Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Creating a Syrian Dream

The Daily Star in Lebanon printed an opinion piece of mine today entitled: "Creating a Syrian dream, where none exists today." It begins:

Following on the heels of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's visit to Damascus last weekend, it is worth asking: What does Syria want in Iraq? ...

Syria opposed the US invasion of Iraq for obvious reasons. Washington's anti-Baathist crusade was a direct threat to the Syrian regime. Syria was doubtlessly relieved to see the Iraqis stop the American juggernaut. With 5,000 Americans killed or wounded by the Iraqi resistance, early US dreams of remaking the Middle East through regime change have evaporated.

The sooner Washington adjusts to these new realities by downsizing its ambitions, the better it will be for Iraq. One thing it can do is hammer out a new relationship with Damascus, even as Syrian President Bashar Assad has courted the US.
I received the following comment on my article from Lee Smith, who writes for The American Prospect, Slate and Wired Magazines and is writing a book on Arab Culture to be published by Scribner. After the obligatory: "Josh, nice piece." (We have become friends through Tony Badran since I began writing Syria Comment.) He ribbed me on one of the points I made about Lebanon and Syria:
I have a question: if Asad says he'll leave Lebanon
once Israel gives up the Golan, does this mean that
Syria will never leave Lebanon? Also, why would he
leave Lebanon (esp giving up Beirut and the Bekaa?)
for territory that is probably much less valuable than
it, not just economically but also strategically?

I answered:

Of course, it will be hard for the Lebanese to get Syria out of their country. Who would want to leave such a beautiful place? On the other hand, the fact that Asad has repeated many times now that Syria has no national or territorial ambitions in Lebanon is significant. For so long, Syria has dissembled on this question, but now it is on the record from the president, so the Lebanese, Israelis, and everyone else can use it against Syria if there is ever a Golan deal or if Israel finally renounces the possibility of giving up the Golan.

Will there ever be a Golan deal? You are probably right to be pessimistic, or, at the very least, to point out that it is not on the horizon. But from a Syrian point of view, if there is any hope of a Golan deal, it is only because of the Lebanon - Hezbollah cards Syria still holds. If these should fall from Syrian hands, there will certainly be no deal.

Both Barak and Netanyahu recently talked about how they were "ready" to make a deal under Clinton if the terms had been right. That was one of the more interesting exchanges to come out of the Clinton memoirs. Maybe the idea is not dead. It won't happen under Sharon, who said as much, but Israel is going through a period of change. It would be foolish for Asad to give up hope. Moreover, it would be political suicide for him to abandon the Golanis and the Golan.

One needs to remember there are several hundred thousand displaced Golanis in Syria. 100,000 were given 48 hours to leave in 1967. Today they and their descendents must exceed 3 hundred thousand. When I lived in Damascus in the 1980s, at least once a month some poor woman with an infant suckling at her breast would knock at my door to ask for money and say she was a Golani refugee and couldn't I help. My Arabic wasn't good enough then to be able to distinguish a Golani accent from a Damascene one, but I assume they were telling the truth. It is not a dead issue in Syria, nor, perhaps in Israel, either.

For the Golani Druze who were allowed to remain in their homes, the question of return is much more complex. Many would be destroyed economically by a return to Syria, but almost all have refused Israeli citizenship in case they are returned. Some want a return despite the economic hardship and disruption such a change would bring because they have been cut off from relatives and the greater Druze community in Syria and Lebanon. Most of the Golanis I have talked to do not want to be returned to Syria, at least not under the present circumstances (terrible economy and lack of political freedom). All the same, none I have talked to believe they will ever be treated as equals by Israel and worry that settlers will continue to encroach on their land and autonomy.

For the 60% of Lebanese who recently told opinion pollers that they want the Syrians to leave Lebanon now, the Syrian occupation is unfair and intolerable. Lebanon is still a hostage to regional politics.

The just solution is for a Syrian-Israeli-Lebanese deal. As Lee suggests, though, the realistic outcome is that things will stay as they are. Alas, for Lebanese and Syrians.

Lee Smith follows up:
I think you must be right on much of it depending on Hizbullah. Assuming they're in the picture, if I were Asad I'd be pretty happy with the status quo, at least militarily. What sort of outrageous stunt would he have to pull to get Israeli troops to come across the Golan? That is, it seems he has a whole bunch of political insurance against a strike like that; Israel seems to have much less. I wonder what the various estimates from Israeli military intelligence have been, if anyone there, rather than an elected Israeli leader under pressure from the US and EU, ever thought the Golan could be given up without serious risk. I don't know much about it at all, but just looking at the terrain--and weirdly I have a picture of it from a trip to Umm Qays in Jordan--I don't know how I'd be persuaded to give it up. And back, sort of, to the first point, wouldn't the Golan be worthwhile to Asad only if he was ready for a pretty major offensive? And with Lebanon he can peck away at Israel for ages with relative impunity. So, just in military--I guess also political--terms, why would he make such a swap? Of course, it's silly of me to imagine land and refugee and prestige issues can be separated that clearly, but it seems there's already been a fair amount of calculation on the part of the Asad family. It seems like what the State Dept called "constructive engagement" might have translated for the Syrians into something like their version of brer rabbit in the brer patch.
yrs, Lee


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