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Assad and the Peace Process: The Pivotal Role of Lebanon

Authored by Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere. | February 1995

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SUMMARY

This study considers the remarkable performance of Syria's President Hafez al Assad, who took what apparently was a bankrupt negotiating stance in the Arab-Israeli peace talks and turned it into a position of strength.

What enabled Assad to make this extraordinary turnaround was a correct analysis of power relations in the Middle East. In particular Assad seems to have been among the first Middle East politicians to recognize the potential of groups like Hizbollah, which has for over a decade now been carrying on a fierce guerrilla war against Israel in southern Lebanon. The study examines why Israeli society is vulnerable to the Hizbollahis, and how this vulnerability has played into Assad's hands.

The study also considers the arguments of those who oppose making concessions to Assad, because, they claim, his position at home is so weak that he would be unable to deliver on any deal that he might make. The study concludes with a look at the anarchic conditions in Lebanon and ponders whether the radical forces set loose there can ever again be brought under control.

INTRODUCTION

Syrian President Hafez Assad has established himself as the virtual arbiter of the peace process; whether the process succeeds or fails to a large extent depends on him. Given the difficulties that Assad confronted when the talks first began 4 years ago, it is extraordinary that he has been able to maneuver himself into this position.

This study attempts to show how he did it, and, in the process, clarify the realities of power in the Middle East. According to the author, with the coming of groups like Hizbollah the Middle East power balance has changed, and U.S. policymakers need to appreciate this fact if they are not to be overwhelmed by the new situation that has come into being.

At the start of the peace process Israel appeared to be holding all of the cards, and thus saw itself under no compulsion to make accommodations to its enemies. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Israel's main antagonist, Syria, was bereft of international support; it could not look to Moscow to bolster its weak position.

Along with that, Syria could not hope to coerce the Israelis by holding out the threat of resumed hostilities. After Egypt had concluded a separate peace with the Jewish state, Syria's ability to make war was severely compromised.

Given this situation (Syria's loss of Soviet patronage and its inability to play the war card), the peace process appeared, from the Israelis' standpoint, to be a win-win situation.

However it has not evolved that way. It is now apparent that it is Tel Aviv, not Damascus, that is most anxious for a settlement; the Israeli government is the one that is importuning the United States to move the talks along.1 Assad has held back, refusing to cooperate unless and until he can obtain his minimum requirement. Assad wants the Golan Heights back (after Damascus lost it to Israel in 1967). Israel's leaders are loath to hand it over--at least all at once. They have hinted that they might be willing to return it incrementally (the Israeli Defense Force [ IDF] could make staged withdrawals from the Heights over a period of, say, 3-8 years). That, for Assad, is not good enough; he wants an almost immediate withdrawal of the Israeli forces. The maximum waiting period that he is willing to entertain is 1 year. Assad's position is that Syrian sovereignty must be reestablished over the Heights by the close of 1995. Where did Assad get the idea that he could hold out like this?

The study will argue that Syria's grip on Lebanon is what gives Assad leverage over the Israelis. Lebanon, the arena from which numerous guerrilla groups operate, is crucial to Israel's hopes of making peace with its neighbors.2 One of these groups, Hizbollah, has proved extraordinarily effective. The Hizbollahis seem able to embarrass the IDF, sometimes with seeming impunity. Assad has used this group--along with others--to put pressure on Tel Aviv, and induce it to bargain on a more or less equal basis at the peace table.

The study starts with a look at Lebanon's unique political environment, since this provided Assad the opening to dominate Lebanon's political life, and subsequently to turn the situation there to his uses.

ENDNOTES

1. See "Rabin Charges Syrians Are Stalling in Talks," The Washington Post, June 1, 1994; "No Swift Embrace Seen For Syrians and Israelis," The Washington Post, May 19, 1994; "Israel Seeks Stepped-Up Syria Talks," The Washington Post, June 22, 1994; "Israel Stresses Role of U.S. as Mediator," The Financial Times, May 9, 1994; "U.S. Hints at Better Ties if Syria Signs Peace With Israel," The New York Times, October 25, 1994; "Israelis Look to Clinton for Progress With Syria," The New York Times, October 25, 1994, and "Christopher's last chance," Middle East International, July 9, 1994.

2.When the peace talks commenced 4 years ago, Israel confronted claims by three Arab states and the Palestinians. It has subsequently concluded a peace treaty with Jordan, and is negotiating a so-called Declaration of Principles with the Palestinians which presumably will lead to a peace. The two remaining claimants are Syria, which wants the Golan Heights back, and Lebanon, which wants Israel to withdraw the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) from southern Lebanon.