Syria's Strategic Posture

By Yossef Bodansky

The Israeli optimistic assessments of the prospects of peace with Syria, as expressed in the context of the Wye Plantation discussions, demonstrate yet again the depth and width of the gap between reality and the self-delusion of the Israeli Government.

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The key to the understanding of Syrian posture is the formulation of the Iranian regional design. In mid 1995, Tehran conducted complex negotiations with Ankara and Baghdad toward the establishment of a regional arrangement. The essence of the deal orchestrated by Tehran is an improvement in strategic and economic posture for the three states. Iranian and Turkish officials also quietly raised the possibility of this regional design with several West European governments and won their tacit encouragement and support for the realization of this regional posture. The Europeans know that such a development will significantly increase the European exports to these states, will lower the price of oil for the Europeans, and will reduce US influence.

Iraq was given the tacit encouragement by both Turkey and Iran to reassert by force of arms its sovereignty over the Kurdish parts, as well as expansion of its economic activities despite the embargo. For Ankara, a direct consequence of such an Iraqi military move will be the destruction of the safe havens of the Kurdish guerrillas fighting against Turkey. Iraq will also begin a clandestine export of oil via the Turkish pipelines, thus providing Turkey with badly needed added income. A direct consequence of Turkey's integration into the regional bloc will be the reduction of US influence.

The destruction of safe havens of anti-Iran Kurdish guerillas, and the marked expansion of commercial relationship with Iraq and Turkey, are self-evident benefits for Iran from the emergence of the Iran-Turkey-Iraq triangle. However, for Tehran, most important is the anticipated reduction of US influence in Turkey because this will enhance Iran's ability to conduct other strategic surges. The closer relations with Iraq permits direct access from Iran to Syria and Lebanon, thus breaking the Syrian isolation and bolstering its commitment to confrontation with Israel. With Saudi Arabia falling apart, with growing limits to US regional capabilities, and with a consequent evaporation of the lure of massive financial "contributions" to Syria as "peace dividends," Tehran is in a unique position to reinforce its strategic alliance with Damascus and reverse the "peace process."

Indeed, the implementation of this design was being accelerated in the fall of 1995 particularly through the evolution in Syria's regional policy. Most important was the rapprochement between Damascus and Baghdad achieved in the aftermath of delicate negotiations mediated by Tehran. The key to the new relationship is a Syrian-Iraqi deal on the definition of their mutual border reached in early December. The new border gives Syria sovereignty over the very productive Safiyah-39 oil field, which Iraq will hand over with all the production systems (pumps and pipes) in working order. Moreover, the opening of the Syrian-Iraqi border, with the suppression of the Kurds, revives cross-border trade, especially agricultural stuff and artisanry, which is traditionally very vibrant and profitable to both sides of the border.

For its part, Damascus repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to the Iranian policy by encouraging the HizbAllah to markedly escalate the fighting in south Lebanon. The Syrian direct involvement was expressed in the transfer by the Syrian military of massive military aid from Iran to the HizbAllah camps in southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Damascus is being repeatedly reminded of the alternative. There is a rumor prevailing throughout the Middle East of a regional design initiated by Mr. Peres with enthusiastic support from King Hussein. According to these reports the US and Israel are working on the formation of an axis comprised of Turkey, a post-Saddam federated Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Such a bloc will encircle and isolate Syria from Iran, thus pressuring Damascus to go on with the Arab-Israeli peace process, that is, acquiesce to US regional hegemony. Tehran plays on the prevailing reports of this Western designs, stressing that the containment and encirclement of Syria is a primary outcome of the regional peace Israel wants.

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However, Damascus cannot operate in isolation or in total disregard to the whims and wishes of Washington. Therefore, Damascus agreed to participate in the talks in Wye Plantation, Maryland. The ensuing reports of great progress, originating from Israeli and American sources, added pressure on Syria.

To ensure that there were misunderstandings as to Syria's real position, Damascus leaked how harsh its real position is. Walid al-Mualim, the head of the Syrian delegation to the Maryland talks, briefed on the extent of the Syrian position. He stressed that the Syrian demand for a withdrawal to the June 4 [1967] line not only goes beyond the Mandate-era international border, but actually amounts to an Israeli withdrawal from crucial strategic positions and other places held by Israel until 1967. This withdrawal, Mualim stressed, must be unconditional. No progress to peace can be expected until Israel accepts this precondition. There can be no compromise on early warning issues. Damascus insist on complete similarity and parallel arrangements in the demilitarization. Further more, Syria refuses to negotiate water issues until the Israeli withdrawal has been completed. There is no point discussing normalization and other aspects of peace until after the completion of the Israeli withdrawal. Mualim stressed that there was no reason for optimism expressed by Israelis. "No final understanding has been reached on any subject in the first round of the talks," Mualim stated, "and disputes have not been overcome. The talks were useful, but remained in the probing level."

However, it was the convening of the Damascus Forum (Syria, Egypt and the six GCC states) in Damascus that aggravated Tehran. While the concluding statement, published on December 30, adopted a harsh and hostile position vis-a-vis the peace process, Syria agreed to concur with the GCC's anti-Iran position on the Persian Gulf Islands dispute. This break of a traditional and sacred position made Tehran nervous.

Tehran immediately demonstrated its regional dominance by unleashing the HizbAllah -- launching Katyushas delivered through Syria into Israel. This flagrant violation of US-mediated "understanding" between Jerusalem and Damascus in the midst of the Maryland negotiations was a major embarrassment to the Syrians. The Iranians stressed the point by ordering a second wave of shelling a short period after the Syrians assured the Americans that the shelling stopped. With this "little exercise," Iran proved again Syria's inability to deliver anything, let alone a cease fire, unless Iran agreed.

On December 30, Iran also dropped a bomb-shell. Tehran announced the sudden cancellation of the official visit by Iran's vice-president Hassan Habibi merely three days before it was to take place. The unprecedented and blatant cancellation of Habibi's visit, though primarily because of the position concerning the Persian Gulf, was a shock to Damascus. Tehran also delivered to Damascus a quiet reminder that the implementation of the Iraqi border deal just mediated with Iran's crucial help is not automatic.

Tehran continued to express its displeasure with Damascus openly. Editorials in Tehran protested Syrian "ingratitude" after years of Iranian support and subsidizing. Iranian foreign minister, Ali Velayati, expressed Tehran's displeasure from the mere continuation of negotiations. "Our relations with Syria are good, but our position has not changed concerning the peace process. As a state is gets closer to Israel, it is distancing itself from us."

Syria understood the message. On December 31, Radio Damascus in its authoritative evening commentary, stressed President Assad's commitment to the Tehran-dominated regional grand design. "The new year brings with it contents, expectations and hopes for stability and rallying around the leader Hafiz al-Assad, and allegiance to his path, in view of the challenges of peace. In this stage, Syria is diligently pursuing solidarity, that will secure the unity of the resources of the Arab Ummah [Nation] -- in order to succeed in striving for the appropriate position among the peoples of the world on the threshold of the 21st century, in its technological, political, economic and military demands -- in an era where only large blocs deriving from all-Ummah resources are of any [political] value."

Moreover, the Syrian fear of Iran's ire caused Damascus to reiterate its commitment to Tehran's hegemony in a most authoritative manner. On December 31, Syria formally assured Iran of its commitment to their strategic ties, of the crucial importance of these ties to Syria. The Syrian Ambassador to Tehran delivered a special message from his foreign minister to the Iranian deputy Foreign Minister Hossayn Sheikholeslam. The message clarified that Syrian position concerning "the recent stance adopted by member states of the Damascus Declaration towards the Iranian islands of the Persian Gulf," should not alarm Tehran. Damascus "emphasized the strategic nature of relations between the two countries." The Syrian message stressed that the Syrian-Iranian alliance superseded any other political consideration of Syria. "Syria has never relinquished its friendship with ../... Iran and will not provide those who want to harm these relations any opportunity to do so. Syria has always supported and will continue to support" its joint strategy with Iran "in public forums [and] international organizations," the message read.

By now, Damascus was also coming to grip with the success of the Islamists in the elections in Turkey. Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Welfare Party, has always been a committed supporter of the regional and strategic arrangements advocated by Tehran. On January 1, 1996, Erbakan raised the ante by reviving Turkey's irredentist demands on Syrian territory, particularly areas inhabited by Assad's own Allawites. "During elections, people asked me whether I would open the door with Syria. I told them I would not as there will be no door. We will abolish borders between the two countries," Erbakan stated. Assad knows that only Tehran is capable of containing Erbakan.

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The reason Damascus was so quick to reiterate it's commitment to Tehran and their joint strategy and alliance while at the same time risking Tehran's wrath by persisting in the negotiations with Israel and the US, is because Hafiz al-Assad has major interests in the negotiations process. The Syrian interest lies not in the outcome of the peace process but in the peace process itself. Damascus is committed to maintaining the peace process at the present stage of non-decision. The Assad regime considers the alternatives facing them: If the region returns to war, Iran and Egypt will be the dominant powers. If the peace is established in the region, Israel and Iraq will be the dominant powers because of their technologic development and wealth, respectively. Moreover, in a peaceful and normalized Middle East, the Syrian elite will lose its huge illegal profits from drugs and counterfeit distribution.

In contrast, Assad presently dominates the regional diplomatic dynamics simply because everybody is desperate to get his support for the peace process -- not because of Syria's military or economic performance or potential. He is being honored by leaders from all over the world, and Syria enjoys a flow of foreign aid aimed to "smooth" the road to peace. The moment a decision is reached, Syria and Assad will be relegated to their natural role in the regional dynamics. Moreover, the only development Assad really fears is ensuring the existence of the Allawites' power after his imminent death. Assad knows that Iran and Sudan constitute the key to a Sunni Islamist challenge to the post-Assad regime, and he has no intention to alienate them. Presently, he continues on a delicate maneuvering, including angering Tehran, just to preserve the "momentum" of the peace process and not to risk the Syrian-Iranian strategic relations.

Thus, while Jerusalem is rushing to create expectations for a quick resolution of the negotiations with Syria, once the few remaining obstacles are overcome, Damascus is going out of its way to convince Tehran and its allies of the opposite. The close examination of the evolution of Syria's strategic posture in recent months, and more so since the Islamists' victory in the elections in Turkey, leaves no doubt as to where Syria's ultimate interests are. To assume otherwise is self-delusion, to be ready to withdraw from the Golan Heights in the name of this self-delusion is criminally insane.

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Yossef Bodansky is the Freeman Center's world terrorism analyst and a recognized world authority on terrorism and security affairs.

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