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by Curtis F. Jones*

Meeting the Israeli danger

THE PRIMARY THREAT COMES FROM Israel, the preeminent military power in the Middle East and the enemy of Arab unity and those who profess it. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) defeated the Syrian forces in 1948, 1967, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 1967 Israel took over 4OO square miles of strategic Syrian territory, the Golan Heights, annexing it in 1981. During its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israel attacked Syrian forces deployed in defensive positions in the south-central region of the country and drove them north almost to the Beirut-Damascus highway before the Syrians managed to check the Israeli advance. Israeli jets routinely sweep the skies clear of Syrian aircraft at minimal cost to themselves.

The Israeli venture in Lebanon ended in disaster, but a new cause for Syrian alarm now is the military accord between Israel and Turkey, whose navies held a small joint exercise with units of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in 1998. Syria has no ally against this formidable combine other than Iran — unless their common plight drives Syria and Iraq toward reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Israel rests in the Golan. The breakdown of U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Syria and Israel has been explained in two contradictory ways. Dominant in American commentary is the view that Prime Minister Rabin and successors have offered to return most of the Golan if Syria will normalize relations, but that Asad was too inflexible or too paranoid to accept. Syrian expert Patrick Seale has concluded (Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter Issue, 2000) that the “Rabin deposit” was a hypocritical ploy in the ongoing Israeli strategy of simultaneously blunting Syrian and Palestinian demands by playing those two parties off against each other. For this writer, Asad’s inherent pragmatism, the Golan’s crucial value to Israel, and the risks of alienating Washington that Israel ran during the occupation of the territory in 1967 all add up to persuasive corroboration of the Seale thesis.

Three Arab rulers of recent memory suffered crushing defeat at the hands of the Israeli-American combine. Saddam brought his 1991 defeat on himself. Nasir’s convoluted strategy — still inexplicable to many — led to his defeat in 1967.

Asad’s war record stands up to examination somewhat better. In 1967, as a young and inexperienced minister of defense, be was unable to stem the tide of Israeli expansion. In 1970, he was quick to recognize that sending Syrian ground troops into Jordan in an effort to prevent King Husayn from expelling the forces of the PLO was a mistake. He had the sense to withhold the vulnerable Syrian air force and to withdraw the ground troops as soon as Sixth Fleet units headed for the eastern Mediterranean and Israel began to mobilize.

Thirteen years later, Asad turned the tables. In orchestrating an agreement on May 17, 1983, designed to salvage Israeli supremacy in Lebanon, Secretary of State George Shultz made the error of trying to shut the Syrians out. Within months Lebanon repudiated the agreement and Syria went on to establish the dominant position in Lebanon it maintains today.

Staying in power

The fall of the Shukri Quwwatli presidency in 1949 was followed by a rapid succession of military coups in which the ranking military officers, all members of the preponderant Sunni sect of Islam, knocked each other out of power, with an unexpected result — the takeover of the lowly Alawites, a quasi-Muslim sect. The precipitating event was the Baathist takeover of February 1963 in Baghdad. One month later, inspirited by the success of their Iraqi confederates, an Alawite triumvirate participated in an Arab-Nationalist takeover in Damascus. By February 1966, the Nasirist faction and one member of the triumvirate had been eliminated and Asad had emerged as a cabinet minister under the rule of the other surviving triumvir, Salah Jadid.

In time Asad, the pragmatist, clashed with Jadid, the ideologue, and on November 12, 1970, Jadid disappeared into a Syrian prison. Asad went on to rule with an iron hand for thirty years. This clearly was a noteworthy achievement for a member of a disdained community that numbers only ten percent of the population in a country that had experienced some twelve violent changes of leadership since the French were forced out in 1945.

The future?

This stormy postwar history of Syria goes far to explain the hurried effort to effect the transition from Hafiz to his son Bashar before rival contenders could frustrate the enterprise. Hafez’s brother Rif’at, a potential claimant to power, seems to have been neutralized by years of exile. Sunni fundamentalists were weakened by the 1982 Hamah massacre. The Alawite leadership has always preserved the appearance, and perhaps the fact, of sectarian concert by reserving high government positions for Sunnis, but some of Hafiz’s longtime Sunni confederates were lately ousted on charges of corruption.

So Asad’s succession has been arranged. But the political future of Syria without its leader of three decades is no more predictable than the political futures of its neighbors Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Palestine — and Israel.  


*Curtis Jones was a career U.S. diplomat from 1946 to 1975, serving at nine posts abroad as well as in senior positions in the Department of State. A member of the board of American Diplomacy’s parent organization, American Diplomacy Publishers, he is a frequent contributor to the journal. ~ Ed.

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