations today if only the United States would induce Israel to negotiate." But Washington has not been interested, she continued, because it wants to hold on to arguments for putting pressure on Syria in the "war on terrorism." Until now, Israel has had no major interest in peace negotiations because it would rather wait and see how much US pressure is softening up Syria, which would strengthen the Israeli position in negotiations over the Golan heights.
However, after the overt failure of the Bush administration's policy in the middle east (and beyond), Israel has wisely decided to go its own way. Above all, it is both in Israel's and even in the US's interest not to undermine a stable regime in the neighbourhood (which is a reversal of the widespread regime-change rhetoric after the invasion into Iraq). A toppling of Bashar al-Assad and his clique in Damascus could result in an outcome that is even worse from the perspective of Israel's national interest. Despite all, the Ba'ath regime is still a secular player with a strong record of pragmatism in crucial issues, as well as a history of stern opposition to Islamist militants.
A crescent in the sky
It will not be easy to follow up the failed negotiations of 2000 when a "normalisation" of relations was part of the package. A step-by-step approach focusing on security guarantees and terrorism issues first seems more likely, if at all. Maybe it is not even so bad that the United States does not play an active role in the rapprochement this time, but has acceded its place to a regional actor: Turkey. Washington and Europe's efforts have failed in the past; now there is a first opportunity for a purely regional constellation to be given a chance.
Turkey is respected by Israel because of its long-term membership of Nato, and as a traditional US ally. More recently, Turkey has gained respect among Arabs and Muslims in the region because it is the only country in which democracy and Islam have combined in a fruitful relationship. The ruling AKP's foreign policy has focused on rekindling Turkey's relationships with neighbouring states, above all Syria. Turkey serves as a model for moderate and for even more conservative Islamic opposition movements in the region's (mostly secular) dictatorships.
This political and strategic constellation is a novelty. It may also become the foundation of an integral approach in this battered region - and at least be given a chance to do so. By the time the United States has its new president in January 2009, a new momentum and new confidence-building ideas may just come from this direction also. If the constellation survives intact over the next critical period, the Syria-Israel talks may become more than a footnote to history. But it is a big "if".