Eyal Zisser: Bashar Al-Assad – Calling for Peace, Preparing for War

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Eyal Zisser is Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, Tel Aviv University, and Chair of the Department. He is the author of several book, most recently “Commanding Syria, Bashshar al-Asad's First Years in Power” (2005) The following does not necessarily reflect the views of IPF.]

The day after last summer’s war in Lebanon ended, on August 15, 2006, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hurried to claim for himself and Syria the victory over Israel that, in his view, had been achieved. Of course, Syria had taken no direct part in the fighting, but neither did it conceal its support for the Hezbollah organization. Speaking before the Fourth Annual Conference of the Syrian Journalists Union in Damascus, Bashar also declared that he viewed the results of the battles as an important, and even historic, victory for Hezbollah. Then, in a series of speeches and interviews in the media that followed, he even, we might say, placed a gun at Israel’s head. That is, he gave Israel a choice: either renew the peace process with Syria and sign a peace agreement including a full Israeli retreat from all of the Golan Heights up to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or else risk the opening of a new front of confrontation on the Golan Heights similar to the one Israel faced with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Bashar added that Syria would not continue to sit idly by forever, waiting for the return of the Golan Heights. Rather, it might well adopt the military option, or, to be more precise, the “resistance” (“muqawama”) option.

A new era in Israeli-Syrian relations began with Bashar al-Assad’s speech in August 2006. This era is marked by growing concern over the possibility of an armed conflict between the two countries, in the shadow of the war-threats being issued by Damascus and the unusually wide-ranging and intensive military preparations on both sides to which they have led. At the same time, however, and apparently in contradiction to the above, during the past year figures in both Jerusalem and Damascus greatly increased their preoccupation with the possibility of renewing negotiations. In Syria various spokesmen, headed by President Bashar al-Assad himself, have declared repeatedly that Syria is interested in renewing negotiations with Israel, and is even willing to sign a peace treaty. Of course, these declarations are accompanied by the threats noted above, that Syria would not wait forever for the return of the Golan Heights.

Against this background the question arises: What does Bashar really intend when he calls for peace with Israel and at the same time threatens to go to war? In light of the huge and obvious obstacles making it difficult to start up a political process between Israel and Syria, and in the absence of a political horizon during the next few months, several ominous scenarios suggest themselves. There is a danger that the situation could simply deteriorate into an uninitiated and unwanted state of war between the two countries; or Syria could decide to imitate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s tactics in October 1973 and initiate a military campaign, even a limited one, against Israel; or Syria could choose to imitate the Hezbollah model in Lebanon and turn the quiet border with Israel on the Golan Heights into an arena of terrorist attacks, localized and limited as they might be. Any of these scenarios could lead to a full-scale war, of course. As of now, no one can really predict with any certainty how events will unfold.

There is no doubt that Bashar’s recent sharp anti-Israel statements and his clear threats against Israel, now heard for the first time in many years, indeed, for the first time since Bashar’s accession to power, are a consequence of the way in which Damascus understands the results of the summer 2006 Lebanese war. The Syrians believe that the war ended with clear achievements by Hezbollah and a painful defeat for Israel. This assessment is based on the fact that the Shiite organization succeeded in causing heavy damage to Israeli population centers and in paralyzing daily life in the entire north of Israel for a lengthy period of time, while surviving the blows delivered by Israel. Even more, Israel was unable to crush Hezbollah and so was ultimately forced to end the fighting before it had accomplished most of the goals it had declared to be the reason for going to war in the first place.

Immediately after his aggressive speech in August 2006, Bashar hastened to cool matters down somewhat. He granted the media a series of interviews during the following months in which he explained that he and Syria preferred the peace option. He noted that all sides, including Syria, would pay a very heavy price for going to war; therefore he preferred to recover the Golan Heights by peaceful means and not war. Bashar added that no decision had been taken in Syria to go to war, and in any case, his words about the possibility of Syria adopting the military option should not be understood as indicating that the Syrian regime was aiming to open a front of confrontation with Israel. Despite his clarifications, Bashar’s threats of war acquired a dynamic of their own....

The Moment of truth for both sides arrived in early September 2007, when Israeli aircraft carried out an operational mission in Northern Syria. Some media reports, primarily in the United States, suggested that this mission had to do with Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah cooperation or more likely with Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation. Israeli leaders maintained a low profile in their comments on the operation as if trying not to push Syria into a corner and not to escalate the situation further. Surprisingly enough, Syria chose also not to retaliate, sending a clear signal that it is not interested right now in a new war with Israel. Perhaps after all, Bashar does not feel himself as strong as he tended to think he was only a year ago; perhaps he began to understand the heavy price of a possible war. But perhaps he chose to wait with his reaction until his army is ready for war. The coming months will give us the answers to these questions.

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