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SYRIA: Israeli hopes for a Tehran-Damascus rift collapse

May 28, 2008 |  8:24 am

Najjar_5

Iranian and Syrian officials poured a bucket of ice water this week on Israeli hopes for a rupture in the long-standing Tehran-Damascus relationship.

Israeli officials had demanded Syria break ties with Iran in exchange for returning the occupied Golan Heights to Syria.

Instead, Syria this week appeared to strengthen its ties with Iran, signing a defense cooperation pact in a showy Tehran photo-op on Tuesday.

That same day, Syrian President Bashar Assad told a visiting delegation of British lawmakers that Damascus' relationship with Tehran was not up for negotiation.

In reality, despite a lot of media attention, there was never really much chance of a peace deal between Syria and Israel or a break in ties between Damascus and Tehran. At least not anytime soon.

Israeli and Syrian leaders admitted this month that the two countries were engaged in peace talks mediated by Turkey. Almost immediately, the Israeli foreign minister said Syria would have to cut ties with Iran, and its allies Hezbollah and Hamas, before Israel would consider making peace and handing back the Golan Heights.

A Western diplomat in Damascus closely tracking the indirect Syria-Israel talks bluntly called any hopes of dangling the Golan Heights (a hilly plateau about the size of Los Angeles County) to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran "a non-starter."

A more realistic strategy might be to try to persuade Syria to temper the behavior of Hamas and Hezbollah, which both fight Israel.

"The Syrians won't want to lose Hezbollah, but can moderate Hezbollah," said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Syrians don't have control over Hamas and Hezbollah, but they have influence. Syria might have veto power."

In any case, few insiders believed a breakthrough between Israel and Syria was imminent. The diplomat  said Assad doesn't anticipate any new deals before summer 2009, after President Bush is out of office. "Bashar has been clear that he didn't really want to negotiate. He's preparing everything for the next American administration. If the next American administration is ready to guarantee a deal, then they'll be ready."

But Israel may also be part of the problem. A majority of Israelis are reluctant to give up the Golan Heights, which has become a 463-square-mile resort destination as well as a strategic buffer, even for a peace deal with Damascus.

Over 41 years of occupation, they've grown to love the Golan Heights.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Ali Turkmani, left, is greeted by his Iranian counterpart, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, during a visit to Tehran this week. (Hossein Salmanzadeh / Fars News Agency)

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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