When anything of international importance happens in or around Syria, there predictably follows a salivating at the prospect of “flipping” the Assad regime — of a peace deal with Israel, a renaissance in relations with the U.S., and a Syria that abandons, finally, its role as the Grand Central Station of terrorism in the Levant. After Jimmy Carter’s visits to Damascus and with Hamas, and then the embarrassing disclosure last week of a Syrian-North Korean nuclear program, peace-processors everywhere again caught a case of Damascus fever, the only prescription for which is more diplomacy.
As Jimmy Carter wrote in the NYT, “Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has expressed eagerness to begin negotiations with Israel to end the impasse on the Golan Heights.” And the nuclear program? Daniel Levy thinks it was just a bargaining chip to be used in future peace talks — because that’s how badly Syria wants to get into the good graces of Israel and the U.S.
The timing of the White House’s release of intelligence about Israel’s airstrike — it happened on the same day that Syria disclosed it had been secretly negotiating with Israel by way of Turkey — fueled the idea that perhaps there was some kind of grand breakthrough in the making. And remember the Mugniyah assassination a couple of months ago? Maybe Assad pulled it off as a demonstration to the world that he is running the show in Damascus and can deal with Hezbollah and the Iranians if he wishes.
So why would Assad be talking to Israel about peace if he wasn’t serious about peace? There are an abundance of good reasons: to deflect international outrage over the disclosure of his nuclear program; to make his Iranian patron ever-so-slightly nervous and thus extract more favorable terms from Tehran; to undermine international unity on the Hariri tribunal (Daniel Levy, for example, has already called for “flexibility” on the tribunal in exchange for Syrian good behavior in other areas); to placate those in Washington who wish to return to the comparatively warmer relations of the 1990’s; to make credulous liberals swoon and fill their blogs and op-ed pages with hopeful predictions of a breakthrough (see links above). And, the overarching reason — because Assad finds himself under acute pressure. As David Schenker recently said on NPR, “These diplomatic signals of Syrian willingness for peace, they’re almost routine now — you can almost plot it on a graph. At moments of maximum pressure, the Syrians are always mentioning the idea of peace with Israel.”
If you take a moment and think about this situation from the perspective of Syria, you’ll quickly understand why no breakthrough is in the offing.
If you are Bashar Assad, you’re in the enviable position of being the only Arab ally of Iran, which you believe will soon be the greatest regional power, and a nuclear one. You were recently forced out of Lebanon, but your ally Hezbollah is still there, growing in power, ensuring your political influence today and your return in the future. You provide aid and safe haven to Hamas, which gives you a strong hand not only in thwarting America and Israel in the peace process, but in manipulating Palestinian violence. Your minority Allawite rule is bolstered by the state of emergency that has been in effect since Israel took the Golan Heights in 1967. The only real problems you have to weather are isolation from the U.S. and Israel and some impotent resentment from the Arab states — and once Iran goes nuclear, that Arab resentment will magically turn into obsequiousness.
If you’re Bashar Assad, why would you give up your alliance to the ascendant power in the Middle East and the connections to the terror groups that ensure your ability to dominate your neighbors? For nice words from the Americans? Barack Obama might be president soon, so you’ll probably get those anyway.