The Future Of Israeli-Syrian Relations

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    A painting of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad welcomes guest inside the tourist and information center in Quneitra. (Photo by Norbert Schiller)

    A painting of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad welcomes guest inside the tourist and information center in Quneitra. (Photo by Norbert Schiller)

    It has been nearly 30 years since Israel and Syria fought in the Yom Kippur War. The question now, will the border between the two countries remain calm as it has been or will the fighting in Syria slowly begin to threaten Israel.

    During the 1990s I went with the Cairo Press Association (FBA) on a number of trips to Syria. Similar to other delegations we were given the official tour and shown only that what the government wanted us to see. One of the favorite destinations for foreign dignitaries and journalists alike was a day trip to the United Nations buffer zone and the town of Quneitra on edge of the Golan Heights.

    Quneitra has been largely left untouched since the Israeli army handed it back to Syria in 1974.  I say untouched because that was the wish of Syria’s former President, Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.  Assad Sr. wanted Quneitra to remain, an outdoor museum, void of life and left as a testament to “Zionist aggression” for the entire world to see.

    Even Pope John Paul II was taken to Quneitra during his trip to Syria in 2001.

    Even though there is evidence that settlements did exist in and around Quneitra during Byzantine and Roman times, it wasn’t until the 19th century, under the Ottoman Empire, that the town became strategically important. Located high up on the Golan Heights (1000m), Quneitra lies on an ancient caravan route connecting Northern Palestine with Damascus. At the time it was an ideal place from where to monitor caravans traveling between the coast and the interior.

    The controversy over Quneitra was not because the Israelis captured it during the 1967 war, but rather what they did to the town just before they returned it back to Syria seven years later. According to a U.N. report, just after the American’s negotiated the return of Quneitra to Syria, the Israelis, placed dynamite within all the building and then detonated the explosives as they were leaving, causing the buildings to collapse for no apparent reason, other than to be spiteful. This act, according to the United Nations, was a violation of the Geneva Convention.

    In actual fact, if one were to look at the “battle” for Quneitra in 1967 in terms of the human cost, I think we would all agree that it was about as bloodless as one could get considering the two sides were at war. Nobody was killed; all the residents had fled and because of a miscommunication within Syrian army ranks there was no soldiers stationed in the town, leaving Quneitra virtually empty when the Israeli army arrived.

    Up until Syria’s civil war (by now we should be allowed to call it as such) the only traffic that went in and out of Quneitra were a handful of families that lived there as squatters; the odd delegation visiting from abroad and U.N. personnel going back and forth between the Syrian and Israeli side of the buffer zone.

    Hostilities along this frontier largely ended with the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and even though Syria continues to demands the repatriation of the entire Golan Heights the status quo has worked to both countries advantage, at least up until now.

    Both Hafez and his son Bashar were a blessing in disguise for Israel. Since the Yom Kippur War, both father and son have ruled Syria with an iron fist and maintained security along their border with Israel. Granted, when they wanted they could always use their influence over Lebanon to antagonize the Israelis. But even when prodding their ally Hezbollah, they knew the limits.

    The question remains, what will happen when the Assad regime finally collapses? The mix bag of freedom fighters, Islamists and thugs who are presently fighting against the regime’s forces will most likely continue fighting among themselves, long after the regime falls. Even if Assad is ousted from power I doubt that his supporters, namely the minority Alawite sect, of which the Assad’s are apart, will just fade away into obscurity. No, the Alawites will undoubtedly try and carve out a semi-autonomous enclave for themselves, much like the Kurds in Northern Iraq. And lest we not forget the Druze in the Southwest or the Kurds in the northeast of the country; both of which will, I’m sure, lay claim to territory they can call home. Looking ahead I think it will be a long time before any single authoritative body will be in a position to govern Syria much less be a threat to the state of Israel.

    I find it interesting that the United Nations was able to unify when it came to intervening militarily in Libya, but can’t so much as provide decent shelter and food for refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria. President Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, to name a few, have all repeatedly condemned in the harshest words Bashar al-Assad for the atrocities he has committed against his own people. At the same time the international community has done the absolute minimal to contain the crises. A common theme reiterated by all the leaders is that Syria cannot be compared to Libya.

    I hardly doubt that Syria’s anti-air defense system is any match for the same kind of intervention that took place in Libya. For now, it seems America and its allies are content with just stoking the flame from the sidelines by providing logistics support, basic weaponry and letting the opposition fight their own battle. For now it seems nobody, least of all the Americans, want to get dragged into another conflict when there is so much uncertainty in the entire Middle East/North Africa region.

    Surprisingly, up until recently, there was very little reaction from Israel concerning the crisis in Syria. However, that all changed the other day after an Israeli official came out and said that Israel would destroy Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles and Russian supplied missiles if there were a threat of these weapons falling into the hands of either the rebel forces or the Lebanese militia group, Hezbollah. Well, as promised, last Wednesday the Israeli air force carried out an airstrike inside Syria on what they claimed to be a convoy carrying weapons destined for Hezbollah.

    This recent Israeli attack puts Bashar al-Assad in a very precarious position. Can he afford opening up a second front, with Israeli, at a time when he is desperately trying to suppress a homegrown rebellion?

    Wouldn’t be ironic, if Bashar al-Assad manages to draw Israel into the conflict and then is toppled by the Israelis. I wonder how the rebel fighters would react; the enemy of my enemy is my friend? I should think not!


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      • SisterLamia

        This is an insightful article. Thank you. It would indeed be tragic if Israel became yet another force to reckon with as the Syrian people determine their fate.