Syrian President Bashar Assad says he was “within reach” of an agreement with Israel. There is no doubt he is under pressure. This month, an international tribunal in The Hague started to look into the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik al-Hariri, and it’s clear who the accused are: Bashar, his younger brother, and his brother-in-law.
And who does one go to when one is in distress? Israel, of course. After all, that’s its job: To salvage faltering Arab regimes. Assad will never make peace with Israel, but why not let it absolve him of his sins?
An international committee report on the circumstances of al-Hariri’s assassination ruled back in 2005 that there is growing evidence of the involvement of senior Syrian and Lebanese officials in the murder. The report, drafted by German Judge Detlev Mehlis, also indicates that senior Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, attempted to mislead investigators. Committee members leaked the fact that they reached almost all the way to the president. The report ruled that such complex assassination could not have materialized without receiving the go-ahead of senior Syrian officials.
According to the international committee that looked into the murder, the Syrians burned documents, distorted evidence, and claimed that a group affiliated with al-Qaeda was behind the assassination. However, nothing helped: The suspicions against the rulers in Damascus continued to accumulate.
Back in December 2005, Assad was incriminated by his former deputy, Abdul Halim Khaddam, who fled to France. According to Khaddam, no Syrian seucirty apparatus can take a decision such as killing al-Hariri on its own, without the president’s involvement. “Bashar told me himself that people in Syria were involved, which means he was involved,” Khaddam said. He also told the media that he was personally present in various occasions where Bashar harshly slammed al-Hariri.
Khaddam will be invited to testify before the international tribunal, and this is great embarrassment for the Syrians, seeing their secrets exposed by a person familiar with all of them. “I intend to tell everything,” Khaddam pledged, and he will. He is protected by the French and Americans.
Highly sensitive junction
The regime in Damascus is currently at a highly sensitive junction and fears that opposition elements within Syria or abroad will attempt to exploit the situation. The Syrian response may therefore be directed at Israel, as is customary in the Arab world. Assad can now adopt two seemingly contradictory approaches: Diplomatic talks, or a military assault. There is not much difference between them: Both are ways of exploiting Israel in order to alleviate the pressure.
On the diplomatic front, Syria’s price tag is on the decline now, and those who wish to engage in negotiations with Damascus can dare to demand more, as Syria must have negotiations with Israel. On the military front, the IDF must realize we are entering a sensitive period, even though at this time the Syrian regime has no interest in embarking on a clash with Israel. Such step can be reserved for difficult junctions later on, as the trial at The Hague continues.
In the next few months, Assad will attempt to work out some kind of formula vis-à-vis the United States, whereby he will pay something and give something. For example, he may help to stabilize the situation in Iraq in exchange for alleviating the pressure at the international tribunal. Such option can be highly appealing to the Obama Administration, which attaches great significance to a stable exit from Iraq.
Will we be wise enough to also join such deal in respect to Hizbullah and Hamas? In my estimate, there is a theoretical chance this may happen, and it requires us to coordinate our positions with the US.
We are entering an unstable period vis-à-vis Syria, whose senior officials may find themselves as defendants, just like the Serbian Milosevic or Sudan’s president. This is not an easy matter for a country that built its entire worldview on the premise that Israel is a terrorist state.