Charles RAULT
(RIEAS Senior Advisor)

Copyright: www.rieas.gr

A number of reasons explain why there is so little optimism in the press and in the public opinion about peace talks between Syria and Israel. David Horovitz in the Jerusalem Post underlined that opinion polls showed “overwhelming opposition to ceding Golan”; Yaez Melamed in Ma'ariv says Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “cannot put (Israel) on a course to serious negotiations, perhaps even an agreement, not in his current situation... (because) the (ongoing) grave suspicions, the investigations and cross-investigations turn the prime minister into a political corpse.” During a visit to Iran, Hamas Leader Khaled Mashaal also said that Olmert is unable to take the necessary steps for peace with Syria and accused Israel of "maneuvering and playing with all the (negotiating) tracks — a well known game”. His “weakness will not allow him to take this step," Mashaal added.

As regards Syria, Tishrin newspaper, which reflects official policy, said Israel could not lay down preconditions ahead of negotiations. "Damascus does not want preconditions, that would put the cart before the horse ... It does not bargain over its relations with other countries and people, nor would it want to bargain with others over their relations," the editorial said. "It goes without saying that impossible conditions cannot facilitate the work of negotiators," added the editorial that seemed to insist on the more-than-necessary good relations with Iran. Political opposition in Israel also disagrees with Olmert's initiative.

Outspoken Likud member Tzachi Hanegbi on Saturday called for an early election in Israel in order to know if the Israeli people really want a deal with Hamas. Hanegbi told The Associated Press that "It's understood that Syria wants to have the Golan Heights, and Israel wants a total (Syrian) disassociation from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. It's a red line, to ensure our security...and to prevent a surprise attack." To sum up, ceding Golan is a fact whereas verifying that Syria really cut itself off from Iran will be difficult. “The problem is that a bargain of that kind would not bring Israel any guarantee for security. You can give Golan but you cannot make sure that the Damascus-Tehran alliance is over” an Israeli source told.

Israel wants Syria to end its relations with Iran and with the two armed groups that also benefit from Tehran's assistance: Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah. Analysts question Israel's intentions for a deal with Syria now as such conditions appear unacceptable for Damascus which both domestic and foreign strategic interests lie in its alliance with Iran and the two groups. Many commentators pointed out that the ties between Damascus and Tehran are weaker than they appear. In a way, they convey the message Israel would like to spread; but the reality seems quite different as any lack of support to the Hezbollah would deprive Syria of its power of interference in Lebanon and of its newly-obtained (with the Doha agreement) capacity to possibly block further investigation about former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination.

Actually, the relations between Syria and Iran are stronger because their common strategy serves common goals. Syria always fears an Israeli attempt to durably destabilize the Assad's regime by launching assassination campaign or by waging a shock and awe-style military operation beyond the Golan. Such a plan is clearly impossible as Iran would probably retaliate; a fact that could plunge Israel into a three-front war: one front with Syria, one front with Iran and one front with both Hamas and Hezbollah which would take the turmoil as a greater opportunity to bring destruction inside Israel.

The alliance with Iran gives Bashar al Assad many advantages to preserve his own interests especially as a leader of a minority group that ruled Syria for decades; not without contesting. When he came to power in 2000, most of the commentators said his power could be easily weakened and that his (so-called) inability to deal with political complexities were likely to end the Assad's reign. Yet and in spite of dark expectation for his power, Bashar al Assad has been able to stand out. If the U.N. Resolution 1559 on Lebanon backed by France and the United States sounded like a defeat both for him and for Syrian interests in Lebanon, he is clearly back on the scene partly due to the Doha Agreement that gave Hezbollah the capacity to block the Lebanese government (at least 10 ministries out of 30) and turned the Shiite group into a major political force coupled with an armed militia, though it is (normally) forbidden by the constitution.

Although the West says this agreement can bring stability and undermine fears of a new civil war, it will likely make Syria stronger as Hezbollah usually is its main military wing and leverage of power in the region. Also, Assad benefited from Iran's support early despite initial concerns on Tehran's behalf that he would seek warmer relations with the West given his lack of experience at the time and the likelihood that it might force him out of power. Lastly, he succeeded in eradicating opposition at home and in Lebanon although it brought international suspicion on Syria and heightened the risk of sanctions.

What will make Israeli conditions unmet is that Assad has no real interest in downgrading his relations with Iran since the international community has shown pusillanimity with the U.N. Resolution 1559 that called on all the Lebanese militia (including Hezbollah) to disarm and that still goes unheeded. Better (or worse), the Hezbollah is now the most powerful and best-organized political force in Lebanon. Unless that recently-unveiled Syrian nuclear ambitions forced Israel to adopt a new strategy or to try new ways to undermine the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran triangle.

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