Syria wants to play an influential role

1 Joshua Landis

June, 2010 ▪ Interviewed by Viktor Kaspruk

Joshua Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma. He writes question, a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 50,000 readers a month. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis consults frequently in Washington and Europe; he has spoken recently at the Brookings Institute, USIP, Middle East Institute, and Council on Foreign Relations.
He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio. He has appeared on the Lehrer News
Hour, Charlie Rose Show, CNN, NPR, BBC and is quoted regularly in leading newspapers.
His recent articles have covered the Syrian stock market, economic reform, Islamic education, opposition movements, the Peace Process, and his book; Syria’s Democratic Experiment is forthcoming from Palgrave-Macmillan. He has lived over 14 years in the Middle East and speaks Arabic and French fluently.

– Professor Landis, tensions between Israel and Syria has been heightened. What main reasons of this deterioration of the attitudes?

– Syrian-US relations have been quite bad since 2000 when President Clinton’s efforts to broker an agreement between Israel and Syria collapsed. Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Barak “got cold feet,” according to Clinton in his memoirs. Barak was hoping to salvage a Palestinian agreement, which was going badly. The Israeli public was turning to the right and Bark’s coalition government was falling to pieces in 2000. Barak felt compelled to scuttle negotiations with Syria in order to concentrate on the Palestinian issue. He didn’t believe that the Israeli public would accept two big land deals at the same time. Central to the negotiations was the Golan Heights – a large fertile and strategic border region that Israel took from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981. Syria insists on the return of the entire Golan in return for providing Israel with water and security guarantees.

Relations between the two countries became unusually bad during the administration of President George W Bush, following the invasion of Iraq, which Syria objected to. The US withdrew it ambassador from Syria in 2005, following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s Prime Minister. President Obama has made an effort at improving relations and promised to send back an ambassador, but his confirmation has been blocked by congress, which accuses Syria of arming Hizbullah and helping Israel’s enemies.

– The real conflict issue between Israel and Syria is the Golan Heights? Are there other reasons?

– There are other reasons, but the Golan is the big reason today. Syria was never happy with the creation of Jewish state in Palestine. As early as 1920, parliaments in Syria began issued statements declaring that Palestine was part of Syria and belonged to the Arab nation and not the Jews. Today, President Assad says that he is willing to recognize Israel when the Golan is returned. He insists that Syria is committed to a just peace and changing the strategic environment of the region. Syria’s ambassador to Washington says, “an Israeli peace agreement with Syria would open the door for Israel to comprehensive peace.”

– Syria has long presented a serious problem for the Middle East region and Western policy. Now something has changed?

– Syria presents a major problem for the US, which would like Syria to stop helping Israel’s enemies, such as the Palestinians and Hizbullah. Syria will only do this if it gets back its occupied territory. Damascus claims it has a legal right to resists occupation. The United States does not recognize this right even though it does not officially recognize Israel’s right to occupy the Golan. Most US politicians, however, side with Israel on this issue. The US has designated Syria a state sponsor of terrorism since it 1979.

– Syria wants to play an influential role in regional politics?

– Yes, Syria insists it is an important regional actor that cannot be isolated or ignored. In particular it has opposed US attempts to ignore its interests. Syria has largely won this argument over the last few decades. When the US invaded Iraq, ignoring Syrian interests, Damascus opened its border to mujahedin and foreign fighters, which cost America dearly.

Syria is the most influential foreign actor in Lebanese affairs. It has kept Lebanon within its sphere of influence despite repeated Israeli and US attempts to wrest it away. When Israel invaded and occupied Lebanon in 1982 in order to destroy the PLO and bring Beirut into its own sphere of influence, Syria helped build up Hizbullah and other militias, which eventually pushed out the Israelis. Today, Hizbullah is a major power in Lebanon and remains close to Syria, much to America’s displeasure.

George W Bush tried to wrest Lebanon away from Syria and bring it into America’s camp in 2004, but largely failed. Syria has provided refuge for Hamas’ leader in Damascus despite repeated attempts by Israel and the US to force it to expel him. This past month, Turkey and Syria announced that they are forming a free trade zone, which will include Jordan and Lebanon.

– Is Syria a chronic exporter of instability in the Middle East?

– Syria’s enemies certainly argue that it exports instability. They point to its aid to various Palestinian resistance groups, its support for Hizbullah against Israel, and support for Sunni groups and the Iraqi Baath in Iraq. Syria has also been a constant ally to Iran, which both the US and Israel excoriate as a terrorist state.

Syria naturally sees things quite differently. President Assad argues that Syria is the conservative power that has tried to preserve stability in the region in the face of Israeli and US radicalism. Syria rejected British and American efforts to create a Jewish state on Syria’s border in 1948. It argues that the creation of Israel on Palestinian and Arab land brought great instability to the region, causing the Palestinian refugee problem and provoking numerous wars over the past 60 years. Likewise, it argues that America’s invasion of Iraq brought another wave of instability to the region and largely destroyed Iraq, causing some four million Iraqis to flee their homes. Syria is now refuge to almost a million Iraqis and half a million Palestinians.

Syria argues that it has struggled to preserve the status quo and stability in the region in the face of foreign violence and trouble making. The US and Israel see Syria as the trouble maker because it has been a major source of resistance it to their plans in the region.

– Can the new alliance of Syria with Iran and Turkey change the situation in the Middle East?

– Syria hopes that Turkey’s new turn toward the east will bolster its position with Israel and the US. Both countries also hope that Iraq will join their alliance but it is too early to tell how Iraq’s foreign policy will emerge. So far, Iraqi politics have been too unstable to support a consistent foreign policy.

Turkey and Syria eliminated visa requirements over a year ago and have just announced plans to form a larger free trade union with Lebanon and Jordan.

– This Islamic alliance is dangerous for the very existence of the state of Israel?

– Syria and Turkey are both secular states. They do not threaten Israel’s existence. Turkey has stopped its joint military exercises with Israel, but Israel remains the region’s supper power. It has an estimated 200 to 400 nuclear warheads, which it can deliver by nuclear submarine, the advanced US bombers, and by its inter-ballistic missiles. No other state in the region has this capability. Israel has threatened to destroy the Syrian regime and bomb the country if Syria continues to arm its enemies. Israel is in a much better position to threaten the existence of either Syria or Turkey, should it feel provoked. The killing of nine Turkish activists aboard a ship headed for Gaza gave Turkey a taste of what it can expect if it challenges Israel.

– Is Syria the leader of the Arabs in their ongoing conflict with Israel?

– Yes, Syria is the largest Arab state still at war with Israel. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace agreement with Israel and work closely with Israeli intelligence on security matters. Saudi Arabia has emerged as an Israeli ally in its opposition to Hamas, Hizbullah, and Iran. All the same, Syria is a very weak military power compared to Israel. Syria has not acquired new fighter plans since the Soviet Union collapsed. Most of its military is in very bad shape. Israel is negotiating with the US to acquire stealth bombers. The US has recently provided substantial monetary and technological support to Israel to provide it with a sophisticated missile defense system and advanced weaponry.

– Does Syria hinder U.S. policy in the Middle East?

– Yes, Syria is a major obstacle to US objectives in the Middle East. It continues to resist Israeli territorial expansion to arm Israel’s enemies. It supports Iran, which the US has decided is the World’s greatest threat and a major supporter of terrorism, primarily because it provides weapons and money to Hizbullah. Iran is also a competitor with Saudi Arabia and the US for control of the Persian Gulf and influence in Iraq. Syria is not a democracy, although neither are America’s major Arab allies in the region: Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Syria will continue to challenge the United States in the region, especially in its relations with Israel – that is so long as Israel refuses to return the Golan Heights, which is the primary obstacle to peace. In other areas, the US has common interests. Iraq is a primary example of this. Now that Washington wants to get out of Iraq, Syria has offered to help preserve stability there and work with Washington toward their common goal of ensuring a more important role for Sunni Arabs in the Baghdad government.

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