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Assad’s Olive Branch Can Bear No Fruit

According to an article in Time magazine this month, I am the central figure in some cockamamie plot to overthrow the Syrian government. The plan, apparently, is to undermine Bashar al-Assad’s regime through the ballot box, starting with the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2007.

But as every Syrian knows, these elections tend to be quite staged and inconsequential. Perhaps the American officials who concocted the classified plan for regime change believed they could make it appear more credible by assigning a primary role to a dissident like myself. No one, however, could exude the kind of aura needed to cover the naiveté of the proposed scheme.

If nothing else, this half-baked plot exposes how much the United States is struggling to develop a coherent policy toward Syria. Washington is clearly unable to grasp the reality on the ground, both in Syria and across the Middle East — and nowhere is this disconnect more visible than in the naive insistence, by the Iraq Study Group and others, on linking progress in Iraq to the revival of Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

If Israel returns the Golan Heights to Syria, the advocates of this line argue, the Assad regime will become more agreeable to helping the United States in Iraq and to reining in Hezbollah and Hamas. But little consideration is given, at least officially, to the fact that Assad may not be in a position to help achieve any of these things once the United Nations’ investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri is completed.

This open secret has led many to believe — with ample justification — that despite the Iraq Study Group’s emphasis on obliging Damascus to abide by all relevant U.N. resolutions, the Assad regime will ultimately be rewarded with a free pass on the Hariri assassination. Indeed, there is an implicit acknowledgement among all advocates of talks with Assad that the regime’s real interest lies more in killing the Hariri investigation than in retrieving the Golan. But since this matter cannot be acknowledged publicly by either Damascus or Washington, returning the Golan is made out to be a key to solving the region’s problems.

Why, some might ask, should Israel care about all this, if in the end it gets something out of the deal — such as the containment of Hezbollah and Hamas?

For one, it is not really clear that Damascus actually can deliver in this regard, seeing that the real financial backer here is Iran. So, unless the Assad regime suddenly becomes willing to turn against Iran, it is unlikely to cause a serious break in the flow of arms and funds to Lebanon and Gaza.

No matter how desirable this turnaround might seem in the eyes of American and Israeli policy-makers, it remains an unlikely course of action for Assad. The alliance between the two regimes dates back to the early days of the Iranian revolution, and the security and economic dimensions of the relationship have been developed for years.

Iran invests hundreds of millions of dollars in Syria, and annual bilateral trade tops a billion dollars. More importantly, Iranians have been able to heavily infiltrate the Syrian security apparatuses, to the point where Tehran has the ability to manipulate existing differences among different members of the Assad family. Today, Iran is both a security threat and a lucrative business partner to the Syrian regime — and both sides are well aware of it.

The fact that Iran has so much influence on the Assad regime likely means that Iranian concerns would filter into talks between Israel and Syria. Considering the nature of relations among Iran, Israel and the United States at the moment, it is not at all clear that diplomacy with Damascus would be productive.

And that’s not all that could hamper Damascus’s ability to achieve peace. There is the Assad regime’s growing nationalistic jingoism, as well as the fact that the ruling Alawites represent less than 10% of Syria’s population. And, of course, there’s the ongoing Hariri investigation.

This might mean that even if Damascus does agree to sit at the negotiating table — which itself is far from a given — discussions could drag on due to the Assad regime’s inability to commit to specific concessions. Any concession to Israel, or to the United States, would likely be held against the regime by its domestic critics, meaning that Assad would be hard pressed to settle for anything less than a perfect deal.

Indeed, it was just such an impossible quest that made then-president Hafez al-Assad — who was a far more credible and pragmatic leader than his son — walk out on talks with President Clinton in 2000. How reasonable, then, would it be to expect that the embattled Bashar Assad will accept what his respected and feared father could not? One need only look at how the younger Assad has tried to appropriate Hezbollah’s perceived victory in Lebanon to grasp that at this stage, he is more interested in burnishing his militant credentials than his diplomatic ones.

Yet even if Assad were to sign a peace treaty with Israel — which, again, seems rather hard to imagine at the moment — such a deal would almost certainly be viewed as tainted by most Syrians. Any concessions made to the Jewish state would be portrayed by critics of the regime as Assad preserving his power at the expense of the national interest.

What exactly this would mean for the future of Syria is hard to say, but one can get a pretty good idea by looking next door, in Iraq and in Lebanon. With communal lines being drawn ever darker, the minority Alawites’ rule in Syria is far from guaranteed.

As such, peace with Assad may not necessarily mean peace with Syria. Indeed, a peace treaty might not even outlive the regime. So unless Israel, the United States and the international community are willing to assume the role of protector, it is unlikely that peace with an Assad-ruled Syria will prove enduring. Syria cannot make peace with anybody, least of all Israel, until it first makes peace with itself.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian blogger and author, was forced into exile in 2005 for criticism of the Assad regime. He is founder of the Tharwa Foundation, an independent initiative focusing on diversity issues in the Middle East, and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

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