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In January, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sat down for a rare and expansive interview with The Wall Street Journal, in which he boasted of the contrast between the crisis then raging in Egypt, which would ultimately topple Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and the apparent stability prevailing in Syria. That changed on March 19, when riots and demonstrations began in the cities of Deraa and Latakia and then spread through the country, echoing the calls issued across the Arab world for political reform and freedom. In particular, demonstrators demanded an end to Syria’s stringent emergency laws—in place since 1963—which ban opposition to the ruling Baath Party, censor the media, and authorize the government to monitor and arrest individuals at will. In their efforts to quell the unrest, Syria’s security forces are estimated to have killed more than 100 civilians since the protests began.
While the uprising festered, Assad at first remained silent, probably due to inter-regime squabbling about how to respond. When he finally spoke on March 30, instead of ending the emergency law or offering any reforms, he turned to an all-too-familiar trope. "Syria is a target of a big plot from outside,” he said. “Our enemies’ aim was to divide Syria as a country and force an Israeli agenda onto it, and they will continue to try and try again.” In other words, Assad argued, those protesting against the regime are doing so in the service of Jerusalem and Washington.
It is curious and significant that while Assad attempts to paint Israel and the United States as the masterminds behind Syria’s problems, Israel itself is ambivalent about the future of his rule. This hesitation stems from the fact that for the past two decades the Israeli-Syrian relationship has unfolded along two, often contradictory, tracks. One has been the quest for a political settlement, launched during the 1991 Madrid conference—a gathering of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinians convened by George H.W. Bush’s administration in the aftermath of the first Gulf War—and continued under Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the mid-1990s. Skeptical of the Israeli political system's capacity to absorb simultaneous major concessions on two fronts—the Palestinian and the Syrian—most Israeli prime ministers since Madrid have adopted a phased approach to peacemaking, often attempting to strike an agreement with Syria first. According to that logic, the Israeli-Syrian conflict would prove easier to solve. As opposed to the Palestinian Authority, Syria represented a coherent state with more reliable leadership. Syria, in turn, expressed equal interest in a peace deal, hoping to regain territory lost to Israel and improve relations with the United States.
Israel and Syria fleshed out the shape of a settlement during the 1990s, modeling it after the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. Israel would fully withdraw from the Golan Heights—the territory it conquered from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War—in exchange for security guarantees and a peace treaty. Negotiations proceeded encouragingly for some time, but the countries could not synchronize their respective desires to strike a final deal. The talks finally collapsed in March 2000, during U.S. President Bill Clinton's ill-fated summit in Geneva with Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, during which Clinton presented Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s final offer. Assad, in the final weeks of his life and focused on transferring power to his son, rejected the bid.
Assad died in June of that year, leaving behind a complex legacy. He built a powerful state in a country previously riddled with instability and military coups. He also became an important regional actor, allied with the Soviet Union and master of Lebanon. But Syria's stability had feet of clay. Assad hailed from the Alawite minority community, which comprises 12 percent of Syria’s population, and his family found it perennially difficult to win approval from the country’s Sunni majority. When the Muslim Brotherhood revolted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Assad ruthlessly quashed the rebellion, killing nearly 20,000 civilians in the Brotherhood stronghold of Hama to secure his rule. That brutal episode has had a paradoxical effect: it cowed Syria’s opposition, keeping it fearfully silent until now, but instilled in it a lasting desire for revenge.
Fearful of being massacred as a result of losing power, the Alawite military and civilian elite closed ranks. These generals and security chiefs restricted Bashar al-Assad’s attempts to liberalize when he came to power. Chastened by the existing order, which viewed him as ineffectual and moody, it took Assad years to establish his authority.
Assad’s weakness was particularly visible in his conduct of foreign policy. His father was a master of the dual game: he talked to Washington and allied with Iran; negotiated with Israel and supported Hezbollah’s anti-Israeli offensive in Lebanon; participated in the Madrid process but encouraged a campaign against the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, accusing him of selling out to Israel by joining peace negotiations. He excelled in taking advantage of Syria’s value to Israel and the United States as a key player in Arab politics and as the symbolic stronghold of radical Arab nationalism.
Bashar al-Assad has tried to play similar double games in Iraq and Lebanon but has failed to do so as artfully as his father, bringing him into a head-on collision with U.S. President George W. Bush. Although his father had achieved an equal partnership with Iran, Assad appeared more a client than an equal in his relationship with Tehran. Under his rule, Syria became a crucial component in the so-called axis of resistance built by Iran, alongside Hezbollah and Hamas. This alliance set out to foil U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East, arguing in favor of violence, rather than peace negotiations, and pitting itself against the more pro-Western camp led by Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Assad also pursued his father’s two-track line with regard to peace talks with Israel. He has argued that he would like to sign a treaty with Israel in return for its full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, but he has also stated that he is prepared for war should the diplomatic option fail. To bolster his claim, Assad boosted his armed forces and struck a secret nuclear deal with North Korea to send North Korean engineers to construct a secret reactor near the Syrian-Iraqi border. Furthermore, Assad has supported Hezbollah and Hamas in their activities against Israel. Together with Iran, he helped Hezbollah amass an arsenal of 40,000 rockets and missiles and helped turn Gaza under Hamas (whose external headquarters is in Damascus) into a second pro-Iranian base on the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, Israeli attitudes toward Assad have shifted over the course of his rule. It is important to note that in recent years the greatest support within Israel for a Syria-first deal has come from the defense establishment, which believes that a peace treaty with Syria could represent a crucial step in reducing Iran’s regional clout and reversing the darkening landscape in Lebanon. This view—a formula of territory for strategic realignment—represents a shift from past negotiations, which entailed territory for peace. The Syrians have proven unwilling to shift away from Hezbollah and Iran, making clear in conversation with U.S. and Western officials that while they may gradually reorient (provided they receive the expected benefits from Israel and the United States), they will not undertake a dramatic change in their allegiances.
Israel’s political leadership has pursued the defense establishment’s zeal for a treaty with varying degrees of effort. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon focused on the Palestinian issue and refused to negotiate with Syria, which suited the George W. Bush administration. Ehud Olmert, who succeeded Sharon and maintained his predecessor’s close relationship with Bush, did negotiate with Assad through Turkey and helped Syria break the diplomatic siege laid by Washington in the wake of Syria’s meddling in Iraq and Lebanon. But Olmert had no qualms about destroying the North Korean-built nuclear reactor in September 2007 or about launching further covert operations within Syria. Negotiations through Turkey ultimately broke down in December 2008, when plans to hold a three-way meeting in Ankara collapsed and Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which Turkey severely criticized.
Since then, little diplomatic traffic has occurred. Although U.S. President Barack Obama has called for engagement with Syria—recently sending an ambassador to Damascus for the first time since 2005—he has focused on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also directed his efforts to the Palestinian front, showing little interest in providing Turkey with a fresh role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy through further mediation of an Israel-Syria treaty.
Israel's view of the crisis raging in Syria must be seen against this backdrop. Israeli leaders believe that Syria and the Iranian axis have been weakened by the domestic unrest plaguing Assad’s regime. But like others in the region, they wonder what the alternative to Assad might be. Although they are aware of pro-democracy and human rights groups active inside Syria and abroad, they naturally fear the power of the Muslim Brotherhood. With precious little ability to affect internal developments in Syria, Israel can only watch with apprehension as events unfold. Going forward, Israel may wish that it had as much power to influence Syria as Assad claims it does.