Release Date: January 16, 2000
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Real Mideast Peace is an Elusive Dream

by Eric Margolis

NEW YORK -- A former British officer once told me he found a rock near Damascus during the war on which a Roman soldier of the XII Legion had scratched, `Syrians are horrible people.'

Two thousand years later, most of Syria's neighbors still feel the same way. Yet after a decade of isolation, Damascus is once again center stage in the ongoing Mideast drama thanks to recent, US-brokered peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. The peace deal is expected to cost American tax-payers around $20 to $40 billion. The Syrians, as always, are proving tough, obdurate, difficult and clever, as befits a people whose capital, Damascus, is the world's oldest continually inhabited city.

Israel is offering to return part or all of the strategic Golan Heights which it seized in the 1967 War in exchange for a comprehensive peace treaty with Syria and the unchallenged withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from southern Lebanon. Such a deal would confirm Syrian control of Lebanon, which was part of historic Syria until detached by France in the 1920's. Jordan and whatever new Palestinian state that emerges would, in turn, become de facto Israeli protectorates.

Golan would be demilitarized; some or all the militant Jewish settlers from Brooklyn and Russia on the Heights evicted; and the 500,000 Syrians driven out of Golan by Israel in 1967 returned to their homes. Most important, Damascus would no longer be in range of Israeli artillery on Golan.

Peace talks have been suspended for two weeks as the two sides deal with the thorny questions of water rights, borders, surveillance, and population relocation. Israeli PM Ehud Barak's courageous attempt to achieve a peace with Israel's most bitter enemy has only a 50% chance of success - and perhaps even less now as opposition grows in Israel among Russian emigrants and religious parties, and from hard liners in the Diaspora. Even a peace treaty between Jerusalem and Damascus is no guarantee of future Mideast peace. Like many Arab nations, Syria is inherently unstable. President Hafez Asad has ruled this nation of 16.4 million since he seized power in a coup 30 years ago. Asad is an Alawi, a reclusive religious minority from the north that comprise 11% of Syria's multi-ethnic population. Orthodox Sunni Muslims consider Alawis and their first cousins, Druzes, as heretics.

Asad controls the military, the ruling Ba'ath Party, and eight security services by keeping Alawis and relatives in key positions. The ailing Asad is grooming his second son, Bashar, to succeed him. But Syria's economy is on the rocks. The once powerful 316,000-man Syrian armed forces are stuck with obsolete, 1970's era Soviet arms, crippled by shortages, and two full generations of technology behind Israel. The recent Israeli-Turkish military alliance against Syria poses an insurmountable threat.

As a result, Asad has opened peace talks as a way of gaining western investment and access to modern weapons for the military that keeps him and his clansmen in power. But few think that Asad's amiable son has the ruthlessness or charisma to run the draconian Syrian police state after his father's demise or incapacitation.

This past week, anti-Asad demonstrations and arrests occurred in Homs and Hama, where the conservative Sunni Muslim Brotherhood remains powerful. In 1982, the Brotherhood rose in revolt in Hama against Asad's socialist regime. In three weeks of savage fighting, Asad's troops put down the rebellion, killing some 10,000 Islamic rebels. Many Sunnis seethe with revenge against the Alawi-dominated regime.

A post-Asad Syria might soon disintegrate into civil war between military and security forces, Shia, Sunni and Alawi militants, and regional chieftains. In the 1920's, the influential Zionist theorist Jabotinsky (whose thinking influences Israel's Likud Party today) urged Jews of Palestine to smash fragile Syria into fragments and so seize the entire Fertile Crescent. If post-Asad Syria does splinter, Israel would be sorely tempted to intervene -- as it did in Lebanon during the 1980's. Lebanon proved a disaster for Israel, but the chance to permanently eliminate Israel's chief enemy and only remaining military opponent might prove irresistible.

Post-Saddam Iraq is even likelier to dissolve into chaos than neighboring Syria. If Israeli forces are deployed in southern Syria, they need only move 500 kms to reach Iraq's northern oil fields around Mosul. Israel and Turkey -- neither of whom have oil and who both avidly crave it -- may already have joint contingency plans to partition northern Iraq. Turkey for certain plans to annex northern Iraq if the opportunity arises. Oil would transform Turkey into a major power.

Even if Syria and Iraq somehow remain intact, formerly isolated Israel is increasingly likely to be drawn into Mideast rivalries as an active participant. Peace with its Arab neighbors simply means Israel would be free to join them as a full-time player in their intrigues. One can easily foresee Israel, the Prussia of the Mideast, in shifting alliances with its neighbors, i.e. Israel and Syria v. Iraq; Israel and Saudi v. Syria; Turkey and Israel v. Iraq and Syria; and so on.

This prospect means Israel may be destined to steadily lose its identity as a purely Jewish, westernized state and become a full-fledged Levantine nation. Just, in fact, what happened to the 12th Century European Crusader states.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]

[So it is clear that the invasion of Lebanon was initiated NOT TO DRIVE THE PALESTINIAN FIGHTERS FROM SOUTH LEBANON, but rather to gain control over the primary source of water.--William W. Baker, "Theft of a Nation," Jireh Publications (1982), p. 153]

Copyright © 2000 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
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