Books on Syria
Update No: 053 - (30/06/08)
Will Peace with Israel Imply Selling Iran Short?
After the surprise May announcement that Syria and Israel have been engaged
in peace talks brokered by Turkey, focusing on a return of the Golan (to Syria),
Washington, Israel and the mainstream media have intensified their campaign
against Iran. However, Syria is not yet off the hook. Damascus is still under
pressure from the United States for allegedly having abetted the Iranian nuclear
program through the construction of a nuclear facility in Syria, the al-Kibar
site, which the Israeli air force bombarded and destroyed last September. The
United States claimed that Syria was building the facility with direct aid from
North Korea, which had proved its nuclear weapon producing capacity by testing
such a device in 2006. Syria, unlike Israel, is a signatory to the nuclear
non-proliferation treaty, while Israel remains the Middle East's only nuclear
power, indeed with 150 or more nuclear warheads, it is probably the worlds third
largest nuclear weapons power.
Suggestions are being made by the German weekly, ‘Der Spiegel’, quoting
German intelligence: Al-Kibar was, says the report, to be a military project
involving Syria, Iran and North Korea (conveniently, the ‘Axis of Evil’ in
full) whereby Iranian nuclear scientists were being backed by those of the other
two players offering additional expertise on how to build a nuclear weapon. Al-Kibar,
now being inspected by the IAEA was to serve as the facility where such a device
was to have been built. An alternative and completely different theory regarding
al-Kibar being considered by Israeli security advisors, is that it was intended
to supply Iran with spent nuclear fuel that would be reprocessed into plutonium.
Perhaps the usually reliable IAEA judgement when it comes, will be nearer to the
What Nuclear Weapons?
For the record, Syria has vehemently denied that it ever had any nuclear weapons
program and repeatedly suggested that al-Kibar was just a simple military
storage facility – which, it should be noted, was left entirely unguarded and
unmanned in the middle of the desert. We speculate that the IAEA will report no
evidence of any nuclear fuel or materials on this site, in which case what would
make it a ‘nuclear site’? Time will tell.
Whereas the United States has not linked the alleged Syrian nuclear program to
Iran, Israel appears to be promoting the idea that Iran is the ‘deus ex-machina’
prompting Syria to share in its nuclear ambitions. It would appear as if the
Israeli government is trying to offer Syria a viable exit strategy in order to
pursue and justify the ongoing peace talks with the USA and with the
conservative opposition in the Knesset. Israel is purposely shifting the blame
for al-Kibar toward Iran, as if to suggest an “Iran made me do it” scenario,
whereby Syria was coerced to participate in what is an Iranian scheme under the
terms of their alliance. Indeed, German intelligence told ‘Der Spiegel’ that
Syria’s president al-Asad was uneasy about backing Iran’s nuclear program.
While speculation continues on what if any ‘nuclear weapon’ producing
capacity was being pursued at al-Kibar, Israel would appear to be winding –up
in preparation for an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. The September
raid against Syria served as a warning of Israel’s ability to penetrate
undetected in enemy territory and reach important targets. It was at the least a
practice run. The Israeli air force conducted another practice run in June, with
airborne refuelling to show that it can cover the distance needed to reach the
Natanz nuclear reactor in Iran, as Israeli pilots practiced flights involving
distances approximating those needed to reach Natanz from Israel, leaving little
doubt as to the message this implies for Tehran.
What does Syria Gain?
On the other hand, in mid-June, Syrian and Israeli negotiators met again in
Turkey to pursue the peace treaty that was leaked in May. Despite some weakness
in the Israeli government, due to the political financing scandal involving
prime minister Olmert, the talks are proceeding, giving added credibility to the
potential for peace between Syria and Israel. France’s minister of foreign
affairs Bernard Kouchner added optimism, suggesting that Syria’s president
Bashar al-Asad and Olmert would meet in Paris on July 13 to discuss the peace
agreement directly. Syria’s invitation to France marks a clear break with the
policy pursued by France’s previous administration, after the assassination of
Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
The July 13 invitation also coincides with the launch of Sarkozy’s
Mediterranean Union initiative, which promotes greater cooperation in matters of
security, economy, energy and migration between the countries sharing the
Mediterranean. Indeed, after last May’s Doha Agreement, Lebanon managed to
deflect the American focus on Syria’s (negative) influence on Lebanon, seeing
as the March 14 coalition, which was to serve as a guardian of western interests
in Lebanon, formed a government of national unity with the opposition. This
development has enabled Syria to dispose of much of its Lebanese ‘baggage’,
making it possible for traditional western backers of Lebanon, such as France,
to be far more willing to engage Syria in multi-lateral regional initiatives.
Therefore, while Syria will have to submit itself to an investigation from the
IAEA, in the past two months it has discovered a new confidence highlighted by
the negotiations with Israel for the return of the Golan and the rapprochement
with the EU – if not the United States. Nevertheless, Syria still feels that
any consequential peace process must necessarily involve the United States,
which is now following a policy toward Syria that diverges even from that which
is pursued by Israel. Certainly, though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
continues to visit the Middle East to promote talks between Israel and the
Palestinian Authority, it is unlikely that the Bush administration will change
its tone on Syria. As noted above, The United States (although it is not at
all certain that the CIA and the White House are ‘singing off the same hymn
sheet’ here), consider Syria’s ‘nuclear program’ an independent
initiative, unlinked to pressure from Tehran – the current Israeli construct.
It will be up to the next US administration to determine what policy to adopt
toward Syria. Regional powers such as Turkey have replaced the United States in
brokering deals, so the United States will have to rebuild diplomatic momentum.
Apart from the return of the Golan, Syria will doubtless require a number of
guarantees from the western powers, and the United States in particular, that
would enable president Asad to resume the economic reform launched by his father
and predecessor in 2000.
Peace with Israel must be seen to bring tangible results for the population,
securing foreign economic aid and investment. For its part, Israel will not
agree to a formal peace unless, Syria gives up support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
Peace with Israel, moreover, would inevitably erode the military character of
the Baathist regime, as well as the power of the Alawite minority that dominates
the Baath leadership itself. President Asad has much to ponder, as he tries to
regain some prestige for Syria, because the radical change that peace would
imply removes the very root of the Baathist regime, leaving the door open for
the repressed political ambitions of the Sunni majority. That said, Israel
appears to be willing to follow a deal with Hezbollah, suggesting it also
willing to discuss the future of Shebaa Farms, the disputed area separating
Israel and Lebanon, which has served as the excuse for Hezbollah’s armed
presence in southern Lebanon. Syria’s deputy foreign affairs minister has
suggested that Syria has already advised Hezbollah that Syria is not interested
in “the destruction of the Jewish state”, a position that also contrasts
with the rhetoric of Syria’s longstanding ally, Iran. Indeed, it would appear
that should the Syro-Israeli peace talks continue, Syria may aim toward becoming
another Jordan or Egypt, relinquishing ideological fervor for practical gains,
and possibly even significant aid funding..
For the time being Syria maintains its close ties to Iran. In June, Syria and
Iran renewed their mutual defense pact; this was widely expected in view of the
intensifying rumors of an attack against Iran. Syria also earns more bargaining
chips with Israel by being Iran’s ally; the Tehran-Damascus axis must appear
to be as strong and ‘evil’ as ever. In contrast, should, the talks with
Israel fail, Syria will at least be able to rely on Iranian support. The peace
deal itself may also force some radical transformations within the government
and the Ba’ath party itself, which only exists in Syria now. Asad may want to
discuss his plans with former Soviet president Gorbachev…..