How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
The consequences of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 have significantly changed the entire range of power relationships in the Middle East. They have done so in a manner neither desired nor expected by any of the players in this latest phase of the Middle East puzzle game. They have enabled Syria suddenly to emerge from isolation and humiliation and to seize the power switch of Middle Eastern diplomacy. They have diminished and rendered uncertain Israel's role in the area. They have brought the Soviet Union back into the Middle East in a position of influence from which it will not easily be dislodged. They have profoundly affected American diplomacy, drawing it away from a broadly based peace initiative and sucking the Marines into a narrow, dangerous position in Lebanon, where U.S. forces have already suffered serious casualties. And they have conjured up again the danger of a superpower confrontation in the area which neither power desires but which the Soviet Union may be less reluctant to avoid than in the past.
Israel made a fundamental miscalculation in its 1982 invasion of Lebanon and achieved none of its broader goals. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's sweeping geopolitical concepts were clear: to secure the northern borders of Israel from PLO-organized rocket attacks (hence "Peace in Galilee"); to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization militarily and politically, thereby depriving the Arab population of the occupied West Bank of leadership; to have Lebanon's Maronite Phalange (Lebanese Forces) join Israel's final drive into Beirut and form a Phalange-dominated Lebanese government, which would then become the second Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel; and, more long run, to encourage or push the Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Diaspora to move to Jordan ("Jordan is Palestine"), where they would, because of their overwhelming majority, eventually overthrow the Hashemite dynasty. The ensuing destabilization would once again produce Israel's intervention in one form or another. That would bring Israel's power to the borders of Saudi Arabia and radiate its influence as far away as Pakistan and even into Africa.1 Thus would Israel become the overwhelming master of the Middle East, the Arab cause would be seen as hopeless, and one Arab country after another would feel compelled to sue for peace.
It was a grandiose dream but nearly all of it came to nought. Security for Israel's northern region was obtained-yet that had not been seriously threatened since the summer of 1981. The destruction of the Soviet-supplied Syrian air defense system and the greater part of the Syrian air force seemed at the time to humiliate Syria and the Soviet Union, but proved to lead directly, in December 1982, to the Soviets furnishing more advanced replacements. The war and its aftermath proved long and extraordinarily costly to Israel in lives and expenses, it deeply affected national unity and Israel's standing in the world, and it also broke the will and the heart of its once charismatic leader, Menachem Begin.
Israel has quickly drawn lessons from its setback and shifted from adventurism to damage control. Moshe Arens, Sharon's successor as Defense Minister, became instrumental in detaching Israel from its disappointing alliance with the Phalange, giving up the idea of a Maronite-dominated Lebanon, and attempting to court Druze and Shi'ite communities, though not with great success. In early September, the Israelis withdrew from Beirut to the Awali River to shorten their lines and increase the security of their forces. But by so doing, they rendered inevitable a new and even more murderous phase in the ten-year-old war in Lebanon as the Druze population of the Shouf Mountains battled the Phalange. It was the Israelis who had allowed the Phalange into the Shouf at certain critical points, thereby acquiring additional moral responsibility for what happened. A deeply divided Israel, still absorbing the lessons of Lebanon under a less charismatic leader than Begin, and facing deep economic problems, is in no mood for new adventures unless directly threatened.
America meanwhile has moved increasingly into Israel's former role without fully understanding all of its implications. No grand design underlay U.S. involvement in Lebanon. Rather, it was the result of miscalculations which were quite different from those of the Israelis, a fact illustrated by the three-month gap between the Israeli invasion and our first serious policy statement. On September 1, 1982, President Reagan laid down the lines of America's Middle East policy. He proposed a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East, epitomized in the "territories for peace" formula and a clear-cut U.S. position favoring Palestinian self-government in conjunction with Jordan. Only secondarily did the President demand the evacuation of Lebanon by all foreign forces, i.e., Israelis, Syrians, and remaining Palestinians. But a series of wrong predictions and wrong moves shifted the entire emphasis of U.S. policy to Lebanon, leaving the broader peace objectives unimplemented.
To begin with, some top officials confidently stated that peace would be achieved quickly and easily in Lebanon-"before Christmas" of 1982. Many Arab leaders also urged the Lebanese priority on the American government. But that only proves that Arabs can be as ignorant of Lebanon and America's ability to change conditions there as Americans. Diplomats, they thought, could return to the broader peace initiative after America's prestige and credibility had been enhanced by its presumed success in Lebanon. In the meantime, the U.S. government expected that King Hussein of Jordan, in agreement with Yassir Arafat of the PLO, would produce some movement on the broader peace front by declaring his willingness to negotiate with Israel.
Neither expectation was realistic. King Hussein had made it clear all along that he would come to the negotiating table only if the eventual disposition of the occupied territories was discussed and not merely transitional autonomy terms-preconditions certain to be rejected by the Begin government.2
As to Lebanon, it is a mystery what the easy optimism of an early evacuation was based on. Neither Syria nor Israel was motivated to withdraw quickly. The Begin government was determined to hold out for sizable political gains to vindicate the invasion. Syria, which had first sent its army into Lebanon in 1976 in response to a call for help from the embattled Maronites3 and had later switched sides, showed no inclination to withdraw.
Nine months were wasted in increasingly fruitless shuttles by America's Middle East negotiator, Ambassador Philip Habib, until Secretary of State George Shultz took charge on May 17, 1983, and obtained a Lebanese-Israeli withdrawal agreement. It was greeted with considerable satisfaction in Washington, yet it bore within it the seeds of its own destruction.
Syria had not been included in the negotiations, and Syria's indications that it would withdraw, once Israel did, had been taken at face value, as if the type of withdrawal agreement would make no difference. Under the agreement, Israel had gained special rights in southern Lebanon which were to prove fatal. The agreement bordered on a peace treaty because of a "normalization of relations" provision, including liaison missions and trade. This created a sour note in Syria and throughout the Arab world. Even if Syria had actually been ready to withdraw once Israel did, it was hardly likely that it would do so if the special rights accorded Israel under the May 17 agreement were maintained.
There is a widespread impression in America that peace in the Middle East can be achieved "one step at a time" or perhaps "one peace at a time." In support of this contention, Americans frequently cite the Camp David Accords by which Egypt, in making peace with Israel, obtained the return of the Sinai peninsula.
The Arabs view the Camp David Accords exactly the opposite way. They consider them a disaster because, by taking Egypt out of the Arab front, they permanently unbalanced the power relationship between the Arabs and Israel. Moreover, while Egyptian President Anwar Sadat gained the return of the Sinai, he did not obtain the return of the West Bank to Arab control, and that was important to him and to the rest of the Arab world. To the Arabs, the "one peace at a time" formula constitutes a nightmare image of increasingly impotent Arab states having to cut unfavorable deals with an overpowering Israel. Syria is particularly affected by this thought because, having long been isolated, it fears that under this scenario it would be the last and therefore the weakest to sign up. This same apprehension turned Saudi Arabia against Egypt after Sadat signed his separate peace with Israel. It was this concern that played right into Assad's hands and made him determined to overthrow the Gemayel government and force the nullification of the Israeli-Lebanese-U.S. withdrawal agreement.
He has refused even to negotiate on a withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, calling the May 1983 agreement "a Zionist-American hegemonistic plan. . . .worse than the Camp David Accords." Renewed fighting in September was stimulated and supported by Syrian forces in northern and eastern Lebanon, and Assad's agreement to a cease-fire was conditioned on national reconciliation talks among various Lebanese political and religious factions that would spell, in effect, the end of the Gemayel government as then constituted. The Syrian leader also determined once and for all to bring the PLO under total Syrian control. To this end he encouraged and then supported by all means, including arms and regular Syrian forces, the destruction of Yassir Arafat.4
In one fell swoop, Hafez al-Assad has emerged from years of isolation and placed himself at the power switch of Middle East policy. For some time to come, he will remain a man who cannot be ignored by anyone who seeks influence in the region.
Hafez al-Assad evokes mixed reactions in Arab countries outside Syria. The harshness of his regime and the brutality with which he has suppressed dissidents, especially in Hama, arouse resentment and fear. The implacable resolve with which he carries on his feud with his fellow Arabs and fellow Baathists in Iraq is deeply regretted. And the fact that, in pursuit of the latter aim, he has closed Iraq's pipeline through Syria and favored Khomeini's Iran has profoundly upset the Arab states of the Gulf. Furthermore, while all Arab governments have had problems at various times with Yassir Arafat and the PLO, attempts by any one government to destroy or control the PLO have been resented.
Yet harshness in the single-minded pursuit of policy evokes both fear and admiration in the Arab world, and Assad has much support for his opposition to Lebanon's quasi peace with Israel under the withdrawal agreement. The same is true of his opposition to a Phalange-dominated Lebanese government, because the Phalange is viewed not only as a tool of Israel but also as a group that seeks to separate Lebanon from the main currents of Arab life. In such opposition, Assad has the support not only of Lebanon's Muslims and of the northern Maronites but also of a great many non-Maronite Christians (Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian, etc.) who constitute sizable minorities in other Arab countries (13 percent in Syria, 5 percent in Jordan, 5 percent in Iraq) and who fear for their future if they become identified with Phalangist "separateness."
Nor can one ignore Assad's prime superpower supporter, the Soviet Union. Syria's relationship to the U.S.S.R. is another Middle East complexity that does not easily fit into the clear definitions preferred by Western, and especially by American, observers. Imperial Russia, and even more so the Soviet Union, has consistently attempted to gain a place of influence in the Middle East. The U.S.S.R. recognized the new state of Israel the same day as the United States; the weapons used by Israel in its war of independence came largely from Communist Czechoslovakia.5 During the early Stalinist time, the Soviet Union operated primarily through traditional communist parties in the Middle East. That relationship brought very few results. When the Soviet Union realized that Arab nationalism aroused by the creation of Israel provided more fertile soil, it changed its method and switched sides.
The U.S.S.R. wants several things in the Middle East, above all a recognized place for what it believes to be its legitimate interest in that area lying close to its borders. Hence its resentment about repeated American attempts to exclude it therefrom. Even more concern has arisen in the U.S.S.R. over the American quest for military bases in the region and organization of the Rapid Deployment Force.
Beginning in 1955, and especially after America's rejection of the Aswan Dam in 1956, Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser became the main Soviet "window" in the Middle East, but at the same time both Syria and Iraq were courted and received large military equipment, the principal tool of spreading Soviet influence-building.
Then, after President Sadat ejected the Russians abruptly in 1972 and Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, Syria became the Soviet Union's only viable "window" and thereby attained particular importance in Soviet eyes. The Soviet-Syrian Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed in October 1980, calling for "cooperation in the military field" and mutual consultations on threats to each other's security or violations of peace and security "in the whole world." As a result, substantial Soviet aid was extended to the Syrian ground forces, as well as the Syrian air defense and air forces. And then, when the latter were wiped out by Israel in June 1982, the Russians embarked in December 1982 on the largest reequipment effort in their history. They not only gave the Syrians an air defense system of unprecedented sophistication, but also furnished ground-launched missiles that now present a serious threat even to American offshore naval power. And, having seen how inept the Syrians had been in June 1982, this time the Soviets are themselves operating this equipment with a force estimated at 8,000 combat Soviet personnel. In the opinion of experts, it will be four to five years before the Syrians will become fully capable of handling the new equipment.
This new degree of Soviet involvement raises serious questions. Thus far the Syrians have proved themselves quite independent of Soviet direction when it suited them. In fact, there is considerable evidence that the Soviet leadership has been quite unhappy over Assad's harsh treatment of Yassir Arafat, but Assad paid no attention to Soviet advice and the Soviets subsided.
For the time being, the Soviets are taking the long view. They enjoy being on the side of a winner and profit from the diminution of America's position as a result of America's expected failure in Lebanon. At the moment, therefore, it is inaccurate to treat Syria as simply a Soviet agent. If anything, the Syrian tail often wags the Soviet dog. But the predominant weight of the U.S.S.R. and its control over Syria's air defense and other missile systems will confront Syria and all Middle Eastern countries, as well as the United States, with a new range of problems and options that will be examined later in this article.
In Lebanon, Assad has pretty well succeeded in attaining his principal objective. A number of circumstances have helped him. Lebanon became a state only in recent history. Whether it ever became a nation is open to debate. The Ottoman Empire, which governed the region until 1918, had attempted to calm the long-turbulent land by creating a complicated system of confessional balance, which later became the basis of the National Pact of 1943. But the weakness of the "sick man of Europe" (as the Turkish realm had long been called) invited the intrigues and machinations of foreign powers, each becoming the patron of one sect or region, a forerunner of later developments. In Turkish days that game was played by the French, British, Russians, and Austrians. That role was played much later by Syria and Israel.
The oft-quoted "greater Syria" concept was originally a Jordanian idea, when TransJordan's first ruler, Abdullah, aspired to establish his throne in Damascus. Later, but well before Assad, the idea had been co-opted by Syrian nationalists, arguing this partly from the fact that the Turks had made the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon a part of the district (vilayet) of Damascus. The nebulous nature of the relationship between Syria and Lebanon had prevented the Syrians from ever establishing an embassy in Beirut while keeping the Lebanese from sending permanent envoys to Damascus.
This situation became further complicated by the massive entry of Palestinians into Lebanon. They had begun to flee into the then relatively prosperous and open Lebanon after successive Arab-Israeli wars. Many more went to Lebanon when they were driven out of Jordan after their unsuccessful attempt to seize power in that country in the "Black September" of 1970. That sparked the final destabilization of Lebanon, as the Palestinians established virtually a state within a state there. In Lebanon's ten-year-long civil war they usually sided with the Muslims against the Christians while at the same time using Lebanon's weakness for forays into northern Israel. Syria's entry in 1976 reinforced the Syrian claims and had the tacit consent of Israel, which coveted the southern region of Lebanon for itself.
Israel, virtually since its foundation, has aspired to a special relationship, even an alliance, with the Christian Maronites of Lebanon, whom Israel regarded as a bulwark against the flood of overwhelmingly Muslim Arabs.6 This set the stage for the relations between the Phalange, led by the charismatic Bashir Gemayel, and the Israelis, who equipped and trained his forces. In Ariel Sharon's plan, the Phalange was to be accorded a special place to join forces with the Israelis in occupying Beirut and in establishing a Maronite-dominated state allied with Israel.
But the plan ran awry. As Bashir Gemayel's position became ever more powerful, he became reluctant to play the role the Israelis had assigned him. This was first revealed when the Phalange stood aside in the final Israeli onslaught on Beirut. It became more obvious when, for a short while, Lebanese of all factions realized that Bashir Gemayel was the only man who had the chance to unify Lebanon. Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, with their total disdain and ignorance of Arab mentality, never understood that it might well have been in their interest to give in to Bashir Gemayel's insistence on putting some distance between himself and them.
On September 1, 1982, the very day that President Reagan made his Middle East policy speech in the United States, Begin met secretly with Bashir not far from the northern Israeli town of Nahariyya, pounded him with accusations of betrayal, and demanded a formal peace treaty between Lebanon and Israel. The presence at that meeting of Saad Haddad, the cashiered Lebanese major and Israel's proxy, further underlined Begin's message that if Bashir Gemayel did not give in, there was another solution available to the Israelis.7 Bashir knew that, if he did not resist Begin's demands, he could never lead a unified Lebanon. But, as so often in Lebanon's history, that brief dream became extinct when Bashir Gemayal was assassinated a short while later.
It has to be left to speculation whether Bashir Gemayel, with his strong, even brutal, leadership of the Phalange, could have realized his promise of holding the Phalange in line while holding out his hand to the other groups and militias. It is an even greater question whether Israel and Syria would have allowed him to do so.
In any event, such an opportunity did not long remain with Bashir's successor and older brother, Amin Gemayel. For a short while Amin inherited the good will that had swept toward his dead brother. Had he moved quickly toward reconciliation with Sunnis, Shi'ites and Druze, perhaps he might have succeeded-although it was always a question to what extent he could control his own Phalangist forces. He certainly never had the standing with them that characterized Bashir.
What did happen was that Amin hesitated. He could not control the Phalange military leadership, which did as it pleased, massacred the Palestinians in the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps, and pushed Shi'ites and Druze around. Quite likely the Phalange leaders thought that they had America's forces in their corner and no longer needed to reach out for a national consensus. This pushed Druze and Shi'ites in the opposite direction, toward Syria. And later, when the Israeli-Lebanese-U.S. withdrawal agreement appeared to challenge Syria's claim to leadership in Lebanon, and especially after the partial Israeli withdrawal from the Shouf Mountains created a vacuum, the civil war not only started again with great violence but also greatly solidified Syria's leadership over all anti-Phalangist forces, since the anti-Phalangists needed Syrian weapons and support to carry on the fight.
At this juncture, peace could come to Lebanon only if a fundamental restructuring of political, social, and economic power were to take place that would reduce Maronite domination and enhance the power of those hitherto neglected groups, the Druze and especially the Shi'ites who had become the largest single group in Lebanon. This is not to say that these groups are particularly comfortable with Syrian domination. The Shi'ites at first accepted the Israeli presence largely out of hatred for the Palestinians; they became disenchanted with the Israelis when the latter neglected them and favored the Christian Major Saad Haddad in Shi'ite-dominated southern Lebanon. This is even more true of the Druze, who have lived in blood feuds with the Maronites for well over a century. Although their leader, Walid Jumblatt, had little reason to love the Syrians, who are generally believed to have been responsible for the assassination of his father, he felt that he had no choice except Syrian tutelage.
All of this complicated U.S. strategy. American Marines had originally landed-first to provide a screen for the evacuation of the Palestinian fighters and later to provide greater stability for the government in the halcyon days of hope for Lebanese unity under Amin Gemayel. But, by this act, America has slid incrementally into a most awkward predicament. The more it becomes identified with the Phalange and takes military action against the Druze and Shi'ites, the more it becomes a partisan and the more Assad's leadership is strengthened. The more America views the Lebanese conflict and Syria's position there in a primarily East-West context, the more Assad and his Lebanese allies need a close relationship with Moscow, thus making America's conception a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In U.S. government circles, some argue for greater American-Israeli coordination in order to achieve a balance of power with Damascus and Moscow. As of mid-November 1983, it appears that the United States has moved down this road at least to a limited extent, seeking to strengthen the Israeli position and role with the sweetening of significant new forms of U.S. aid. If this view prevails, the result would most likely be the very opposite of what its proponents desire. Temporarily and militarily, the Syrians and their Soviet backers may become more cautious. But politically, they would gain not only in Lebanon but throughout the Middle East, as even moderate Arab states would feel obliged to move closer to Syria, because their internal stability would be undercut if they appear ready to cooperate with a perceived U.S.-Israel combination.
Consequently it has to be accepted that for the foreseeable future Assad will remain a dominant force in Lebanon. His power rests on a good deal more than the presence of his army. This was further emphasized by the fact that the fragile cease-fire agreement of September 1983, which Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan hammered out in close collaboration with U.S. special envoy Robert McFarlane, was announced in Damascus.
Assad's aims in Lebanon are not difficult to discern. They are, first of all, a dominant role in Lebanon, and through that, a place in the Middle East so strong that nothing can be settled there without his consent. For Lebanon, this certainly means that the Syrian troops will remain not only as long as the Israeli forces are there but also as long as the Israeli-Lebanese-U.S. withdrawal agreement remains in force, as it gives special rights in Lebanon to the Israelis. If the Israelis were to withdraw unconditionally-which is unlikely to occur soon-the presence in Lebanon of Syrian troops might no longer be required if Assad's domination were assured by other means, and if there were a pliant Lebanese government, probably but not necessarily under someone other than Amin Gemayel.
The United States, with limited forces in Lebanon, and in the face of congressional and popular resistance to further American involvement there, is in no position effectively to challenge Syrian predominance in Lebanon. Only Israel could do that, but whether Israel would wish to do so is highly questionable.
Israel has become introspective, reexamining its own nature and aspirations. For the first time, the nature of the state and the mission of its armed forces and military policy are questioned, endangering the unity that is vital to Israel's security. There is now a sharp and distinct division between the opposition Labor alliance's view that Israel must withdraw from Lebanon (except for some security provisions in the south) and must come to some territorial revision on the West Bank, and the Likud government view, which wants to do neither. The prospect is for weak Israeli governments with uncertain life spans, facing a severe economic crisis that demands drastic measures further dividing the political spectrum. And there remains the divisive problem of what to do with the large and restive Arab population under Israel's control.
In such a situation, Israel can hardly be expected to be in a mood for new adventures in Lebanon. To be sure, there are Israeli politicians who believe Israel should come to the aid of its ally the United States and move against the Syrians and in support of the Gemayel government. But a more dominant trend is that Israel must now look after its own interests and not move against Syria unless clearly threatened. There are even those in Israel who feel that its northern border may be more secure when faced by a Syrian-dominated region. Syria scrupulously observes the armistice on its own borders, and its firm control of the PLO has shown that no uncontrolled element will be allowed near Israel's lines unless the Syrians want this to happen. There are even those in Israel who believe that it should try to cut a deal with a strong Syria rather than a weaker Jordan.
What will be the consequences of Syria's new prominence? Saudi Arabia resented Assad's torpedoing of the attempted first Fez summit meeting, which reconvened on September 9, 1982, succeeding only with great difficulties. Saudi Arabia is also unhappy over Syria's siding with Iran and against Iraq. They fear that an Iranian victory would have incalculable dangers and consequences for the entire Gulf region. But Saudi Arabia, conscious of its great wealth and physical vulnerability, has always preferred efforts at getting along with radical neighbors over confrontation. Even when it finally subsidizes a radical state like Syria, it prefers persuasion to threats of withholding funds-not unlike America's attitude toward Israel. Its increasingly active diplomacy has been apprehensive over Syria's close involvement with the Soviet Union but has attempted to deal with Syria on a case-by-case basis, not as an adversary. This is also why Saudi Arabia has gone well beyond its usual discreet and indirect action in working so closely with the United States to bring about a cease-fire in Lebanon: it would need both the United States and Syria, though in different ways, should there be outright hostility by Iran. By brokering a cease-fire in Lebanon and taking steps toward reconciliation, which, if successful, would be essentially favorable to Syria, Saudi Arabia has acknowledged facts.
If Americans were to side too openly with the Phalangists and continue to bombard Druze and Shi'ite forces in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia would have to put distance between itself and the United States. It hopes to avoid such a situation by adroit diplomacy. Saudi Arabia will continue to watch the situation warily, and if some Arab coalition were to start forming to balance Syria, Saudi Arabia might well lend it its support.
The situation is even more awkward for Jordan. Jordan and Syria have been frequent adversaries, and during the 1970 "Black September" uprising of the PLO, Jordanian tanks and planes as well as an Israeli threat of intervention stopped Syria's tanks from advancing against Jordanian lines.
Jordan's principal sensitivity is, however, directed toward the Palestinian question. In an endeavor to move toward possible negotiation with Israel and the PLO, King Hussein welcomed the Reagan plan and began a dialogue with Yassir Arafat with a view toward arriving at a common negotiating formula. Arafat was frustrated by more radical groups within the PLO structure and even more by Syria's influence, which suspected another "Camp David" from Jordan and vigorously opposed any peace initiative that would exclude Syria. In the face of such opposition, Yassir Arafat had to go back on the modest progress that his discussions with King Hussein had made, and this caused Hussein to withdraw from the whole effort in April 1983.8
In the new situation created by a much more powerful Syria with enhanced control over the PLO, a new Jordanian initiative has become even more difficult, and in a spirit of deep disappointment over U.S. failure to proceed more vigorously with Reagan's "territory for peace" formula, Hussein has begun to take steps toward better relations with both Syria and Moscow. But Hussein is clearly not comfortable in that association and would probably prefer to return to his earlier initiative if he were confident of U.S. steadfastness and could count on a forthcoming Palestinian attitude.
To this end, King Hussein has let it be known that if the PLO were to come completely under Syrian control, he might no longer feel bound by the 1974 Rabat summit resolution, which declared the PLO the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. But what Hussein could in fact do is less clear. He certainly cannot simply negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians without a mandate from them. Such a mandate might conceivably come from West Bank leaders if they were convinced that Arafat was finished and that no significant PLO remnant continued to exist outside Syrian control.
Another approach could be the long-rumored Jordanian return to a parliamentary form of government, in which West Bank Palestinians would obtain sizable representation. Both these alternatives would require Israeli acquiescence, of which there is no evidence as these lines are written.
Yassir Arafat, even in his moment of extreme peril, showed renewed interest in a resumption of his talks with Hussein. But whether he will be in a position to undertake it is seriously in doubt. He and his PLO fighters had earlier emerged in relatively good shape from the battering they took from the Israelis. When they had to accept evacuation from Lebanon, Arafat, fearing the total Syrian domination long attempted by Assad, strenuously resisted establishing his headquarters in Damascus, and chose the more distant but politically innocuous Tunis. Arafat's subsequent negotiation with King Hussein determined President Assad to finish off Arafat once and for all. But leadership in the Arab world is inextricably tied to an espousal of the Palestinian cause; thus any Arab claim to leadership would be severely damaged by opposition from the PLO. This Assad was determined to prevent.
Assad moved in his habitual style of methodical preparation and harsh thrusts. In the past, rebellions against Yassir Arafat's leadership had mainly occurred outside the Fatah movement, the largest core of the PLO. This time it was to happen within. Assad's power grab was aided by Arafat's unwise appointment of two ineffective and discredited officers to higher command. On the other hand, the rebellion remained handicapped by the obvious fashion in which it was fomented by Assad. When Assad decided to move even more forcefully against him, Arafat, realizing that he had no chance against such determination, attempted to effect yet another of his innumerable compromises and returned to Damascus. But Assad would have none of it and forcibly evicted him and his lieutenants from Syria. He allowed Arafat to escape to the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli where the majority of his fighters who remained in Lebanon are concentrated. But Assad is clearly out to crush Arafat and has now moved against him even there. The end of an independent PLO, at least in Lebanon, appears to be in sight, even though the Soviets and several Arab governments have pleaded with Assad for a compromise.
Total Syrian control over the PLO would strengthen Assad's hand in Lebanon, but not in the region. The Palestinians on the West Bank clearly oppose Syrian control and have therefore remained firm in their support for Arafat's leadership. If a Syrian-dominated PLO were to reemphasize "armed struggle," as seems likely, this would cause a deep split in the West Bank Palestinians, who have a more realistic view of Israeli retaliatory power-of which they would be the prime victims. This would also cause serious misgivings in the rest of the Arab world.
Although every Arab country has had its conflicts with Arafat, the Arab world was clearly uncomfortable with Assad's move against the PLO and gave him no support. On the contrary, verbal support for Arafat came from every country with the exception of Syria and Libya-but little else. Only one potential ally is conceivable, and that is Egypt. But such a move on Egypt's part is nowhere in sight. It remains a possibility for the future if Arafat can stay alive and in command of a sizable element of the PLO that long.
Egypt's course, even before Sadat's death, has been uncertain. Sadat's grand strategy was clear, imaginative-and flawed. He understood the deep psychological barrier between Israel and the Arab world, especially the conviction of Menachem Begin and many others that the Arabs would never make peace with Israel. Fortified by the performance of Egyptian arms in the 1973 war, Sadat felt strong enough to take a daring step toward peace by his trip to Jerusalem. By this he hoped to convince the Israelis that peace was possible. He emphasized in every one of his declarations, beginning with his speech to the Knesset, that the price for peace was the return of the West Bank to Arab control.
This, however, Begin was never prepared to do. And although Sadat obtained the return of the Sinai Peninsula, the opportunity to return triumphantly to the Arab fold as the one leader who was able to win the great and decisive prize of a Palestinian solution was denied him. The Egyptian people were glad to have peace after so many bloodlettings and welcomed large American assistance after Camp David, but help from the United States alone could never be sufficient to solve Egypt's massive social and economic problems. The peace with Israel turned increasingly sour.
Hosni Mubarak, Sadat's successor, felt deeply humiliated by Israel's invasion of Lebanon: the peace treaty with Israel, which he did not want to renounce, immobilized his armed forces, and no other Arab country had the capability of intervening and stopping Israel's awesome military might. Egypt's frustration expressed itself by the withdrawal of its ambassador from Israel and President Mubarak's declaration that the ambassador would not return until Israel's forces had withdrawn from Lebanon. To this Mubarak added another condition during his October 1983 visit to the United States: namely, that there would be no exchange of ambassadors until Israel also stopped all settlements on the West Bank.
With that act Mubarak signaled even more clearly that, while he did not wish to give up the peace treaty with Israel, he had in fact put it in cold storage and wanted to move further toward a return to the Arab fold. Egyptian pride did not permit a return on other than Egyptian terms, and for that the rest of the Arabs were not yet ready.
But the sudden rise to leadership of Hafez Assad may eventually motivate Egypt to move more directly toward a position of leadership in the Arab camp and could make that step more acceptable to the moderate Arabs. One way of doing so would be by offering asylum to Arafat-if he survives-and the remnants of his Palestinian movement and also supporting resumption of Jordanian-PLO negotiations. But by suggesting that the PLO form a "government in exile," Egypt expects that Arafat would be willing to abandon the doctrine of "armed struggle," finally accept that a split in his movement has become fact-even without Syrian intervention-and move clearly and unmistakably in the direction of a diplomatic and political solution. Such a step would achieve a greater balance in Arab ranks, it would restore the traditional situation in which Cairo and Damascus were often rival power centers, and it would give life to a new peace initiative either within the Reagan plan or some other formula.
Even though the moderate Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, have been sympathetic to Egypt's return, they fear that by accepting a country that has made a separate peace with Israel, they would make themselves too vulnerable to radical attacks. Egypt, on the other hand, feels that by retaining its link with Israel-however frail-while rejoining the Arab fold, the Arabs would signal a greater readiness for peace, which Egypt regards as their only choice against an overwhelmingly strong and American-assisted Israel.
The gap between these two positions has been narrowed but not closed. Egypt will not take overt steps until it has been reassured in advance of being welcomed back, "warts and all." But in the meantime it has strengthened its position among the Arabs by postponing indefinitely the return of an Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv despite severe pressure from Israel and from some American circles.
Israel's growing disenchantment with its cold peace with Egypt stokes the fire of those Israeli extremists who have always been convinced that a negotiated peace could never be achieved between Israelis and Arabs. But to more impartial observers, it would seem that in the long run Israel's security would benefit from the return to the Arab camp of a country which did make peace with Israel and whose weight would strengthen those who strive for a diplomatic rather than a military solution.
High as Assad stands in the Arab fold, his long-term success is by no means guaranteed. His rise is very high but his power base is very narrow. He is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ites regarded by the overwhelming majority of Sunni Syrians as heretical, and the Alawites constitute no more than ten percent of the Syrian population.
Also, Lebanon has proved slippery ground for all those who entered it intending to remain, as the Israelis have come to realize. No Lebanese group is really at ease under Syrian domination; the presence of Syrian soldiers in the relative comfort and freedom of Lebanon has proved demoralizing and corrupting to the Syrian army; and Assad faces serious economic problems at home.
Nor should one discount Iraq's return to the quest for leadership that it had to abandon when its war against Iran turned sour. Some day the war will end and then Iraq's manpower resources (greater than those of Syria), its large oil reserves and bloodied but combat-experienced army could make Hafez al-Assad rue the day when he sided with Iran and damaged Iraq's economy severely by closing its pipeline through Syria. And finally, the Arab world, though admiring Assad's deft footwork, nevertheless harbors general resentment against his forceful moves against the PLO.
Thus, Assad has so many enemies that it may not take more than one serious misstep to bring him face to face with great difficulties. And, if Egypt decided to move in favor of a more active and assertive policy such as that suggested above, Assad's predominance could not long be maintained.
In the meantime-which may be quite long-barring his sudden demise, Assad has become the strong man of the Middle East. The more the United States opposes him, the stronger he becomes, albeit at the price of moving ever closer to his great protector, the Soviet Union. He has no serious rivals-at the moment.
What will Assad do with his triumph once he feels firmly in the saddle? He has fought his way to the top largely by negative means, by blocking or destroying rivals, by derailing agreements that did not include him or that gave him a lesser place than he felt entitled to, and above all by incredible tenacity against severe odds and strong enemies.
Negative acts are not sufficient to give Assad the position of supreme leader, the "Arab hero" role that Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat sought in vain. For that, a great positive act will be necessary. That would obviously be to tackle successfully the Arab-Israeli problem. Assad will not be in a great hurry to approach that goal. His style has been gradual, methodical, detailed preparation by intricate maneuvers combining daring action with a desire to take minimal risks. What remains to be seen is whether, in the event he lasts long enough, he will try to deal with that supreme problem by taking the road of war or of diplomacy. There are grave risks involved in both.
The Arabs have been defeated by Israel many times. It lies in the Arab nature, in the tradition of constant warfare among tribes, to recover fairly quickly and easily from defeat. But humiliation is another matter. And it has long been the strategy of Israel not only to defeat but also to humiliate the Arabs, to instill in them the conviction that Israel is invincible and that resistance is hopeless. Israel has now suffered considerably in Lebanon. Although there can be no question that its armed forces have prevailed, other factors underline the limits of its expansion. Yet the sense of deep humiliation remains in the Arab world because it was not the Arabs who defeated Israel; Israel overreached itself.
Therefore the road to war and revenge remains inviting to Syria. But there are serious problems on that path. Syria's reequipment by the Soviet Union will take several years to be fully effective. It is doubtful that Israel, even in its present introspective mood, would stand idly by to see that completed. There would be considerable support for taking action in an otherwise divided Israel. But as control over Syria's new sophisticated air defense system lies, and will remain, in Soviet hands, Syria would not only have to accept a virtual alliance with the Soviet Union to fight Israel successfully, but would also have to be willing to face the danger of superpower confrontation. To take that road, even if Israel waited, Assad would have to throw himself completely into Russia's arms, without being quite certain that the Soviets, who both use and distrust him, are actually willing to risk a conflict with the United States. To be sure, in recent times the Soviet Union has become more assertive and seems less inclined to shrink back from such confrontation, but Assad cannot be sure that the Soviet Union would continue to support him at such a moment; nor could he be certain that, if it did, he would survive or retain much freedom of action.
In view of these very large and dangerous questions, one should not exclude the possibility that Hafez Assad, if he remains in power and still on top of the mountain, may choose the political way. And why not? Even Abdul Nasser gave it a brief and secret try in 1955 through intermediaries with Israel's Ben-Gurion.9 Sadat tried it more directly, but only with partial success.
There is, however, one significant difference. Even if Assad eventually takes the road of diplomacy, Soviet support will remain essential for him to play his role fully because his own power base is too narrow to deal alone with American diplomacy. He would not have the freedom the much larger and more powerful Egypt had to discard Soviet help but would have to move in step with the Russians, retaining them as an indispensable part of his strategy in peace or war. That means that even if Assad chooses the road to peace by diplomatic means, he could not pick the form of the Camp David agreement or of the "Jordanian formula" but would have to give preference to the earlier concept of the Geneva Conference, in which the Soviet Union and the United States figured as co-chairmen.
Until Assad makes up his mind and feels strong enough to move, he will constantly shift tactically between policies of force and of diplomacy, keeping both friends and opponents off balance. He is a master of such tactics.
Although there is little indication that the American government, in its present mood, would feel favorably inclined toward a Geneva strategy, this cannot be excluded for all time. After all, the Geneva strategy experienced a short life span under the Nixon and Carter Administrations and could conceivably do so again within the context of a future, more relaxed atmosphere between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the meantime, U.S. diplomacy has little choice but to face up to the vastly changed situation in the Middle East. Provided Assad remains in power for a prolonged period, both Syria and the United States should have an interest in gradually improved relations in order to give the Syrians an option other than total and exclusive dependence upon the Soviet Union. This might worry Israel but might not be totally unacceptable provided American diplomacy proceeds with care, skill and balance. The possibility of such diplomacy would also be enhanced if the U. S. government could find its way out of its present seemingly exclusive preoccupation with Lebanon and return to a broader peace initiative along the lines of the Reagan plan. Only then, in order not to exclude Syria, would a purely "Jordanian solution" seem quite difficult and the Reagan plan need some amendment.
There are so many imponderables in this situation that an exact course for the future in the Middle East cannot be charted at this time. One thing is certain: the situation in that troubled region has fundamentally changed and all parties have to reexamine it.
Peace in the Middle East remains a vital and necessary concern for America, the entire West, and for Japan, which depend so much on that region's strategic importance and resources. America's goodwill to approach that goal has been strong, but its skill and ability to play a constructive role has not been much in evidence. The policy outlined in President Reagan's speech of September 1, 1982, which he has since reaffirmed, cannot possibly succeed without a strategy that bears priorities and realities firmly in mind. Among those realities are the continued central importance of the Palestinian problem and the need for successive American administrations to view Middle Eastern problems in a regional rather than a predominantly East-West context-without ignoring the fact that an East-West element does exist and has recently become stronger.
In this respect another important change in the Middle East should be noted. Gradually but relentlessly dawning on Israel's volatile public is the fact that the permanent presence of a large Arab population will bring insoluble problems and is bound to burden severely Israel's vital relations with the United States.10 Because of this realization the political groups in Israel that are willing to accept the return of much of the occupied West Bank to Arab control (if Israel's security can be safeguarded) are bound to grow. Moreover, Israel's economic crisis is beginning to worry its impoverished Sephardic element lest continued costly settlements on the West Bank endanger social benefits. The awareness of those trends has caused the opposition Labor alliance to make territorial revision a major item of its election platform. This significant difference would become particularly sharp if elections were to take place in Israel ahead of time in 1984.
At the same time the battered Palestinians, in the Diaspora and especially on the West Bank, have to face up to the question of whether "armed struggle" has not become an impossible, romantic dream11 and whether diplomatic moves are not the only steps left if they are ever to gain any kind of self-determination, even if that produces a split in PLO ranks. Bitterness at Arab inaction in their hour of mortal peril and fear of total emasculation through Syrian control have brought growing, though not yet dominant, realism into Palestinian ranks.
This surely is a situation that could favor new initiatives toward a Middle East peace.
If Syria were to perceive the existence of such a trend, what would its attitude be? Oppose it, in all likelihood. But even such opposition need not be irrevocable if Assad chooses the road of peace as his crowning achievement, rather than of war.
Even if Syria's opposition were irreducible, a peace diplomacy could find allies, especially in Egypt, that would tend to balance the Syrian-Soviet alliance.
America's success in dealing with these awesomely complex issues of the Middle East will depend to a large degree on its ability to retain a sense of proportion in all its relations with Middle Eastern and superpower parties and, while doing so, to master the traditional Middle Eastern game of opposing and cooperating at the same time.
1 "Israel's Strategic Problems in the 80s," address by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, prepared for delivery at a conference of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, December 14, 1981, and published as a press bulletin dated Jerusalem, December 15, 1981.
2 Conclusions drawn by the author from an extended conversation with King Hussein in Amman, January 31, 1983, and from subsequent meetings with informed Israelis.
3 An act that "drew praise from the United States, sharp criticism from the Soviet Union and a telling silence from Israel," David Ignatius, "How to Rebuild Lebanon," Foreign Affairs, Summer 1983, p. 1196.
6 Dan Kurtzman, Ben-Gurion, Prophet of Fire, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983, p. 321.
7 Jonathan C. Randal, Going All the Way: Christian War Lords, Israeli Adventures and the War in Lebanon, New York: Viking Press, 1983, p. 10.
8 Eric Rouleau, loc.cit.
9 Elmore Jackson, Middle East Mission: The Story of a Major Bid for Peace in the Time of Nasser and Ben-Gurion, New York: W. W. Norton, 1983.
11 Eric Rouleau, loc. cit., and Aaron David Miller, The PLO and the Politics of Survival, Washington Paper Number 99, Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1983.