Itamar Rabinovich participated in the "Security in the Middle-East" conference organized by the Polish Institute of International Affairs, where he held a lecture during the "Arab-Israeli Conflict" panel
Below is the transcript from the conference and post-script comments:
Thank you Patrycja. Thank you all for being here. I’d like to speak about what we used to call the Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli complex. This relationship is indeed complex in more ways than one. Let me say as an opening comment that if Mr. Samir Altaqi, who originally accepted to be here, would have sat with us this morning, he would have been very unhappy at the way the first session went because people do tend to equate the Arab-Israeli peace process with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the issue of Syria's role in it seems to have been put on the side. And of course Syria, which regards itself as a key player in the Arab world and in the region, in its own view of the peace process should have been the first to achieve a deal in the 1990's and it's not even the second and may not be the third. So they're very unhappy with this state of affairs.
I mentioned three countries but actually in dealing with this set of issues there are at least five major actors: Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the United States and Iran. This does not quite exhaust the list because there are other players like the Palestinians, and even what is known as the global jihad. Sometimes when a Katyusha rocket lands in northern Israel it's not the work of Hezbollah but of what we call global jihad or a marginal Palestinian organization. Earlier when there was a vicious fighting between the Lebanese army and armed elements in Palestinian refugee camps in North Lebanon, again these were elements of the global jihad. And while Syria is supportive of Hezbollah in Lebanon it is not at all supportive of radical Sunni Muslims such as the ones that were active in North Lebanon because the most ferocious opposition to the Ba’ath regime in Syria does come from the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni fundamentalist organization. So how are these five major actors looking at the situation? And how are they acting?
Let's begin with the United Sates. President Obama came into office with a very ambitious agenda, an agenda of “engagements” with hostile political actors on the international scene hoping to transform the hostile relationship between the United States and the Bush administration and the Muslim and Arab worlds. He specifically used the term “to engage” with both Iran and Syria, actually taking the recommendation of the Hamilton-Baker report, determined to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process. Of course when he was consulting with the experts during the campaign and during the transition and the early months of the administration he was told that there are a number of alternatives when approaching a resumption of the Arab-Israeli peace process. You could try and resume both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks at the same time or you could sequence them. And if you sequence them, you could start either with the Syrians or the Palestinians and he was told that actually it's easier, and could be a quicker fix, to try to seek an Israeli-Syrian deal. The Israeli-Syrian conflict is simpler than the Israeli-Palestinian one - it is not a national conflict, it is essentially now a territorial conflict. In Syria you have one authoritative government. The same logic that made the Israeli-Syrian track so appealing to the Clinton administration would make it appealing to the Obama administration. I know that there were several Middle East experts in Washington who were arguing along this line. Others argued that while all this may be true, this was not the important track. The important track was the Palestinian one because the Arab world and the Muslim world think about the Palestinian issue, identify with the Palestinian issue, feel pain when events like the Gaza war take place. And if the United States really wants to improve its relationship with the world of Islam and the Arab world the road is through the Palestinian track and not through the Syrian track; Furthermore, quite a few in the Middle East are not terribly fond of the Syrian regime, which takes me to the next point.
The Syrian issue cannot be divorced from the Iranian issue, Syria being Iran's closest ally. It is the land bridge that has given Iran access to the core area of the Middle East and enabled Iran to leapfrog into the Arab-Israeli part of the Middle East, and now in a way to establish two bases on the Mediterranean – in Lebanon through Hezbollah and in Gaza through Hamas. And a word about Iran. We began yesterday informally with some of the participants over dinner to discuss the issue and we have an Iranian participant here. I think he said correctly that Iran wants to deal with the United States and wants the United States to deal with itself. It is looking for bargaining chips, looking for cards, assets in negotiations. Clearly having influence over the Arab-Israeli issue, being able to ignite the Arab-Israeli issue at any point through the Lebanese border or through Gaza - these are very powerful assets in the hands of Iran. I'd like to distinguish here between two phases. I think that in the first phase, when we had an authentic revolution, like every other great revolution – the French Revolution in the late 18th century and the Russian revolution early in the 20th century – The revolution seeks to export itself; it's in the laws of revolution. The Iranian revolution wanted to export itself. The one place where it was successful was Lebanon where the Shiite community is the single largest community in the system and underprivileged historically and under-represented in power today. It was a natural constituency for the Iranian revolution and Hezbollah is a manifestation of that. Iran has had a strategic partnership with Syria since 1979. It was a partnership of equals until 2000 and since Bashar al-Asad became the president of Syria it has become more of a patron-client relationship with Iran being the patron and Syria more and more the client.
So, if the United States wants to engage with both Iran and Syria, how is it going to go about it? Is it going to engage with Iran first, the more senior partner, and then the relationship with Syria is going to be derivative of the dialogue and engagement with the senior partner? Or is it going to try to snatch Syria away from Iranian influence and in that way transform the strategic balance in the region? It would be in a way a repetition of what Kissinger was able to do with Egypt when he snatched Egypt away from the Soviet Union in the early seventies, which was probably the greatest diplomatic coup of the Cold War, certainly of the Cold War in the Middle East. And again we have heard voices either arguing this approach or that approach in Washington. As we know the Obama administration has been trying to signal to Iran, began to talk to Tehran - not very effectively until now but it has begun – and has also been talking to Syria as Patrycja just mentioned. We hear about improvement in the relationship, possibly the return of the ambassador to Damascus. It has been a very slow and painful process began with trips by mid-level officials: Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, the Assistant Secretary for the Near East, who is not a Syrian favourite. [By the way, the name is Feltman with the T not the D and I should say he's not Jewish but that's not the issue.] The issue is that he was ambassador to Lebanon and stood up to the Syrians when he was ambassador in Lebanon. So he's not a favourite in Damascus. Also Dan Shapiro from the National Security Council who is Jewish and I don't know how the Syrians responded to all of this. And then of course Mitchell went to Damascus. It's been a painfully slow and difficult process.
The Asad dynasty is not like Sadat. Sadat was a leader who took big decisions and implemented them vigorously and courageously and when he decided to switch alliances he just did it. He jumped off the Soviet bandwagon before he was assured a seat on the American bandwagon. The Asads are different. The Asads would like to see the seat, to know what the number of the seat is on the bandwagon and what exactly it entails, how much it costs and what it pays before they may jump off the Iranian bandwagon. And so the policy of beginning conversation with Iran and beginning conversation with Syria has been very slow. The Syrians have also essentially been told by the Americans: “we have a very complex agenda” – not just the Golan Heights and Israel, there is Iraq where Syria has been the gateway of the Sunni insurrection and there is Lebanon. And I'd like to point to a big change and I am sure Mr. Goksel will speak about it later. In the 1990's the Clinton administration did not basically care about Lebanon. It was willing to see Lebanon as continuing to be under Syrian hegemony. Part of the deal that we envisaged with Syria in the 1990's would be an extension of Syria's hegemony in Lebanon. This changed under President Bush who made Lebanese democracy one of his achievements. The 2005 elections, then the assassination of Hariri became big issues in Washington. And to a considerable extent this has been continued by the Obama administration. So now Lebanese sovereignty and Lebanese democracy certainly are American policy goals and policy interests and that compounds the negotiations with Syria. And of course there is the Syrian-Iranian relationship.
Now, the Syrian-Iranian relationship is not all that simple. I described Syria as the lesser partner in that relationship. Not all Syrians are happy at the sight. Hezbollah until 2000 was mainly an instrument of Iranian policy but it was also under Syrian influence. Hafez al-Asad, the father, never met Hasan Nasrallah, while Bashar al-Asad adores Hasan Nasrallah and met him several times. Hezbollah is a very difficult organization to understand. It is at one and the same time a genuine political party, a militia, a terrorist organization and an instrument of Iranian policy. And when you deal with Hezbollah you have to figure out what exactly it is at that moment when you are dealing with that organization. Not a simple proposition at all. And of course the underlying issues of what the Lebanese state is, what the Lebanese political community is, have yet to be resolved. Lebanon was a very impressive political entity until the civil war of 1975. The only state in the Middle East based on a pluralistic political arrangement that recognizes the fact that there is no Lebanese nation, that people's ultimate allegiance is given to their religious communities. It's called consociational democracy. Political power is based on power sharing between these communities. That broke down in 1975 and has not been fully fixed yet. Some anomalies are still maintained: the President is still a Maronite Christian although the Maronites no longer have the position that they used to have and the Christians for long time have not had the majority in the country, and so forth, and so forth. Lebanon continues to be a very fragile place. It's very good that they will now have a government but we have to remember that Hezbollah can rock the boat at any given moment. So Prime Minister Hariri will live under the gun of Hezbollah, and behind and beyond Hezbollah, both Iran and Syria are lurking.
So far I mentioned the United States, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Let's talk a moment about Israel and the Netanyahu government. For Netanyahu right now – I'd like to emphasize right now – resuming negotiations with Syria is not an option. He has a right-wing government. He has still a large majority but that could change. He's very preoccupied with his own political survival. Let us remember that he is the head of a party with 27 seats out of 120 as the basis of coalition and he does not control safely his own party. The Likud caucus includes several right-wingers that he can not count on. And if he needs to deal with a peace process, he prefers the Palestinian track to the Syrian one, even more so when the Americans have the same preference. So, all the traffic can bear at this point, I underline at this point, is one issue and it is the Palestinian issue, it's not the Syrian issue. From the Netanyahu point of view this issue, if at all, is for later. Now I'd like to remind us all that in his first term more than ten years ago he did implement a withdrawal from Hebron and he did sign the Wye Plantation agreement with the Palestinians over another 13 percent of the West Bank. But he also negotiated with Syria indirectly through an American businessman Ronald Lauder. He did convey through Lauder the same hypothetical willingness to withdraw from the Golan that 3 other Israeli prime ministers did. He denies it. General Danny Yatom has now published a book in Israel in which he not only contradicts him but also provides a text of the paper conveyed through Mr. Lauder to the Syrians. But this is immaterial, that was ten years ago. The relevant point is that at some point – if negotiations with the Palestinians are not very successful or if it turns out we are not really going for a final status agreement with the Palestinians but for something less ambitious than that – then the traffic can bear more than that and then negotiations with Syria could be politically viable from Netanyahu's point of view. Not right now, but later. Both from Washington's and from Jerusalem's point of view this is an issue to be postponed, what has been called “a track in waiting”. We speak about negotiating tracks, and the Palestinian track has the preference and the Syrian track is “a track in waiting”.
Very briefly, with regard to Lebanon itself, there will have to be a negotiation. There should be a negotiation at some point but we know that the Lebanese government is not a free agent and that it needs to be given the green light first of all by Syria and by Iran. As for Iran, hopefully we will have an engagement. I belong to those who believe that a grand bargain between the United States and Tehran may be feasible. It certainly should be tried. If it is being pursued and tried Lebanon is one of the issues that would be on the table and the United States would insist that Lebanon deserves to have its sovereignty and democracy. Then this would be one of the testing points for Iranian intentions. If this is a regime that wants to deal and is just looking for a better deal then you collect the bargaining chips and you have to use them at some point. If you end up not using the bargaining chips then clearly the conclusion is that you're not interested in making the deal.
To conclude, I don't see any time soon – say the next year or so – active diplomacy with regard to Syria and Lebanon that is involving Israel. I do see the potential for violence. I think that Hezbollah right now is still under the impact of the 2006 war and because Iran is not interested in opening a front right now, it is probably not going to launch any time soon anything similar to what it did in 2006. Israel is certainly not interested in another war in Lebanon. It's not very likely but one of the many issues which remain open keep the Lebanese-Israeli relationship as a powder keg and any match could ignite the fire in Lebanon or along the Israeli-Lebanese border. In indirect diplomacy, in the American conversation with Iran, in the American conversation with Syria, in EU conversations with Iran and Syria, both the Golan issue and the Lebanese issues are going to be major issues. And Syria will just make sure that the Golan is not forgotten, that the world or the actors on the international scene would be reminded that postponing, let alone neglecting, the Golan issue is just not acceptable from Syria's point of view and that Syria has enough tools in its arsenal to remind Israel, the United Sates and the rest of the world that it is there.
In recent weeks two major developments have taken place:
1. Syria has continued to improve its regional and international position. It now tends to present its collaboration with Iran and Turkey as a new block, enjoying considerable influence in the Middle-East. It was finally offered an association agreement with the European Union, which it rejected because of the limitations inherent in it. It has hosted several major Middle-Eastern and European leaders, and as detailed below, has also improved its dialogue with the United States.
2. The improvement in the American-Syrian dialogue was marked by Washington's decision to send a new ambassador to Damascus, whence it recalled its ambassador in 2005, in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, and by the visit of Under Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, to Damascus. This visit marks another important development and emphasis laid by both parties on their bilateral relationship, dealing with such issues as infiltrations to Iraq, Lebanese politics, and, most important from Syria's perspective, easing sanctions imposed during the Bush years. This does not mean that the Golan issue has been taken off the agenda, but it does mean that both parties decided that they can and should proceed in the improvement of their give and take, regardless of progress in the efforts to revive the Syrian-Israeli peace process. This, however, does not mean that the Syrians have given up on this issue. It only means that they are willing to wait for sometime, and deal in the meantime with other issues of importance to them.