“No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria.” — Henry Kissinger
Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, flew to Damascus this weekend to cajole Syria into re-entering peace talks with Israel. He’s going to go home disappointed, if not now then later, just as every other Western diplomat before him has failed to put an end to the perpetual Arab-Israeli conflict. Bashar Assad couldn’t sign a peace treaty with Israel even if he wanted to — and he doesn’t want to.
Assad and his late father and former president Hafez Assad have justified the dictatorial “emergency rule,” on the books since 1963, by pointing to the never-ending war with the state of Israel. Many Syrians have grown weary of this excuse after more than four decades of crisis, but Assad would nevertheless face more pressure to loosen up his Soviet-style system without it.
An official state of war costs Assad very little. His army does not have to fight. His father learned the hard way in 1967 that Israel could beat three Arab armies, including Syria’s own, in six days. Assad can only fight Israel through proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, but that suits him just fine. Gaza and Lebanon absorb Israel’s incoming fire when the fighting heats up.
Assad gains a lot, though, by buying himself some legitimacy with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Syria’s fundamentalist Sunnis have long detested his Baath party regime, not only because it’s secular and oppressive but also because its leaders are considered heretics. The Assads and most of the Baathist elites belong to the Alawite religious minority, descendants of the followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who took them out of mainstream Twelver Shiite Islam in the 10th century. Their religion has as much in common with Christianity and Gnosticism as it does with Islam, and most Syrians find it both bizarre and offensive that the Alawites are in charge of the country instead of the majority Sunnis.
In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against the regime in the city of Hama. The elder Assad dispatched the Alawite-dominated military and destroyed most of the old city with air strikes, tanks, and artillery. Rifaat Assad, the former president’s younger brother, boasted that 38,000 people were killed in a single day. Not once since then have the Muslim Brothers tried to rise up again.
In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman dubbed the senior Assad’s rules of engagement “Hama Rules.” They are the Syrian stick. The carrot is Assad’s steadfast “resistance” against Israel. No Arab government in the world is as stridently anti-Israel, in both action and rhetoric, as Assad’s. There is no better way for a detested Alawite regime to curry favor with Sunnis in Syria and the Arab world as a whole than by adopting the anti-Zionist cause as its own.
Earlier this year, I met with Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who asserted that the Alawite regime is actually afraid of signing a peace treaty with Israel. As the leader of a religious minority himself, Jumblatt knows better than most how risky it can be to cross the majority.
“Suppose,” he said, “we go ultimately to the so-called peace. Then later on, what is the purpose of the Syrian regime? What is Assad going to tell his people? Especially, mind you, he is a member of the Alawite minority. This minority could be accused of treason. It’s not like Egypt or Jordan whereby the government has some legitimacy. Here you get accused of treason by the masses, by the Sunnis. So using classic slogans like ‘Palestine will liberate the Golan with Hezbollah’ is a must for him to stay in power.” Syria’s Alawite elites understand this very well, even if Western diplomats like Javier Solana do not.
“When Hafez Assad was about to fix up the so-called settlement through Bill Clinton,” Jumblatt continued, “and before they met him in Geneva, a prominent Alawite officer in the Syrian army came to Assad and said, ‘What are you doing? We will be lost if you make peace. We will be accused of treason.’ ”
I don’t know for sure whether Syria’s Sunni Arabs — who make up around 70 percent of the population — would actually accuse Assad of treason and seriously threaten to remove him from power if he signed a peace treaty. But that’s how many Alawites see it. As “infidels” they don’t feel they have the legitimacy to force Sunni Arabs to make peace with Israel. That is a risky business even for Sunni Arab leaders, as the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat shows.
Most of Syria’s Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast, away from the Sunni heartland. They could, at least theoretically, be separated from Syria into their own Alawite nation. The Middle East would probably be a safer place if they were. They did have their own semiautonomous government under the French Mandate between 1930 and 1937, and again from 1939 to 1944, but their Latakia region has been a part of Syria ever since.
Such a nation almost certainly would make peace with Israel, at least eventually, if it wasn’t ruled by Assad and his thuggish clan. Arab nationalism would lose its appeal among a people that would no longer need to demonstrate belonging to an ethnic majority to make up for its status as a religious minority. The strident anti-Zionism of the Sunni “street” could likewise ease. A free Alawite state might even be a natural ally of Israel for the same reasons the Middle East’s Christians and Kurds tend to be.
In the meantime, the Assad regime rules a country that’s 70 percent Sunni Arab, and it must govern accordingly. Leading the Arab charge against Israel works for him, which is the reason he does it. And as long as he fears the Sunni “street” and the Muslim Brotherhood more than he fears the Israelis, he isn’t likely to change.