Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Syria War Or US-Iranian Negotiation?

By Walid Choucair
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 20/05/2011

When Palestinian young people broached the fence that divides Syria and the occupied Golan Heights last Sunday, one of them – Hussein Hijazi (among others) – reached the Golan. There, he took a bus with peace activists to Haifa, to see his family home. The story filled the pages of newspapers the next day, and the symbolism of the incident prompted many people, including Israelis, to think about the deep meaning behind it.

The Israeli media drew conclusions from what took place on the Golan, the fence dividing the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras from occupied Palestine, the Qalandia checkpoint, and other places where people marched to commemorate the right to return by Palestinian refugees. The Israeli media concluded that the Arab revolution was knocking on the doors of Israel, while it was also natural for others to conclude that because Hussein Hijazi managed to reach and cross the occupied Golan, this meant that any Syrian resistance activity to liberate the Golan could end the disengagement agreement signed in 1973. The movement on the Golan front, after nearly 40 years of quiet, was a new element, which set off warning bells for the Israelis and other concerned countries in the international community.

However, the symbolism of this incident is linked, in another way, to the crisis that the region is now experiencing. The Syrian message, as many in international circles understood it, was that Damascus is able to rock the stability of Israel if the international community escalates its pressure on the regime, as part of the domestic crisis that Syria is experiencing, amid continuing protests and a crackdown against them by the regime of President Bashar Assad. Syria might shake Israel's stability, even if the regime is forced to wage war, and even if it comes out a loser, by the standards of the military balance of forces, as a way out of its domestic crisis. This option is being discussed quite a bit, if these international pressures, along with the actions by the domestic opposition, put the regime in a difficult position.

This war might take different forms, such as operations against the Israeli occupation instead of a traditional type of war. However, the decision to wage such a conflict is not possible unless the Lebanese front joins the confrontation against Israel, if developments continue. This requires a decision by Hezbollah to wage this war, which will certainly follow a decision by Iran to undertake a "heavy-duty" policy in this regard, entailing an air bridge toward Syria and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, there are barriers to seeing the message of last Sunday go beyond mere symbolism. If the decision for a confrontation with Israel lies with Syria, Iran plays an important role in this decision; Syria has an eye on the developments in the struggle underway inside Iran, whether among conservatives themselves, or between the conservatives and the opposition, which has been dormant but not vanished. If the confrontation goes as far as war, and is a decision by Iran, via Hezbollah, the latter will not want war and will seek to avoid it, in view of its cost for the party and for Lebanon. The Iranians are anxious about the domestic situation in Syria, just as Syria is anxious about Iran's domestic situation. Moreover, Tehran is focused on limiting the losses to its Gulf policy, especially in Bahrain, by trying to normalize relations with Gulf countries as a result of the decisive stance by the Gulf Cooperation Council on Iranian intervention in its affairs.

Iran is not known for being hasty in such situations, especially in light of the fact that Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Khameini is winning out over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the struggle over the reins of power. Iran is undertaking a thorough review of developments in the region and of the emerging situation in Syria, which is difficult for Tehran to consider, as in the past, a key part of its plan in the region, without this meaning a lack of support for its ally in Damascus.

It is likely that "wisdom" that characterizes Iranian calculation might take Tehran toward a totally different policy – negotiation and opening channels of communication with the West and the United States, instead of heading toward confrontation and war.

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