Doing ‘business’ with Syria.

For Israel, the opportunity to do business with Syria and break its alliance with Iran is more valuable than the Assads’ so-called contribution to the Golan Heights status quo. 

Nazih Sanjakdar
10 April 2012

There is a great deal of general analysis surrounding the ongoing events in Syria. One of the most common and almost undisputed conceptions is that Israel is strongly attached to the Assad regime because it has helped so far maintain the pacific status quo on the border through the occupied Golan Heights. This might be true only if we are satisfied by how things appear to be; the Assads - like father like son - have made a decision not to make things go physical in their confrontation with Israel, while maintaining a very intense and flamboyantly aggressive rhetoric and moral front.

If we look at things closely, from a neutral perspective, we might arrive at the conclusion that in doing this the Assads were only acting in Syria’s best interest. Hafez al-Assad actually fought his war with Israel, and eventually lost it after he was left alone on the battlefield when Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt stopped everything and went solo to Camp David. Bashar al-Assad on the other hand has been more focused on the economic development of the country, knowing that an open-ended confrontation with Israel would bring Syria to its knees. He also knew that unlike how it is for Lebanon - for well-known politico-demographic reasons - the West wouldn’t be so keen on saving his country from a provoked Israeli assault. They both did what they have to do, no matter however hypocritical this might seem.

Despite this set of constraints, the Assads have kept up a vocal resistance against the « Zionist entity » for different reasons. This was all relatively meaningless and even comfortable to Israel, until Iran came along. For Israel, Syria’s alliance with Iran is the most disturbing thing that has happened in the region since the Iraq-Kuwait-Iran conundrum of the 1990’s. Syria and Iran now formed an Axis-of-evil and/or resistance, depending on which side of it you stand, that could shake things up a little for Israel. The precise tools, the balance of forces, and the distribution of roles were details that remained to work themselves out.

Now if we look at things from the wider angle of what the future may hold for the region we should be able to see a peace accord between Israel and Palestine, as well as with the rest of the Arab countries. Then, precisely from an Israeli point of view, it follows that any comprehensive and final peace agreement cannot be reached in the presence of capable « spoilers ». Those parties unwilling to accept the terms of any peace accord with the Israelis, for whatever reasons, realistic or unrealistic, will, it is believed, act against it with all means possible, including violence. Hence, the persistence of the Syria-Iran axis with its regional franchises - Hamas and Hezbollah - is to a large extent an obstacle to the foreseeable future of the region.

The awakening of the Syrian People is most certainly not due to the work of some team of talented Middle-East advisers and political strategists sitting at the White House. It is rather the natural response to a chronic deprivation of rights and justice. However, a revolution is after all a political event that third parties can try to use in order to achieve their own goals. This has always been the case throughout history. Therefore, if we try and understand Israel’s position vis-à-vis the attempts of the Syrian people to bring down the Assad regime, the mainstream interpretation wouldn’t sound as convincing now as it did before the 2007 Syrio-Iranian security agreement, or the 2010 Assad, Najad, Nasrallah meeting in Damascus. 

In Egypt, notwithstanding minor symbolic events for the people to let off some steam, the removal of Hosni Mubarak has not changed the country’s stance towards Israel, and the Peace Accords are still intact. This is basically because a country’s military and economic capabilities do not change overnight with the regime.

So now in Syria, while its military incapacity to confront Israel is not going to change in any way, the opportunity presents itself to substitute a regime that has full-heartedly embraced its alliance with Iran - thus providing and/or facilitating geostrategic backup to Hamas and Hezbollah, with a new regime that - at the very least - may or may not do the same. In fact Syria’s demography, in which we are meant to be able to read some of the political realities of any post-revolution period, leans toward a change in the relationship with Iran and the rest of the Axis’ clusters. 

Hence, from the side of those third parties – whether it be Israel, the US, or some of the Arab countries in their holy-war against Iran, working for their own interest - removing the Assad regime could provide a certain type of relief as a step forward towards dismantling the « Axis of Spoilers », and bringing Syria back into the Realm of Sunni-land, thus weakening Iran’s influence in the region, in addition to bringing an opportunity for doing “ better ” business with Syria on the peace-accords front. Of course they all do have in mind the freedom and the dignity of the Syrian people. But unless al-Assad - a bit too late though - can offer total disengagement from his alliance with Iran and the “Axis of evil”, with all its regional and international clusters from Hamas and Hezbollah to North Korea and Venezuela – this is likely to be their thinking on the matter. 

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Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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