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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Is Syria ready for the ‘great bargain’?

Summary

  • The visit by Foreign Secretary David Miliband is the latest significant step in the return of Syria from international isolation. However, undue optimism regarding a possible Syrian turn toward the pro-western alliance in the region is probably misplaced.
  • The Syrians are likely to prefer to maintain their present stance of keeping communication open with all sides, while continuing their long practice of supporting paramilitary and terror organisations in neighbouring countries as a tool of policy. This practice has enabled Syria, a resource-poor, economically weak country, to “punch above its weight” in regional affairs, by depicting itself as the “conscience” of regional anti-western sentiment, which hence must be brought on board for any diplomatic process to succeed.
  • Despite this, the negotiations remain a matter of high importance for Israel. As a recent study by the Israeli defence establishment makes clear, Israel wants to explore every possibility of removing the Syrians from the pro-Iranian regional bloc, since such a move by the Syrians would constitute a very serious blow to this bloc.[1] Israeli assessments see the Syrians as “serious” in the talks, though doubt remains as to whether Syria will be willing to decisively break with Iran.
  • If there is any substance behind the rumours of a hoped-for ‘grand bargain’ in the region, of which the Miliband visit formed an early, exploratory part – then it should be borne in mind that formidable obstacles remain to the realisation of such a ‘bargain’, both in terms of the stances taken by regional actors such as Syria, and in terms of the greater strategic processes currently being played out in the region. 

Last week, Foreign Secretary David Miliband conducted an official visit to the Middle East, which included stops in Israel, the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon. Miliband’s 24-hour stay in Syria has attracted particular attention, and is being seen as the latest significant event in the return of Damascus from international isolation. Some analysts have detected in the Miliband visit to Damascus the opening moves in an ambitious, US-led regional diplomatic effort which will seek to address a number of regional conflicts simultaneously. This document will look into the background and key events of the Syria visit, and will seek to discern whether the visit was indeed the start of a major diplomatic move, and if so, whether such a move is likely to succeed.

The visit

Foreign Secretary Miliband’s visit to Syria was the first by a British cabinet minister to Damascus since 2001. At that time, Prime Minister Tony Blair conducted a visit, which was widely held to have confirmed fears that the new Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, was determined to maintain his country’s stance as a radical and rejectionist regional power.[2]

By contrast, Miliband’s visit was the latest in a series of events in the last months, which mark Syria’s emergence from the international isolation into which it has been cast since 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut. Hariri was a key figure in the opposition to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, and the Assad regime was widely suspected of involvement in the killing. A huge grass-roots campaign in Lebanon itself, and subsequent international pressure, forced the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and to US-led international sanctions against Damascus. Additionally, a UN tribunal was appointed to investigate the murder. The tribunal remains in existence, although it is generally considered less likely in the current climate that its investigation will result in the prosecution of senior members of the Assad regime, as Damascus had originally feared.

The Assad regime remained defiant in the following years. Many analysts blame Syria for a subsequent series of political murders in Lebanon. Syria also refused to budge on its open support for Hezbollah and for Palestinian terror groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and a number of smaller secular groups. Syria openly supported Hezbollah in the 2006 war with Israel.  The Syrian-Lebanese border remains the main route for the massive Hezbollah rearmament, which has taken place since the war – in contravention of UN Resolution 1701. There is now evidence that the Assad regime was secretly attempting to develop a nuclear capacity in this period, in direct contravention to its international commitments.

The stalemate between Syria and the west has now begun to thaw, however. The first move in this was the announcement of secret talks between Israel and Syria, encouraged and mediated by Turkey. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France then invited President Assad and his wife to Paris.  Assad was asked to stay for the 14 July celebrations – a clear indication that Syria’s period of isolation was ending.

The UK then also moved to re-establish top-level contacts with Damascus. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem visited London three weeks ago.[3] In mid-October, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Middle East Adviser Simon McDonald met with President Assad. The Miliband visit comes as British officials note what they regard as significant, positive alterations in Syrian behaviour. These include a tightening of the border with Iraq, and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Lebanon.

An important element not to be missed here is the aspect of British-French rivalry on this matter. There is a sense in which the British government wishes to play a pivotal role vis-à-vis Syria, and was “caught on the hop” by Sarkozy’s quick reestablishment of relations with Damascus. In this regard, the Miliband visit could be seen as making up for lost time, in an attempt by the British to place themselves at centre stage, in the weeks before the new US administration takes up this issue.

Answering reporters’ questions in Damascus, Foreign Secretary Miliband stressed that he saw the election of a new US administration as representing a “new opportunity for engagement by the US in the Middle East region.” He noted that Syria had the “opportunity to play a constructive role for peace in the region.” The Foreign Secretary also took the opportunity to make a veiled criticism of Syrian support for Hamas, by saying that in his view “Hamas violence hurts Syria,” since Syria says it is committed to a comprehensive regional peace.

Miliband’s 24-hour visit to Syria included a meeting with President Bashar Assad, and a visit to some of Damascus’s most famous landmarks, including the Umayyad Mosque. The foreign secretary avoided the question of Syrian support for Hezbollah.

Understanding the significance of the Miliband visit: a ‘grand bargain’?

Much media speculation has surrounded the Miliband visit to Syria – with many seeing the visit as part of a larger diplomatic effort in which western powers are seeking to ‘tempt’ Damascus from its current position as the sole Arab state in alliance with Iran. There are rumours of a possible early diplomatic move on the Middle East by the new Obama administration.[4] Such a move would attempt to address a series of key issues in the region – including the Iranian nuclear drive, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In such a scenario, Miliband’s visit to Syria was intended to “test the water” for such a major move, signalling British support for engagement with Syria, and enabling the foreign secretary to gauge Syria’s willingness to abandon its links to Teheran and support for terror groups.

If this scenario is correct, Israel’s indirect negotiations with Syria would of course have a key role to play. The chance of regaining the Golan Heights will be held out as the key incentive for Syria to abandon its links to Iran and join the pro-US alliance in the region.

However, if indeed plans are afoot for a “grand bargain” in the region, including the switching of Syria from a pro-Iranian to a pro-western stance, there are two major obstacles standing in the way of its success. The first relates to the behaviour and stances of the Syrian regime itself. The second relates to the broader regional situation.

With regard to the first issue, Syrian officials have continued to reiterate that their support for Hezbollah and Hamas and their relations with terror groups are not subjects for discussion, and cannot be linked to the negotiations with Israel. The latest senior Syrian official to express himself in this regard was Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal. Bilal, speaking to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, completely rejected any linkage, saying that as Syria does not bring Israel’s close relationship with the US into the negotiations, so Syria’s alliances would also not be discussed.[5] David Miliband’s criticism of Hamas while in Damascus indicates a British awareness of the seriousness and pivotal nature of this issue.

Syria’s actions with regard to the IAEA investigation into the nature of the site bombed by Israel in September 2007 also seem to militate against any sense that Damascus is adopting a more open and flexible stance. The IAEA last Wednesday announced that its investigations indicate that the bombed al-Kibar site had the characteristics of a nuclear reactor. Syria has denied this throughout. The report also found that the Syrians had engaged in extensive “landscaping” in the area in question since the attack. Syria has refused to allow IAEA investigators a second visit to the site and to three other sites – with Damascus citing the need to protect its “military secrets.” The IAEA report, which was leaked to Associated Press, finds that Syria has not yet “provided the requested documentation” to support its claim that the site was not being used for the construction of a nuclear reactor.[6] Following the report, Syria has said that no further visits by inspectors to the site will be permitted.

The latest developments regarding the suspected clandestine Syrian nuclear programme, and Syrian statements reiterating the determination to maintain links to Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups suggest that excessive optimism regarding an imminent Syrian “turn” to the west may well be premature. Mid-East analyst Fouad Ajami noted that Syria has been able to punch above its weight and maintain its position in the region in the past because of its “capacity for mischief.” This included an ability to maintain relations with opposing sides in regional conflicts, and a refusal to play by any rules in the area of military policy and strategy. This capacity has been on ready display in Lebanon and on the Syrian-Iraqi border in the past years and there are few unambiguous signs as yet that Syria is preparing for a comprehensive abandonment of this long-term approach, or of its close relations with Iran, which date back to the early 1980s.

The second reason for scepticism with regard to talk of a “grand bargain” relates to broader regional processes. There is a long-standing belief in many European diplomatic establishments that events in the Levant, and particularly Israel’s relations with its neighbours, form the ‘crucible’ of events in the Middle East, around which all else revolves. This belief notwithstanding, the incoming Obama administration is going face events of immense urgency and import elsewhere, which are likely to preclude undue focus on events in this area. The need to extricate US forces from Iraq, the Iranian nuclear threat, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and the very tense and fragile situation in Pakistan are likely to demand the attention of the Administration, and may well leave little time for a sustained focus on the Levant.

Issues further afield, including the world financial crisis and renewed tension with Russia are similarly liable to demand the urgent attention of the incoming administration. 

Conclusion

The visit by Foreign Secretary David Miliband is the latest significant step in the return of Syria from international isolation.  However, undue optimism regarding a possible Syrian turn toward the pro-western alliance in the region is probably misplaced. The Syrians appear likely to prefer to maintain their present stance of keeping communication open with all sides, while continuing their long practice of supporting paramilitary and terror organizations in neighbouring countries as a tool of policy.  If there is any substance behind the rumours of a hoped-for ‘grand bargain’ in the region, of which the Miliband visit formed an early, exploratory part – then it should be borne in mind that formidable obstacles remain to the realization of such a ‘bargain’, both in terms of the stances taken by regional actors such as Syria, and in terms of the greater strategic processes currently being played out in the region.  In this regard, it is the area further to the east – taking in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran – which is today the most combustible flashpoint in the region, rather than the traditional Arab-Israeli arena on the eastern Mediterranean. 


[1] Barak Ravid, “Defense establishment paper: Golan for Syria peace, plan for Iran strike,” Haaretz, 23 November 2008

[2] Ian Black, James Sturcke, “Miliband: Syria can kickstart Middle East peace process,” Guardian, 18 November 2008

[3] Ibid. 

[4] David Horovitz, “Toward a Grand Bargain,” Jerusalem Post, 23 November 2008

[5] Sawsan Abu-Hassin, “Syrian Information Minister to ‘Sharq al-Awsat’: Our relations with Iran and Turkey are a weapon in the service of the cause of Palestine,” Sharq al-Awsat, 22 November 2008 (Arabic)

[6] “Iranian site could have been nuclear reactor,” Associated Press, 20 November 2008