The War of Words: Syria and Israel

Israel and Syria broke off peace talks in December 2008. Could they now be heading towards war?

As the process for confirming the nomination of Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria rolls on, there is speculation that he will try to push Syria towards a peace with Israel.  Peace between the two-sides will not be easy.  Syria is demanding that Israel return Golan Heights as a precondition to talks and has said that it would prefer to use Turkey as an intermediary.  Israel has refused to give back the disputed area and says that Turkey would be biased and would prefer France as an intermediary or, even better, direct talks.  Ford will have a lot of work on his plate when he arrives in Damascus and I hope he has already started.  The talk of war between Lebanon and Israel has been rampant since the beginning of the year and rumors of a Syria-Israel war have been refusing to die as well.  In the last few days, the rhetoric from Tel Aviv and Damascus has been extraordinarily aggressive.

[tweetmeme] Joshua Landis is on board with the assumption that Ford will be trying hard to re-ignite peace talks with Israel.  If a peace could be found between the two, it would be very helpful in calming the threats that Israel feels.  Syria is linked to Iran and Hezbollah, meaning a peace with Syria would dull the other threats a bit.  Landis, on Ford’s task in Damascus:

Syrian officials have been led to understand that the return of a US ambassador is linked to Mitchell’s interest in jump starting the Syrian track of the peace process now that the Palestinian track has gone cold. The Syrians welcome the return of an Ambassador, which they have been pushing for for years. All the same, they fear that the Obama administration is interested in the Syrian track for purely strategic reasons. They worry that it is a gimmick and that Washington has no genuine faith that it can actually bring the process to a conclusion – certainly not one that satisfies Syria’s key request that the Golan be returned. After witnessing Obama’s Palestinian policy collapse and the Obama’s retreat from pressuring Israel on settlements, Syrian authorities are skeptical that Mitchell will have any more luck delivering on the Golan…

In short, the return of an ambassador is good, but playing along with a peace process that is long on process and short on peace will be difficult for Syria, which has none of the media savvy that Israel has. Damascus undoubtedly fears that Mitchell will ask Syrians to meet with Netanyahu without conditions. Syria believes this is tantamount to normalizing relations without any Israeli concession. This is what happened to the Saudis only months ago. They were asked to normalize relations with Israel as a good faith measure and prerequisite to getting the Palestinian track working. When the Saudis refused, claiming that they had already offered a viable peace plan and had won the willingness of every Muslim country to recognize Israel in the case of peace, Israelis and some US State Department officials blamed the Saudis for the collapse of the talks. Syrians worry that the same thing is about to happen to them. Washington, unable to get peace, will settle for process, the failure of which will ultimately be blamed on Syria. Syria does not want to be a Patsy.

Clearly there is a lot of mistrust between in Damascus, towards Tel Aviv and Washington.  Undoubtedly, the return of the US ambassador is a good thing.  Whether it leads to peace is questionable, particularly with the direct threats that have been heaved lately by both sides.  The fact that Israel will hold Lebanon and Syria responsible for aggressive actions by Hezbollah is not new.  However, both Damascus and Israel have brought the saber-rattling to a whole new level lately; even the US has gotten in on the action.

On Wednesday, both Syrian President Assad and FM Walid Moallem lashed out at Israel.  Assad said that “Israel is not serious about achieving peace since all facts point out that Israel is pushing the region towards war, not peace.”  Moallem went further, directly threatening Israel:

“Israel must stop being the neighborhood bully. Don’t test our determination,” Moallem said during a press conference in Damascus where Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos was also present. “One day you threaten Gaza, the next day you threaten Lebanon, then Iran and now Syria.”

Moallem warned that if a war between Syria and Israel breaks out, it would be “total and take place inside your cities.”

Moallem also warned that an ‘all-out war’ (to use Israeli DM Ehud Barak’s term) would render “peace negotiations being launched after such a war” impossible.

In response, the hawkish Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman warned that Syria would lose any war with Israel and that the Assad dynasty would also be overthrown:

“When there is another war, you will not just lose it, but you and your family will lose power,” he said, a day after Syria cautioned that Israel would face a bloody regional conflict if it failed to follow the path of peace.

“This must be our message because all that interests him is not human life, human values. The only value for him is power and that’s what must be targeted,” Lieberman said at a business conference broadcast on public radio.

Lieberman added, “I tell Assad and [Syrian Foreign Minister Walid] al-Moallem clearly – what was said yesterday marked a dramatic change of game, a direct threat on the State of Israel. I think that a line was crossed, and this cannot be tolerated.”

If the new ambassador to Syria is going to try to get peace talks back on track, he is going to have to build a lot of trust between Israel and Syria.  Such strong rhetoric from both sides makes you wonder what the actual damage is of removing an ambassador.  If the US had nominated an ambassador last year tasked to restore the prospects of peace, would the two sides being threatening each other this much?

Photo from Isralestine Blog

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