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Another Road To Damascus

Another Road To Damascus

There’s a Middle Eastern proverb making the rounds these days: You can’t make war without Egypt and you can’t have peace without Syria. And if Syria’s sitting down at the table, as it’s indicated it will do at next week, it’s a safe bet that the fate of two key parts of the region — the Golan and Lebanon — are up for discussion.

In two of the most intractable problems of the region — Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the Syrian regime has been the immovable obstacle. Because outside the U.S., the Middle East isn’t just defined by the Israeli-Arab conflict. It’s a Gordian Knot of conflicts involving Israelis and Palestinians, Israel and Arabs, Arab Shi’ites and Arab Sunnis, Arabs and Iranians and the West and Iran. They’re all intertwined, but the common thread in this tangled skein is Syria and the regime of its President Bashar al-Assad.

And in the past 48 hours, there has been signs of movement that might, just might signal some kind of accord that the Syrians will accept. The Golan, the uplands seized by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war, is reportedly on the table at the Annapolis conference which begins Tuesday. This was the precondition for Syria to attend the conference, said its foreign minister, Walid Muallem.

That’s very good news for the Americans, the Israelis and possibly the Lebanese. Why? Because with Syria’s participation — along with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states at the ministerial level — a success in Annapolis might mean the beginning of a real discussion of a Grand Bargain for the region, not just another fitful start to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The thinking is that if the Syrians are shown some flexibility on the Golan, they might also show some flexibility in Lebanon, which is in the midst of its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War — a political crisis stoked in large part by Syria and its allies in Lebanon.

Syrian assets in Lebanon, notably Hezbollah, had threatened “unspecified measures” that might have included forming a parallel government, staging a coup, putting the Army in control or occupying government buildings in a campaign of civil disobedience upon the expiration of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term at midnight Friday. Many Lebanese believed any such provocations could lead to a new civil war. But nothing’s happened in the wake of the failure to find a compromise candidate for the presidency

Nothing yet, anyway. Even though Lahoud blustered and postured, promising never to hand over power to the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, a U.S. ally, he more or less did exactly that. He left office on schedule, leaving executive power to fall to Siniora’s cabinet. And while he said the conditions existed for a state of emergency and that the Army should maintain security, he didn’t actually turn the workings of the state over to the military. The commander of the Army even went out of his to announce that he would follow Siniora’s orders.

The opposition raised nary a peep, other than some desultory protests about the illegitimacy of the government. But they’ve been doing that for a year now to no effect. It’s the same old, same old.

Why? I think it’s because Syria told them to stand down while it figured out what to do and what it might get in Annapolis. Significantly, the Syrian-allied Speaker of Parliament has said the next round for selection the president will happen Nov. 30, after Annapolis is concluded.

A look at the region’s history makes this theory click into place in an interesting and compelling way. Syria has two main concerns in the region. Lebanon and the Golan, and both relate to the survival of the Assad regime. During the Lebanese Civil War and the following occupation, Lebanon’s bustling, captive economy was the iron lung keeping the regime in Damascus afloat.

After Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon following former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Assad’s regime has faced not only an economic hit but also an internal threat from the regime’s old guard who blame the young president for losing Lebanon, which many Syrians regard as historically part of “Greater Syria.”

Should an agreement eventually be made concerning the Golan, the pressure on Assad to “retake” Lebanon could be lessened. What would be better for a president looking to buttress his credentials as the “Lion of the Golan” than to “liberate” the area from those who took it in the 1967 war?

But there are also reasons to focus on the Golan other than national pride and pan-Arabism. The Sept. 6 attacks in northern Syria by Israeli jets shook both Iran and Syria, which had both just made large purchases of advanced Russian radar systems. That the Israelis were able to get to their target site almost without detection should seriously worry the Iranians, who now realize that their nuclear program — peaceful or otherwise — is more vulnerable than previously thought. And that, in turn, worries Syria, which has been banking on a the possibility of an Iranian nuclear umbrella for security. Facing the prospect of a U.S. bombardment of its ally, Syria might have decided it’s time to play ball a bit with the West and move away, ever so slightly from Tehran, adopting the more arm’s length approach taken by former President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. This has the added benefit of mollifying those old guard elements, too, as they’ve never been as keen on such a tight Iranian alliance.

Of course, there are wildcards in the mix. Lebanon was a cash machine for Damascus, but increased foreign investment from China, Iran, India and the Gulf States is taking the sting of losing that a bit. And if Syria loosens up on Lebanon, look for even more foreign investment to pour in. Syria wouldn’t actually need Lebanon anymore. There will be some Greater Syria proponents banging on the table but Golan’s a pretty consolation prize for Assad to have won for national honor.

Secondly, Hamas and other Palestinian groups with no interest in a peace deal with Israel are led by officials in Damascus. This makes them either first-class irritants or, let’s be brutal, hostages should Annapolis foster any sort of accord. Should Syria get serious about this process, Hamas is going to find itself in an uncomfortable position.

Lastly, there’s the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Hariri. It’s likely to finger high-level members of the Assad regime, including the president’s brother-in-law, which can cause real problems for the Syrians, in Lebanon but also with the international community. How will a ruling that Syria condoned assassination be dealt with? That’s the wildest card of all right now.

And Lebanon? Syria’s allies in Lebanon are waiting to see what comes from Annapolis. If the conference kick-starts new talks between the Israelis and the Syrians, Lebanon’s problems might suddenly become a lot easier to manage. Unfortunately, the corollary is also true.

So come Tuesday, it’s game on.