By Ameen Izzadeen
Syria is not a friend of Israel. Officially, the two countries are at war with a 1973 ceasefire contributing to the absence of conflict. While the ceasefire was on, Israel in 1981, in a blatant violation of international law, annexed the Golan Heights, a territory which Syria had lost to Israel in many wars between the Zionist state and its Arab neighbours.
Syria made no military attempt to take back the Golan Heights. It only made some half-hearted peace moves with Israel in the late 1990s but the process failed when the Zionist regime refused to compromise on the Golan Heights, a plateau of great strategic value, for it overlooks not only Syria but also Jordan and Lebanon.
A second peace attempt was made in 2008 with Turkey acting as a facilitator and it came months after an Israeli attack on a Syrian nuclear site.
As this Turkish-brokered indirect peace process made some early progress, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had told AFP that Damascus had received commitments for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan up to the June 4, 1967 border.
In separate statements, both Israel and Syria said they had declared their intent to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind, with the goal of reaching a comprehensive peace.
However, the talks broke down when Israel launched its war on the Gaza Strip in December 2008. Attempts by Turkey to revive the peace process failed with both Israel and Syria upping the ante, especially over the Golan Heights, amidst a war of words.
Syria accused Israel of avoiding peace and warned that it possessed advanced missiles capable of destroying Israeli cities while Israel said its military would defeat Syria in the event of a war and that President Bashar al Assad and his family would be forced from power. Israel’s hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieverman also advised Syria to forget any hopes of regaining the Golan Heights.
Israel’s interest in the present Syrian conflict focuses largely on two objectives: The Syria-Iranian relations and the Golan Heights. In the event the Assad government falls, Syria-Iran ties will crumble with the new Syrian regime – comprising the present Islamists-led opposition groups – leaning more towards Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two allies of the Untied States. However, there is little guarantee that the new regime – most probably an Islamic one – will compromise on the Golan Heights. Moreover the Sunni Islamists despite their aversion to Shiite Iran’s growing power, may be hostile to the US and Israel especially in view of the plight of the Palestinian people and civilian suffering in Pakistan and Afghanistan due to US military activities.
So Israel and its war crimes supporter, the US, face a dilemma. The question is how to rein in the Islamists.
Some in Israel feel it is better to live with the known devil – the Assad regime – than to let a group of jihadists or holy warriors to run Syria.
AFP last week quoted an Israeli military official as saying: “If the Assad regime will fall, the biggest threat is that the northern border, the no-man’s land, can be taken over by groups like al-Qaeda.” The fear is that the strategic plateau could slide into a situation similar to that in Sinai, where a wave of lawlessness has left the Egyptian army struggling powerless to rein in militant activity, the official who did not want to be identified said.
On the other hand, Israel stands to gain if the Assad regime falls, because such an outcome will orphan Hezbollah. The same AFP report said the ongoing bloodshed in Syria had also raised Israel’s fears that Damascus’s stockpile of sophisticated weapons could fall into the hands of militants, including Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006. Last month, Major General Yair Golan, head of the Israeli military’s northern command, said the concern was that Syria’s stockpile of strategic weapons, including “the world’s largest stockpile of chemical weapons,” could end up in Hezbollah’s hands.
However, in this dilemma over choosing between Assad and the Islamists, Israel sees greater benefits if the present regime falls, provided US allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia rein in the Islamists who are likely to be the new rulers. Such a turn of events will end the strategic ties between Syria and Iran and sever the umbilical cord connecting Tehran and Hezbollah.
But whoever is hoping for such an outcome should be aware it is fraught with danger as the entire region could explode into a major war with Iran and Hezbollah joining Assad’s forces.
Yet last week’s incidents have apparently put moves that could trigger a region-wide war on a fast track. The shooting down of a Turkish warplane by Syrian troops has heightened fears of such a war with unimaginable consequences.
Reports on Wednesday said the Turkish military had deployed tanks on the border with Syria while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that Damascus posed a serious threat to his country’s security.
Turkey has also allowed Syrian rebels to operate from its territory – another move that could provoke a Syrian military response. “We will not fall into the trap of warmongers,” Erdogan said, “but we will not stay silent in the face of an attack made against our plane in international airspace.” Turkey’s “wrath is fierce and intense when it needs to be,” he thundered as warmongers in the capitals of Nato nations applauded him.
Syria claims that the Phantom 4 aircraft violated its airspace while Turkey insists that it was shot down in international airspace but admits that the plane had briefly strayed into Syrian airspace.
Turkey has discussed the development with Nato leaders who condemned the Syrian action. As expected, missing in the condemnation is any mention of the Turkish provocation.
The Erdogan regime in Turkey was a friend of Syria, with close economic and military ties that saw many a joint military exercise between the two countries. But with the Arab Spring spreading into Syria, Turkey saw an opportunity to regain its pride or reinstate itself as the regional leader – a la Ottoman. Already the Erdogan regime has prevailed upon Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood whose candidate won the recent presidential election to moderate its hardline position. The Turkish moves aimed at giving political guidance to new Islamic rulers in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East have the backing of the United States and Saudi Arabia which, unfortunately, lacks the vision to give leadership to the Muslim world. The West favours Turkey because it feels that Ankara could check Iran’s influence in the Middle East. One wonders whether Erdogan’s anti-Israel stance, which is being hailed by the world Muslims, is aimed at reducing anti-Israel Shiite Iran’s popularity among the Sunni Muslims.
The United States knows that opposing democracy and democratically elected governments in the Middle East may not go well with its public image as promoter of democracy. However, it is no secret that it takes covert moves to prevent Islamists from coming to power. It is worth recalling here that the US spearheaded a campaign to financially cripple the Palestinian administration after the Islamists Hamas won the legislative elections and took control of governance in 2005.
The US finds the Turkish model – a government that remains loyal to the US and makes reasonable or judicious use of Islam in governance – as worth supporting. Egypt’s Islamists have adopted the Turkish model. So have the new rulers of Libya and possibly Syrian rebels if the Assad regime is ousted.
Thus the crisis in Syria has wheels within wheels with – Turkey, Israel, the US, other western nations, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab countries, especially Qatar seeking the ouster of Assad while Iran, Hezbollah and the Shiite-led government in Iraq together with Russia bolster the Syrian dictator with weapons, money and moral support.
Should we say that a global catastrophe is in the offing? The fact that such a conflict would take global oil prices to more than US$ 200 a barrel at a time when the western world is wilting under an economic recession is perhaps one factor that discourages the warmongers. The US elections and probably the uncertainty of the disastrous consequences of a military invasion or a regional war may be other factors that have put some brakes on the war party.
Meanwhile fighting is escalating in Syria with Assad declaring that the situation was a “real state of war from all angles”. Reports are emerging that the rebel ranks have been infiltrated by mercenaries who take orders from Washington, London, Doha and Riyadh and it may be these mercenaries who are said to be on a rampage killing the very civilians whom they say they want to protect from the Assad regime.