It is mind-boggling why the state whose policy is informed by undermining Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has -- twice in a decade -- thrown Hezbollah’s patron and main supporter, Syrian President Bashar Assad, a lifeline.
Nothing makes sense in the Israeli policy toward Assad. Starting in 2005, the Syrian president suffered international isolation resulting from the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In 2006, Hezbollah started a war against Israel, a war that lasted for 33 days and caused Lebanon horrible destruction. During that war, the party threw thousands of rockets on Israel, some of which had the imprint of Assad’s Syrian Army on them. That is to say, Assad not only facilitated arms shipments to Hezbollah but also provisioned the party with missiles from his own depots.
And yet, by 2008, Israel started conducting indirect peace talks with the Syrian president, presumably believing that peace with Syria would substantially weaken Iran and its protégé in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Assad exploited these talks to improve his international position. Jeffrey Feltman, the then U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East and Asia, said at a panel at the Hudson Institute that it was Israel that opened the door for Assad to get out of his international isolation.
Ten years later and after 106 chemical attacks against his own people, Assad is again isolated thanks to his brutal suppression of an uprising against over 45 years of the rule of the Assad dynasty. But with assistance from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, the Syrian dictator has managed to win back control over most of the Syrian land he had previously lost to his opponents.
In the middle of his indebtedness to Iran, which spent billions of dollars to shore Assad up by giving him military assistance, including instructing Hezbollah to fight alongside Assad’s forces, Israel thinks it can extract the Syrian autocrat from the claws of Iran and throw him in Russia’s lap. By doing so, Tel Aviv thinks it can divide and conquer the alliance between Iran, Assad and Hezbollah.
In an article posted on the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, Reservist Israeli Colonel Uri Halprin argued that there is no way U.S. Congress will normalize relations with Assad, which will starve his regime and prevent its access to the international aid it desperately needs to manage a razed-down Syria.
Without international assistance, Halprin sees a window of opportunity. He believes Israel should be involved in negotiations with the autocrat “in order to achieve a larger geostrategic goal.” Assad desperately needs money. America and Europe will never give it to him. Instead, Assad can sell parts of the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel occupies since 1967, to Israel. The Syrian president will get parts of these heights, but will relinquish the rest and ratify a peace treaty with Israel.
Such treaty, according to Halprin, will also resolve Israel’s dispute with Lebanon over the Shebaa Farms, adjacent to the Golan.
The Israeli officer argues that such a plan helps everyone win, except for Iran and Hezbollah, whose fighters Assad will expel from Syria. By undermining Iranian influence in Syria, Israel will benefit, and so will anti-Iranian Arab countries, first and foremost, Saudi Arabia. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon will benefit because fixing Syria, under Assad, will allow refugees to go back home, and hence lessen the social and economic burdens on these three countries. Europe, too, will benefit from a decrease in the number of applications from Syrian asylum seekers.
All nations benefiting from the Israeli plan, as spelled out by Halprin, will have to pitch in to pay for the land Israel intends to purchase from Assad, to the tunes of “tens of billions of dollars”. Perhaps the richer governments, such as in America, Europe and the Gulf, will have to cough up more than the rest, but the end result is clear: For agreeing to the Israeli blueprint, Assad will get to stay in power and will reap a windfall in the tens of billions of dollars that should allow him to stabilize and rule post-war Syria.
That Assad will show readiness to sit at the table and listen to the Israeli offer is certain. The embattled Syrian autocrat is bloodied, exhausted and broke. He lives in international isolation, and any Israeli effort at peace talks will, like in 2009, recast him as the sole ruler of Syria whom the world should deal with.
But whether Assad would accept the Israeli offer is the most uncertain part of the plan. Judging by Assad’s performance in the past, the Syrian dictator always used such settings to break his isolation. Once done, Assad exited whatever talks and rejoined his best allies, the Iranians and Hezbollah, in stirring trouble in the region and around the world. Why Israel believes that Assad will act differently, this time around, is mind-boggling.
Israel has come to the rescue of Assad, time and again. Maybe there is something the Israelis see in Assad that the rest of the Middle Easterners do not see. One thing is for sure: despite all the lifelines that Israel has thrown Assad before, Tel Aviv’s efforts have yet to bear fruit. Assad has always pocketed Israeli help, and persisted in his troubling behavior, which raises the question: How incompetent and misinformed are Israel’s foreign policy makers?
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