Michael Totten

No Peace Without Syria

“No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria.” — Henry Kissinger
Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, “flew to Damascus this weekend”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1111091.html to cajole Syria into re-entering peace talks with Israel. He’s going to go home disappointed, if not now then later, just as every other Western diplomat before him has failed to put an end to the perpetual Arab-Israeli conflict. Bashar Assad couldn’t sign a peace treaty with Israel even if he wanted to — and he doesn’t want to.
Assad and his late father and former president Hafez Assad have justified the dictatorial “emergency rule,” on the books since 1963, by pointing to the never-ending war with the state of Israel. Many Syrians have grown weary of this excuse after more than four decades of crisis, but Assad would nevertheless face more pressure to loosen up his Soviet-style system without it.
An official state of war costs Assad very little. His army does not have to fight. His father learned the hard way in 1967 that Israel could beat three Arab armies, including Syria’s own, in six days. Assad can only fight Israel through proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah, but that suits him just fine. Gaza and Lebanon absorb Israel’s incoming fire when the fighting heats up.
Assad gains a lot, though, by buying himself some legitimacy with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Syria’s fundamentalist Sunnis have long detested his Baath party regime, not only because it’s secular and oppressive but also because its leaders are considered heretics. The Assads and most of the Baathist elites belong to the Alawite religious minority, descendants of the followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who took them out of mainstream Twelver Shiite Islam in the 10th century. Their religion has as much in common with Christianity and Gnosticism as it does with Islam, and most Syrians find it both bizarre and offensive that the Alawites are in charge of the country instead of the majority Sunnis.
In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against the regime in the city of Hama. The elder Assad dispatched the Alawite-dominated military and destroyed most of the old city with air strikes, tanks, and artillery. Rifaat Assad, the former president’s younger brother, boasted that 38,000 people were killed in a single day. Not once since then have the Muslim Brothers tried to rise up again.
In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman dubbed the senior Assad’s rules of engagement “Hama Rules.” They are the Syrian stick. The carrot is Assad’s steadfast “resistance” against Israel. No Arab government in the world is as stridently anti-Israel, in both action and rhetoric, as Assad’s. There is no better way for a detested Alawite regime to curry favor with Sunnis in Syria and the Arab world as a whole than by adopting the anti-Zionist cause as its own.
“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/82001.