Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Syria-Israel peace at expense of Lebanon

A highly interesting article from Stratfor explains why the peace talks between Syria and Israel are actually making sense. It also covers the Hezbollah angle, which would be left out in the cold if such a peace would ever come in place. Worrisome enough, Stratfor predicts that Lebanon will pay the prize: Syria will be back in control in return for peace with Israel.

Since the article is rather long (but worthwhile and free after registration), here’s a summary.

At first sight, the idea of peace talks between Israel and Syria seems far stretched. Only a month ago, everyone was witnessing a build-up to another regional war, and now all of a sudden there are indications peace talks are happening. What makes such talks even more amazing is that Syria announced them through Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during his visit in Tehran, standing next Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, an ally of Syria whose government rejects the very concept of peace with Israel.

Furthermore, relationships between Iran and the United States are very low at the moment and any deal between Syria and Israel would defang Hezbollah. This would remove an important strategic card from Iran. Given that Syria’s only ally in the Muslim world is Iran, why would they upset their best friend? Also, Hezbollah is a major source of income for Syria given its drugs trade, so why would Syria be inclined to give this up?

To formulate the start of an answer, it is necessary to look at the bigger picture: the geopolitical realities in which Israel and Syria exist.

As for Israel, Egypt and Jordan are not a threat since there are peace treaties all sides are careful to respect. The only real threat comes from the Palestinians. However, they have been effectively ‘divided and conquered’ by setting up Hamas against Fatah. The more they fight amongst themselves, the less they pose a security concern for Israel.

Also, the Palestinians are not exactly loved by Jordan and Egypt given their wariness about an increase of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar radical Sunni movements in both countries. As for Syria, they have crushed the Brotherhood in Hama and have since been vigilant to repress any insurgence. Also, they have fought many bloody battles with Fatah in Lebanon. The Syrian support for Palestinians is restricted to lip service only.

That leaves only one real threat to Israel from its surrounding neighbors, namely the rockets of Syria and the possibility of another war with Hezbollah.

As for Syria, it is only concerned about the border with Israel since Iraq and Turkey are no threats to them. Assad knows that Israel is happy with him in power. If he would ever be toppled over, chances are that a radical Sunni movement would take over and this would create more instability. From Israel’s point of view, it is far better to deal with a terrified and insecure Syrian government more concerned with maintaining internal control than a confident and popular Syrian government with the freedom to look outward.

The Syrian invasion in Lebanon at the start of the civil war — as well as most Syrian operations in Lebanon — was not about security, but about money. Lebanon, the descendant of Phoenicia, has always been a vibrant economic region (save when there is war). It is the terminus of trade routes from the east and south and the door to the Mediterranean basin. It is a trading and banking hub, with Beirut in particular as the economic engine of the region. Without Beirut and Lebanon, Syria is an isolated backwater. With it, Damascus is a major player.

As such, Syria’s closest ties among Israel’s foes are not with the two major indigenous Palestinian factions, but with the Shiite group Hezbollah. The Syrians have a somewhat tighter religious affinity with Hezbollah, as well as a generation of complex business dealings with the group’s leaders. But its support for Hezbollah is multifaceted, and anti-Israeli tendencies are only one aspect of the relationship. And Hezbollah is much more important to Syria as a tool for managing Damascus’ affairs in Lebanon.

The issue boils down to Lebanon. In a sense, the Israelis had an accommodation with Syria over Lebanon when Israel withdrew. It ceded economic pre-eminence in Lebanon to the Syrians. In return, the Syrians controlled Hezbollah and in effect took responsibility for Israeli security in return for economic power. It was only after Syria withdrew from Lebanon under U.S. pressure that Hezbollah evolved into a threat to Israel, precipitating the 2006 conflict.

What appears to be under consideration between the supposed archrivals, therefore, is the restoration of the 2005 status quo in Lebanon. The Syrians would reclaim their position in Lebanon, unopposed by Israel. In return, the Syrians would control Hezbollah.

For the Syrians, this has the added benefit that by controlling Hezbollah and restraining it in the south, Syria would have both additional strength on the ground in Lebanon, as well as closer economic collaboration — on more favorable terms — with Hezbollah. For Syria, Hezbollah is worth more as a puppet than as a heroic anti-Israeli force.

This is something Israel understands. In the last fight between Israel and Syria in Lebanon, there were different local allies: Israel had the South Lebanese Army. The Syrians were allied with the Christian Franjieh clan. In the end, both countries dumped their allies. Syria and Israel have permanent interests in Lebanon. They do not have permanent allies.

The big loser in this game, of course, would be the Lebanese. But that is more complicated than it appears. Many of the Lebanese factions — including most of the Christian clans — have close relations with the Syrians. Moreover, the period of informal Syrian occupation was a prosperous time. Lebanon is a country of businessmen and militia, sometimes the same. The stability the Syrians imposed was good for business.

The one faction that would clearly oppose this would be Hezbollah. It would be squeezed on all sides. Ideologically speaking, constrained from confronting Israel, its place in the Islamic sun would be undermined. Hezbollah would have the choice of fighting the Syrians (not an attractive option) or of becoming a Syrian tool.

Either way, Hezbollah would have to do something in response to any rumors floating about of a Syrian deal with the Israelis. And given the quality of Syrian intelligence in these matters, key Hezbollah operatives opposed to such a deal might find themselves blown up. Perhaps they already have.


Rami said...

I believe it takes more than a peace treaty with Syria to control Hizbullah.
Even if Syria signed the treaty with Israel, I don't think Hizbullah will just sit there and obey whatever Assad says, because their alliance with Syria is purely strategic.
There's no doubt they will be suffering BIG TIME if the syrians made that step, but they will forever refuse to kneel.
Anyway, only time will tell...

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Anonymous said...

This is Roger;
Hello everyone, hello Riemer Brouwer; your analysis is typically micro and linear as well is it is true at least for the moment however, i beleive this timing to lunch the peace process is far beyond your explanation and analysis, here is why:
1- The old plan of remaping the area.
2- The stage after the Iraqi war and its "security of investment" period and for how long.
3- The Iranian role and its threats.
4- The Iranian/Russian alliance and its future impact.
5- The European/American interests in the area and their impact on the peace process.Therefor you understand that the peace process is not for its actual terms and impact in the present, it is for the future impact which means the importance is for the unseen future and to control it from now so when another similar situation is to be repeated in the future with Iran, its definitions and terms are know to be on which sides they are. When you said that the Lebanese are going to pay the price, i am agreeing with you 100% and that is not something new.
I hope to see some new comments soon. Thank you all.