international analysis and commentary

The Arab Spring in Syria: a key challenge for Israel

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Since the Arab Spring has also reached Syria, many Israelis feel as if the world around them is crumbling down: the new Egyptian government just decided to open up the border to Gaza at the Rafah crossing; the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, which had been fighting for years, entered into a reconciliation agreement a few days ago; and the continuation of the current status quo with Syria also seems doubtful. Even though there was no peace agreement between Syria and Israel, the conflict with Damascus was managed and stable for the past four decades. Israel knew what to expect from the rather predictable neighboring country. As US political scientist Jennifer Mitzen has pointed out, states might become even attached to conflictual relationships, as such “dangerous routines provide ontological security.”

Indeed, Syria had always been careful not to escalate the conflict with Israel. Just four years ago, when Israel attacked a potential nuclear facility in Syria, Damascus kept calm and simply denied that such action had ever occurred. President Bashar al Assad has repeatedly signaled willingness to make peace with Israel on the condition that the Golan Heights be returned. Recently, the US also started to re-engage with Damascus in an attempt to limit Iran’s influence, and Syria indicated a policy change when it began to accept Lebanon’s sovereignty by sending an ambassador to Beirut. All these developments are now put on hold and observers are discussing several possible scenarios.

On the more negative side, some fear that President Assad will be replaced by a more hostile regime, inclusive of the Muslim Brotherhood – the movement which Hafiz al Assad (Bashar’s father and former President of Syria) violently smashed in the early 1980s. In contrast to Egypt, Syria might be subject to a sea change, as the leadership of the army, which in Egypt remained a strong pillar for stability, also comes from the same Alawite minority as the ruling family and might thus fall together with the President. This also explains why the Syrian army, as opposed to the Egyptian, participated in smashing the protests so violently. As Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from Tel Aviv University, has recently written, most of the top figures in the Syrian army “are members of the Syrian president’s family, tribe, or ethnic group” and that the protesters “also want the heads of the top brass of the army and security forces” 

Jacques Neriah, an analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, points out that, before the Assads’ rule, “Syria had been a very volatile country where governments succeeded one another at an astounding pace. Military rulers staged military coups, to be replaced by fragile civilian governments. The stability that characterized Syria for the last four decades will be replaced by instability, which could radiate on its neighbors, and certainly on Israel.” Above all, instability could sweep over to Lebanon, from which Syria had disengaged six years ago: the fall of Assad might throw off the fragile political equilibrium there. Israel fears that Damascus could use Hezbollah to escalate the conflict at the Lebanese-Israeli border in order to divert attention from internal problems.

On the other hand, several Israeli analysts argue that the uprising in Syria represents a blow to Iran and Hezbollah. Itamar Rabinovich, from the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution, notes that, although so far Iran has benefited from Mubarak’s fall, the events in Bahrain and the pressure on Saudi Arabia (all of which has also drawn international attention away from Tehran’s nuclear program), the case of Syria is different from Tehran’s perspective. The only strategic ally for Iran is crumbling. Assad, among other things, allowed Tehran to use Syria as a corridor for weapons transports to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Now, the Sunni protesters do not seem to be sympathetic about the close alliance with the Persian Shiite state. In Daraa, they shouted “No to Iran, No to Hezbollah. We want Muslims that fear Allah.” These protests could eventually drive Damascus away from its alliance with Iran.

A further possibility may be even higher on Tehran’s list of concerns: liberalization in Syria could trigger a renewed wave of protests in Iran, too. Shereen Abadi, the Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has claimed that “democracy in Islamic and Arab countries, especially in Syria, will surely have an effect on democracy in Iran.” 

Besides Iran and Hezbollah, Hamas is the other regional actor that would be losing an important ally in case of a terminal crisis of the Syrian regime. Its leader Khaled Mashaal was granted political asylum in Damascus in 2001 and might now – as Al-Hayat reported – be prompted to relocate to another country. The recent developments in Syria possibly provided an incentive for Hamas to enter into the reconciliation agreement with Fatah and to endorse the holding of elections in the occupied Palestinian territories within eight months.

As a consequence, Israel faces a new dilemma: vowing once again to “never negotiate with Hamas”, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel’s military radio that with the accord between Hamas and Fatah, “a red line has been crossed,” and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak asserted that the army would “use an iron fist to deal with any threat”. Yet, the option of a boycott of the Palestinian national unity government has become more difficult now: the alternative “Syrian option,” i.e. peace negotiations with Syria, is off the table now. Furthermore, in light of the sea changes in the Middle East, Israel has to “gain moral standing in the eyes of the world,” as an editorial on Haaretz argued.

When the waves of the Arab Spring reached Syria, Israeli President Shimon Peres declared that Damascus “needs to decide which direction to take: toward Iran’s enriched uranium or the iPhones of its younger generation.” At the same time, Israel also has to make some crucial decisions. A Middle East of Arab democracies necessitates a different kind of diplomacy than that of a Middle East in which a certain status quo could be brokered with authoritarian rulers. It requires a sensitive public diplomacy that allows for a positive perception of Israel among its neighboring populations; most importantly, in order to take the wind out of the sails of radical forces in neighboring states, it requires direct negotiations with the representatives of the Palestinian people, “If you want to make peace,” the late Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan once declared, “you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”. That may now be truer than ever.