In the last two or three years, a number of old arguments regarding Syria have again become fashionable. One of them is that peace with Syria is not only “there to be had”, but that it may lead to drastic changes in Syrian behavior, in turn altering regional dynamics for the better. However, in several recent interviews, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made statements that paint a very different picture.
In his comments, Assad clarified exactly what he meant by “peace” with Israel, and it bore no resemblance to the rosy scenarios painted by the “peace processors.” In fact, the president raised serious questions about the value of any such deal altogether.
In a recent interview with the Emirati newspaper Al-Khaleej, Assad made a remarkable – and indeed unprecedented – comment about what his concept of “peace” with Israel was. “A peace agreement,” he said, “is a piece of paper you sign. This does not mean trade and normal relations, or borders, or otherwise.”
The long-held view among people dealing with the negotiating track between Syria and Israel is that a peace deal will lead to a normalization of relations between the two countries. That was the purported basis of their talks during the 1990s. In recent years, another element was added to the argument, namely that a peace deal would distance Syria from Iran and allied militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, so that Damascus might even put pressure on Hamas itself to accept peace talks with Israel. This ambitious theory was dubbed “strategic reorientation”, and it has become the basis for conceptualizing engagement of Syria today.
However, the implications of Assad’s statement to Al-Khaleej should lead to a reassessment of the Syrian-Israeli track. Assad has now articulated what he had strongly implied for years.
In 2002, at the Arab League summit in Beirut, Assad led a strenuous effort to torpedo the formula put forward by Saudi Arabia’s then-crown prince, Abdullah, which offered Israel “full normalization for full withdrawal.” Assad rejected the term “normalization” and in the end a compromise was reached on watered-down language proposing only “normal ties”.
Then last July, Assad went further, telling the Qatari satellite station Al-Jazeera that from the Syrian point of view, “the word ‘normalization’ does not exist.” He insisted that it was a Western concoction that Syria rejected. Instead, Assad used an even more downgraded term, namely “average relations”, whose Arabic root removes any link to the word “normal.” The late Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, also told interlocutors during the 1990s that he did not accept the word “normalization.” Now, with his son’s declarations, the regime’s position can be summarized in three No’s: No normalization, no trade and no borders, by which Assad presumably meant no open borders.
What about Syria’s “strategic reorientation” away from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah? Assad has been very clear on that as well. In a recent exchange with the American journalist Seymour Hersh, Assad said that Israel and the United States should not “waste time talking about who is going to send arms to Hezbollah or Hamas. Whenever you have resistance in the region, they will have armaments somehow. It is very simple.”
In other words, Assad intends to maintain his military support for these groups regardless of engagement with Syria. This undercuts the main claim of the peace processors of how an opening to Damascus might affect Syrian relations with Hezbollah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad. At best, Assad was admitting to his inability to halt arms supplies. At worst, he confessed that he intended to pursue active armament. This is precisely what Assad meant when he said, “resistance and peace form a single axis.”
What about Iran? Assad rejected that relations with Tehran were in any way part of the discussion. “It is not part of the peace process,” he told Hersh. Therefore, Assad’s “peace” involves no change in Syria’s regional posture and alliances, or its support for proxy warfare against Israel. “This peace is about peace between Syria and Israel,” Assad told Hersh. Meaning, you can forget the nonsense about “strategic reorientation.”
If this is Assad’s understanding of peace (or as the Syrians define it, “the restoration of rights in full”), what remains of the argument of those who read too much into Syrian-Israeli negotiations? Hasn’t Assad validated the old adage that peace with Syria is not worth the paper it’s written on?
When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided to change his country’s foreign policy, he broke with the Soviet Union years before finalizing his peace agreement with Israel, and he traveled to Jerusalem before signing the treaty. Sadat went ahead without any of the conditions imposed by Assad today, and without the excuses and exceptions that supporters of Syrian-Israeli negotiations offer on the Syrians’ behalf. Egypt was then the leader of the Arab world. Assad heads a country far less important in the Middle East, one that is often no more than a spoiler and should not be afforded disproportionate significance or unwarranted exceptionalism.