Just as Syria’s symbolic power peaked, however, it was weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were signs that Syria would switch sides. Syria supported the United States in the 1990-1991 Gulf War and hinted when it first negotiated with Israel directly at the 1991 Madrid conference that it would make peace in exchange for the return of the Golan Heights. In 1992, as a sign of good will, Assad agreed to allow Syria’s remaining 4,000 Jews to leave the country. The Clinton Administration hoped that an Israeli-Syrian peace would isolate Iran and lead to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. At Camp David in 2000, the Israelis and Syrians came close but didn’t manage to close the deal.
Now there is new talk of a Syrian re-alignment. Bashar Assad and the country’s ruling elite are increasingly insecure: Syria, under stringent Western sanctions, remains one of the Middle East’s poorest countries, and an influx of more than a million Iraqi refugees has further burdened its struggling economy. During Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon. For the first time in decades, Sunni extremists pose a serious threat: In the most recent attack in September, a bomb exploding near a Shi’ite shrine in Damascus killed 17 people.
Last May, to the surprise of just about everyone and to the chagrin of the Bush Administration, indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria took place for the first time in eight years; Turkey mediated. With President Barack Obama’s team reportedly ready to change American policy toward Syria and support, even facilitate, peace talks, Moment asks eight veteran Syria-watchers to weigh in. They tell us why Syria matters and whether or not they believe peace is possible between Syria and Israel.—Jeremy Gillick
Andrew Tabler, former editor of the Syrian English-language paper Syria Today, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Damascus and Washington, DC
Does Syria matter?
Yes. The U.S. will be withdrawing from Iraq and will need support from neighboring countries, especially on border security. Foreign fighters who have come in through Syria over the past five years have carried out some of the most spectacular attacks on coalition forces and civilians in Iraq. The other reason is the peace process, because many in Israel now seek negotiations with Syria to deal with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Is peace possible?
Syria is run by a minority regime that justifies its grip on power by opposing Israel, so a final deal has a catch for the regime. A peace deal would significantly change the rationale for the emergency law and the way the country is ruled. Also, Bashar became much more popular by supporting Hezbollah during the 2006 war, and he’s gotten much support by allowing Hamas and Islamic Jihad to have offices in Damascus. Giving this up would be hard. On the other hand, peace would be an incentive if it would lead to Syria’s receiving large amounts of western investment, although it would be very difficult for western companies to invest effectively in Syria. First, it’s one of the most corrupt countries in the Arab world. Second, the surge in Iraq pushed foreign fighters into Syria. These well-trained and radicalized fighters might turn their attention to the Assad regime. Third, Syria estimates that it has 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and it has been saying that in a stable Iraq, these people could return home. So Syria might have something to gain in talks in the months ahead.