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Syria & The Big Picture

IsraCast Interviews Professor Eyal Zisser, a leading expert on Syria

Syrian President Bashar Assad

Is Syria's President Bashar Assad sincere in his peace overtures to Israel? On one hand Assad offers peace talks but on the other he has forged a strategic alliance with Iran which threatens to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Then again is the Syrian dilemma facing Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also linked to such issues as the  U.S. war in Iraq, Iran's nuclear weapons program and the future of Lebanon? Professor Eyal Zisser, one of Israel's leading analysts on Syria, discussed where the current situation may be headed in this interview with reporter David Essing:

Question: We are speaking now with Professor Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv university, who is one of Israel's leading experts on Syria . First of all, Professor Zisser, the Israeli intelligence community is at odds whether Syria's president, Bashar Assad, Is really on the level about making true peace with Israel. Mossad chief Meir Dagan calls it a trap, and that Bashar Assad simply wants to get back the Golan Heights without paying the price for peace. However, the IDF intelligence branch disagrees, contending that Assad is on the level.   Professor Zisser, what is your assessment of where Bashar Assad is headed when it comes to Israel ?

Zisser: Well, first of all, I really don't know. I don't think that the intelligence, or the military intelligence, or the Mossad know either. I think everyone does agree that Bashar is interested in the resumption of negotiations, of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria . I think that everyone does agree that he is interested even in signing a peace agreement with Israel . The question is, of course, what he is ready to give in return, and here too I don't see much disagreement. I mean, everyone agrees that this will be something like the peace we have with Egypt, but minimum normalization, not warmness at all and the real question is whether he will stay stick to Iran . And here too I don't know if there is a clear answer. So the Mossad is emphasizing the point that, well, he will stay close to Iran . The Intelligence makes the emphasis on his readiness to have a deal with Israel . So you see, I don't think that there is basic disagreement, there is only the question, you know, of how to interpret this thing or that thing, not more than that.

Question: Well, when it comes to a comparison with the Egyptian agreement, of course, Egypt got all of the territory that Israel took during the Six-Day war back. It's taken as a given that this would mean that Israel would have to return all the Golan Heights, does it not?

Golan Heights

Zisser: Yes, but if we compare it to Egypt we had president Anuar Sadat, who was a very courageous leader and was ready to come to Jerusalem and prove to all Israelis that he was serious about signing peace with them. I think this is what should be emphasized. I mean, everybody understands that eventually, if there is peace,Israel will give back the Golan Heights . The question is whether Bashar will be ready to follow the Egyptian example and to come to Jerusalem , make the gesture, make. use public diplomacy as a method, and whether like Egypt, like in the case of Egypt he will leave the Iranians and Hezbollah and join the Americans. These are the questions.

Question: Well, when it comes to the Americans, have not the Golan Heights, the whole Syrian question become part of a larger Middle East picture? In other words,Syria is supporting the rebels in Iraq against the American forces there.   Would there have to be some kind of a package deal when it comes to Syria and supporting what's going on in Iraq ? Some kind of a deal perhaps also on Lebanon ?

Zisser: Yes, well, the question is really as you put it. I mean when we read the Baker-Hamilton reports you see there the argument that actually America lost the war in the Middle East . It's only the question of how to get out of the Middle East as easily as possible and to leave it, you know, to the natives here. And in this case Syria is an important partner. I mean, if you are out and, well. you should have a dialogue with Syria and here comes really the question of the bigger picture. But if, as president Bush still believes, there is a mission for the Americans to be accomplished in the Middle East, Syria, Iraq, and America is not ready to give up the Seniora government, the Lebanese readiness or will for freedom, well in this case I am afraid there is nothing much to talk with Syria about and therefore we will not see any American enthusiasm about the resumption of the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations.

Question: Well, taking this American opposition into account, would an Israeli Prime Minister, would Ehud Olmert really be taking a big risk by loosing American support if he did go it alone in negotiations with Syria ?

Zisser: Well, I don't think anyone will do it, I mean it will be only after the Americans will be consulted. I mean I do not suggest. I don't think anyone does suggest that Israel will do something without, well, not the approval, but without getting the advise of the Americans, and the question is whether the Americans will oppose it or whether will not support it - and there is a difference between opposing and not supporting - or whether the Americans will join Israel . I really don't know, but that's something that the Israeli government should check.

Question: So we will have to wait until the Bush administration, or another American administration, considers the idea of. the old idea of Pax Americana in the Middle East .

Warning of minefield in the Golan originally deployed by Syrian army but still active

Zisser: Yes, that's my impression. Otherwise, until then, nothing will be changed as far as the American policy, and I think also as far as the Israeli policy.

Question: In the interim president Bashar Assad has hinted that if there is no peace process between Damascus and Jerusalem, the result could be another war. Syrian officials have also made this point. How serious do you take the Syrian threat?

Zisser: I take it very seriously, I mean it's not that he made the decision yet, but I think he considered this option, the military option. I think that is the problem. Until lately we haven't heard anything like that from the Syrians - that they are considering such an option. The peace option was the only option they were discussing. Now he said. Bashar, as you mentioned rightly, he said very clearly that they start considering other options and I think in Israel people should follow the Syrian. this process of decision making in Syria and the Syrian behavior very closely, because eventually he can make such a decision to go to war. It's not that he did it already; it's not that anyone can be sure about it, but it's one of his options and now he is considering all of his options.

Question: While making these peace feelers to Israel the Syrian president has also strengthened, or even built, what appears to be some kind of strategic alliance with Iran, which vows to wipe Israel of the map. How do you view this kind of approach by Assad?

Zisser: Well, there is nothing new. I mean, this alliance was there before Bashar came to power, I mean before Syria joined the peace process, it's there for almost twenty five years, and I guess it will continue, I mean because Iran is the only friend Syria has right now, not only in the international arena but also in our area, I mean no Arab state is as close and supportive of Syria the way Iran is, so they will speak to Iran. They have no other option. The only way to get them out of Iran is really to settle the Israeli-Syrian conflict and to get some understanding with the Syrians regarding Iraq and Lebanon, and in this case Syria's need for Iran will be less and eventually, in the long run, Iran will become only a friend, and not an intimate ally as it is right now.

Prof. Eyal Zisser

Professor Eyal Zisser is the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the Head of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, both at Tel Aviv University. Prof. Zisser wrote extensively on the history and the modern politics of Syria and Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Question: So at this point in time we are in a period of twilight zone - a period of great uncertainty in the Middle East . 

Zisser: Yes, that's right. And I do not believe that we will see any breakthrough in the coming weeks or even months. We will have to wait until a decision will be made in America as far as the American presence in Iraq , and, well, you know, this can take a year or two, until the next coming American elections. So I don't expect any immediate breakthrough. We will be facing more of the same as far as Syria is concerned, Hezbollah, and Israeli attitude towards these calls from Damascus.

Question: And also looming large on the horizon, of course, is the Iranian nuclear threat.

Zisser: Well, this will be the major issue all will have to discuss and deal with.

Transcript by Dar Translations
972-2-6414722 | dar_doc@smile.net.il

David Essing

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