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How Syria Sees It.

Damascus being an Arab capital, The New York Times on July 26 noted, "all manner of conspiracy theories swirl". One theory the paper mentioned was that the Israelis were planning the assault for months due to a US attack on Iran's nuclear facilities set for October. The NYT said Israel and the US wanted "to take out any possible retaliatory capability beforehand...and...[Hizbullah] provided a convenient spark". But the paper said: "Ultimately though, Syria still hopes the crisis will provide an opportunity for it to reassert itself as an Arab capital that must be consulted, not one frozen out by Washington, particularly when it comes to Lebanese affairs. Moreover, being in the mix allows it to chase two essential Ba'thist goals - the spoken desire to regain the Golan Heights, and the unspoken desire to remain in power for a good long time by forging alliances that bring prosperity and development". Syrian political activist Muhammad Shahrour says: "The priority is to preserve the [Ba'thist/Bashar al-Assad] regime. The Golan will come later".

Driving south-west through the tomato fields and orchards outside Damascus, it is not long before the Golan Heights loom up off the plains, its peaks about 65 km away bristling with Israeli military antennae. Much as they dominate the geography, the Golan Heights have held centre stage in Syria's international and domestic political life for the nearly 40 years since they were lost to Israel in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The crisis in Lebanon is rooted in a sinister equation written by the Ba'thist dictatorship in the early 1970s by then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who later engineered a civil war in Lebanon. In return for military disengagement with Israel on the Golan Heights, brokered in 1974 by then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Syria could use southern Lebanon for a proxy war with the Jewish state. At first the Palestinian guerrillas of PLO leader Yasser Arafat were used on this new front on Syria's behalf.

The rationale in Damascus then was this: Ignore its fear of losing the Golan permanently, and it foments trouble. Placate Damascus, and it leashes the region's demons. South Lebanon was the preferred battlefield, and both sides stuck to the script calling for limited engagements.

From Assad's perspective, however, Arafat got too strong and his PLO became too independent in the subsequent years. So Assad sent Syrian troops to Lebanon in April 1976 to "protect" the Christians against a coalition of PLO and Lebanon's Muslim and leftist forces; and when Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, Assad ordered his troops to facilitate the advance of Jewish forces to Beirut and the eventual expulsion of the PLO guerrillas from Lebanon.

Yet Israel's 1982 invasion failed to recast the 1974 equation. While Israeli forces were advancing on Beirut, Lebanon's Ja'fari Shi'ite militants were invited to Damascus to found Hizbollah as an "Islamic resistance movement" sponsored by Iran - a Ja'fari theocracy which had a strategic alliance with the Ba'thist dictatorship soon after Imam Khomeini had come to power in Tehran in 1979. When Saddam Hussein started a war on the theocracy in late 1980, Iran and Syria had become close allies against the rival Ba'thist dictatorship of Baghdad.

The NYT on July 26 noted: "as the febrile war between Israel and Hizbullah across Lebanon slogs into its second week, there is a sudden queasy sense among analysts in Damascus that that old formula is dead, and the conflict will blaze on unabated while the players grope for a replacement. Even if asked, they say, Syria might have trouble tamping out the flames". The NYT quoted a Western ambassador in Damascus as saying: "The cards are being thrown in the air in a significant way and it's not clear how they will land. There may be a new strategic situation in the making because Israel does not have the overwhelming strategic superiority that it thought it had".

The basis of that new equation is Hizbullah's continued ability to land rockets deep inside Israel despite two weeks of punishing assaults, with plenty of indications suggesting it can fire for weeks if not months. Syrian officials are coy when queried how they might rein in Hizbullah, deflecting the question by saying all the problems in the Middle East could be solved through a comprehensive plan to end the Arab-Israeli dispute. But they hint broadly that Syria can deliver, arguing that the omission of Syria, Hizbullah and Iran from the international conference in Rome on July 26 rendered those discussions meaningless. The NYT quoted a Syrian official as saying: "I don't think there is any possible solution without Hizbullah and Syria being at the table. Any solution has to take into account the real force in the region. Syria and Hizbullah are a growing force, they are not getting weaker, they are getting stronger".

President Bush, Secretary Rice and other top US administration officials have said repeatedly that Syria can and should rein in Hizbullah, suggesting that maybe Washington's Arab allies can wean Damascus away from its alliance with both Iran and its militant Shi'ite offspring. The alliance with Tehran makes Syria feel stronger in the region - along with other factors, like the election of Hamas and Iraq's mess. But the alliance with Iran is not hugely popular in Damascus.

Prominent economist Samir Seifan compares Syria's alliance with Iran to a "pleasure marriage", a temporary union between a man and a woman which Shi'ites allow for instant gratification, adding: "The relation with Iran is the kind of relation created under pressure, when you close all doors in front of Syria". Noting how the US, the West and their Arab allies had all shunned Damascus for more than a year, he said: "This is the only door we have - Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran. But it is not in the long-term interests of Syria". Investments in the Syrian economy from rich Arab oil states, for example, have basically dried up. There is no sign of that discomfort changing, particularly since the people orchestrating the rent-a-crowd street demonstrations in Damascus push participants to chant against those Arab rulerss who have criticised Hizbullah. "Abdullah, you pig, tomorrow we will drag you in chains", went one recent rhyming refrain, referring to the king of Jordan. Another suggested that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was a lowly real estate broker who should be dumped. Indeed, with each passing day the sight of an Arab force striking Israel with rockets makes Hizbullah increasingly popular across the region and thus more costly to restrain.

Given Washington's chilly approach to Damascus, with no promise of anything for co-operating, it is not clear why Syria would want to squash Hizbullah. The NYT quoted the Western ambassador as saying of the Ba'thist regime: "Essentially you are asking them to connive in their own demise. Persuading Hizbullah to commit hara-kiri doesn't make sense from Syria's point of view. It would mean the loss of their number one card, not only in Lebanon, but with Israel". In terms of suggestions that Syria should step on the weapons pipeline, The NYT added, "numerous diplomats and Syrian analysts say that in any case Damascus would probably not dare risk an Israeli strike here by helping resupply at this juncture".

Hizbullah is believed to have enough of the 13,000 rockets it announced were in its arsenal in 2005 to keep going for a couple of months. The consensus in Damascus is that Iran, Syria and Hizbullah were all taken aback by the ferocity of Israel's response to the July 12 capture of two soldiers. Similar operations had prompted prisoner exchanges in the past.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jul 31, 2006
Words:1270
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