Published on April 17th, 2013 |
by Usman Butt
Image © John Robert Charlton. 2010
Israel and Syria: Caught in a Bad Romance
Since the Arab Spring blew into Syria, many groups of both left and right have celebrated, rejoiced, condemned, attacked and rejected the winds of change in Syria. For both ‘anti-imperialists’ and ‘pro-western’ activists (In the West), change in Syria was not seen in purely local Syrian terms. It was seen in regional terms, at heart of which is Israel. ‘Anti-Imperialists’ abhorred the Arab spring coming to Syria, as Syria was an ‘anti-imperialist’ force standing against Israel. The ‘pro-western’ camp welcomed the Arab spring for the same reason. However, the relationship is more complex than that when viewed from either Damascus or Tel Aviv.
To help simplify this relationship, on my Facebook feed I described it like this, “imagine a bad teen romance film or novel. Israel and Syria pretend to hate each other- but secretly they yearn for one another. They try and out do one-another to hide their true feelings. Israel got with Lebanon three-times to make Syria jealous, Syria tried to do the same by sending secret text messages to Lebanon- before forcefully trying to take Lebanon. Although they have both had Lebanon, it is each other that they want”. The feedback I got was generally positive.
But this perhaps crude simplification is relatively accurate, in describing the complex relationship between Israel and Syria. Talking to Syria was (before the Arab spring) a political and security fixation for Israel. As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in an Interview to Ha’aretz newspaper in 1999 “The Palestinians are a source of legitimacy for the continuation of the conflict, but they are the weakest of our adversaries. As a military threat they are ludicrous.” He indicated in the interview, as well as in other public statements made during his rule, that it is Syria he wants. Peace with Syria, was part of his election promise- and to those who follow Israeli politics this was no surprise.
It is widely assumed that the 1993 Oslo peace accords, signed with Yasser Arafat, signalled Israel’s desire for peace with the Palestinians. However, apart from relieving the pressure from the United States and finding solutions to help ease the cost of occupying the West Bank and Gaza, the Oslo accords weren’t about the Palestinians at all. Since the Madrid conference of 1991 Israel’s main diplomatic objective has been to woo Syria. After Egypt, who had signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Syria was the next ‘biggest threat’ to take Syria out of the fight would be a massive coup for the Israelis.
Professor of History at Tel Aviv University, Itamar Rabinovich, was a senior negotiator for Israel during the secrets talks with Syria. He was handpicked by former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to lead the talks because of his specialist knowledge on Syria. It is not unusual for academics to be used by the government in diplomatic, military or intelligence operations – most Middle East specialists in Israel tend to work closely with the Israeli military and intelligence- whether that be teaching army officers about ‘the enemy’ or advising the government. Rabinovich published ‘The Brink of Peace’ which was a memoir of his role in the negotiations. It is very clear from this book that the inner circle in Israel, not only regard peace with Syria as more important than peace with the Palestinians, but they also strongly admired and respected former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad (father of Bashar, the current president).
Syria and Hafez Al-Assad have a strange allure in Israel. Moshe Ma’oz, another Syria specialist in Israel, described Hafez’s ‘achievements’ as ‘spectacular’. Ma’oz wrote in his autobiography that he turned Syria from a poor country into a regional force to be reckoned with. He also emphasised that Hafez is from an Alawite background – which makes his achievements even more ‘miraculous’ as he was set against a Sunni-Muslim majority. The ruthlessness of his regime doesn’t seem to faze him. In a sense Hafez embodies the romantic image Israel has of its early Zionist forefathers. The idea that ‘against all odds’ he made the desert blossom.
However Israel’s reaction to Syria is also one of fear. As Tom Segev wrote in ‘1967: Israel, The War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East”, Israeli society in the mid-1960s suffered from what he called ‘The Syrian Syndrome’. This was caused by anxiety about border skirmishes and the belligerent attitudes on both sides (although more on the Israeli side). This tension led to the Six-Day war and Israel victoriously seizing the Syrian Golan Heights. The Israeli army could never invade and occupy Syria, because of its size and so Lebanon was seen as an ‘easy option’ to counter Syria, as Ze’ev Maoz shows us in ‘Defending the Holy Land: A critical analysis of Israel’s security & foreign policy’. This a big reason why Israel has invaded Lebanon three times.
Contrary to what many ‘anti-imperalists’ believe, the Syrian regime holds many of the same complex attitudes towards Israel. In Patrick Seale’s masterly biography of Hafez Al-Assad, we see a president that recognizes Israel and its power. Seale wrote that Assad evolved into a Machiavellian, who sought to create a balance-of-power with Israel- he did not want to destroy Israel-but use it to reinforce his own power. The policy he adopted remained the policy under Bashar Al-Assad. The Syrian regime prevented attacks from Palestinian groups to be launched from Syria. Leaving IDF general’s to conclude that ‘Syria is our quietist border’. It is also forgotten by ‘anti-imperialists’ that, in the 1980’s, Syria declared war on Hezbollah but lost.
Israeli society today is even more anxious about events in Syria. The Assads were good for them and a new regime seems a more menacing prospect. This is the mood of most of the Israeli public – although I have met some Israelis who supported the uprising because it might mean they get to go on holiday there. One prominent Israeli professor I met revealed a different kind of Syrian syndrome. He had a ‘fetish’ for Syrian women; he would try to pursue them in Europe. But beyond these individuals there is a ‘new Syrian syndrome’ has taken hold- one which fears the changes in Syria more than the ‘anti-imperialists’.