Gains and losses: Will the Syrian regime normalize relations with Israel?

A warning sign near the demilitarized zone in the occupied Syrian Golan (Shutterstock)

Gains and losses: Will the Syrian regime normalize relations with Israel?

A warning sign near the demilitarized zone in the occupied Syrian Golan (Shutterstock)

A warning sign near the demilitarized zone in the occupied Syrian Golan (Shutterstock)

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Yamen al-Maghribi | Ali Darwish | Khawla Hefzy

Since the 1948 Palestinian exodus, also known as the Nakba in which the State of Israel was established, Syrian-Israeli relations have fluctuated from direct to attrition battles in 1948, 1967, and 1973, and the confrontations in Lebanon in the eighties of the twentieth century, until armistice and the approach of a peace agreement in 1991 (Madrid negotiations) and 1999 in the United States of America, then came the Turkish mediation in 2008.

Last September, the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published a report in which it said that the Syrian regime might normalize relations with Israel, similar to that of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

The report was not based on public or private information, documents, or sources indicating the existence of any communication between the Syrian regime and Israel. However, it still managed to spark controversy and was published by several Israeli media, including “i24” TV. This was followed by several Israeli newspaper reports indicating an agreement between the regime and Tel Aviv.

Like every political maneuver worldwide, this has potential gains and losses, especially when the undertaking regimes are going through political, economic, and social crises, as in the case of the Syrian regime.

Enab Baladi discusses in this file the “hypothesis” of an agreement to normalize relations between Syria and Israel at present, and the regime’s political and economic gains and losses in that case, especially in light of the US and European sanctions and the international isolation it faces considering its relations with Iran, “Hezbollah” and Russia.

A return to the international fold and economic interests

Benefits the  Syrian regime may receive by normalizing relations with Israel

For the Syrian regime, the relationship with Israel is a burden in the first place, given the Syrian regime’s emphasis on its Arab national identity and its anti-Israel stance in the context of building its local and regional legitimacy.

Israel has nothing but promises to make to the Syrian regime, especially after Trump’s recognition of the Israeli control over the Golan Heights in the current unprecedented situation of weakness and lack of capacity that the Syrian regime has reached,  Bilal Salaymeh, a Ph.D. researcher in international relations told Enab Baladi

An agreement to normalize relations with Israel requires a peace agreement, similar to those of Bahrain and the UAE, as told to Enab Baladi by the director of the “Syrian Center for Justice and Accountability,” Muhammad al-Abdullah.

According to al-Abdullah, from the ٍSyrian regime’s point of view, such an agreement means that there are countries that recognize it as the representative of the Syrian people. Being the only legitimate authority, it can control the situation politically, securely, and militarily. There is international sponsorship for it, which usually comes from the United States, the European Union, and others.

A warning sign near the demilitarized zone in the occupied Syrian Golan (shutterstock)

A warning sign near the demilitarized zone in the occupied Syrian Golan (Shutterstock)

If the Syrian regime normalizes its relation with Israel, then most of the Syrian regime’s political benefits will mostly be international legitimacy and some kind of return to the international fold. Hence, the regime has begun to rethink the peace process and political processes with Israel. 

Meanwhile, researcher Bilal Salaymeh believes that the political benefits are limited because the isolation that the Syrian regime suffers from, specifically internationally, is not relevant to its relations with Israel but to crimes against humanity committed against the Syrian people.

Salaymeh suggested that such talks regarding normalization would soon decline after Trump’s loss in the presidential elections, whose Middle East team was pushing frantically and unprecedentedly to normalize Arab-Israeli relations.

Accordingly, scenarios for later negotiations or normalization are closely related to Biden and his team’s vision of the Middle East, given that the United States is the most important candidate to sponsor such rapprochement.

There may also be attempts to lure the regime in with promises to ease Western sanctions, particularly the American ones, if it takes positive steps towards Israel (which we have seen in Sudan’s context, normalization in exchange for promises to lift the US sanctions).

Since 2011, several packages of sanctions have been imposed on the Syrian regime, affecting institutions affiliated with the Syrian regime in addition to military, security and economic figures, most notably the “Caesar Act” which imposed sanctions on those dealing with the regime, whether they were individuals, institutions or countries.

Promises of economic aid by UAE might occur as well, especially in light of the unprecedented economic crisis, if the Syrian government takes “positive” steps in this regard, especially since the strengthening and integration of roles in Israeli-Emirati relations are on the rise, according to Salaymeh.

The regime will be in a “deadlock” if relations with Israel are normalized, according to the director of the Syrian Center for Justice and Accountability, Muhammad al-Abdullah. This is because this normalization with Israel will be simultaneous to having a large strategic and security alliance with Iran, an alliance described as “sectarian.” Experts, security services, and soldiers, even those in the southern region near the Syrian-Israeli borders, believe that the Iranian presence is intense.

As it is difficult to reach such an agreement in the first place, even if such an agreement were to occur, normalization would not be a gateway to fully resurrect the regime, as Israel could exploit this point to pressure the regime.

Al-Abdullah does not think that the regime would be internationally accepted as it previously had been, due to the normalization with Israel. It is a very complicated situation, and all the regime can try to do is to deceive with rhetoric and propaganda, meaning that there would be no real normalization. If that happens, the regime will present it as a peace agreement or restoration of the Syrians’ rights to convince its supporters and the Iranians. The regime would fall into an internal predicament due to such normalization after convincing everyone that it is a resistance and anti-Israel regime.

Russia and Iran are part of the same alliance; however, Israel is bombing Iran inside Syria and informing Russia of some raids.

Israel has launched dozens of raids on Syrian lands since 2011, targeting sites of the Syrian regime’s army and others belonging to Iran and the Lebanese “Hezbollah,” both of which are allies to Bashar al-Assad, head of the Syrian regime. Israel, however, rarely comments on these operations.

Three soldiers from the Syrian regime were killed after airstrikes, which hit targets belonging to the regime and the  Quds Force in southern Syria on 18 November.

The Israeli military spokesman, Jonathan Conricus, said, “The strikes targeted the Iranian military headquarters in Syria at Damascus Airport, which is a secret facility hosting visiting Iranian military officers and the seventh division of the Syrian army, which oversees the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.”

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in a previous interview with the Israeli Kan channel that “Israel will not allow Iran or (Hezbollah) to base itself in the Golan Heights,” adding that “Israel will do its utmost to expel them from the region.”

The Syrian regime is in trouble

What will the Syrian regime lose if it normalizes its relations with Israel?

Despite the economic and political gains that the Syrian regime may obtain in return for the normalization of its relations with Israel are, it will face a bigger challenge due to losing “points of strength” that it has relied on since the arrival of the former president, Hafez al-Assad, to power in Syria in 1971.

The first of these points is “supporting the resistance” and the Palestinian cause, which Hafez and Bashar al-Assad toyed with over the past 50 years. Throughout these years, the regime had excellent relations with Hezbollah after its establishment in the 1980s and with Iran, Hezbollah’s first supporter. This might disturb relations with Tehran, which has supported the regime in the Syrian war since 2011.

The second point is what the regime declares to its supporters that it is the “last bastion” of the Arab nationalism, and the resistance of Israel in the region since Egypt left the conflict by signing a peace agreement in 1979, with the geographical distance of the Arab Maghreb countries, and the Gulf States’ affiliation to the US administration.

The second point is the basis for the rule of the Syrian regime, especially since the Arab Socialist Baath (the party that has ruled since 1963 and to which both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad belong) rejects the existence of Israel and calls for Arab nationalism and the territorial integrity of its countries.

Hazem Nahar, writer, and researcher in political affairs and former director of the Hermon Center for Contemporary Studies, believes that the Syrian regime would lose more than it would gain from normalization within the current situation. It would be conflicted in its regional balances and its investment relations with Iran, Hezbollah, Arab nationalist parties, and the Arab left in general.

Nahar added, telling Enab Baladi that the regime’s losses would not only be at the level of its foreign relations but rather extend to its popular incubator and its supporters inside Syria.

Nahar also linked between normalization and the Baath Party, as the latter’s basis of existence and continuation is its declared position on Israel and the Palestinian cause.

Former Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa in the United States of America with former American President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak 1999 (Historic Shepherd Town)

Former Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa in the United States of America with former American President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak 1999 (Historic Shepherd Town)

For his part, the spokesperson for the “Syrian Negotiating Committee for the Opposition Forces,” Yahya Al-Aridi, told Enab Baladi that the regime’s losses are matched by gains for Israel, as the Arab countries that left the door open declaring their desire for normalization with Israel will take broader steps in this aspect.

Five Arab countries have full relations with Israel: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan. Last October, US President Donald Trump announced that five other Arab countries are close to signing “peace agreements” with Israel.

Other countries have established commercial relations with Tel Aviv, including Morocco, Oman, and Qatar, although its relationship with Israel has stopped since the Tel Aviv war on Gaza in 2008.

According to Hazem Nahar, the only current motive that could push the Syrian regime to normalize with Israel is Israel’s willingness to return Golan, even if in phases. The regime refuses such normalization without Golan’s return, a matter that seems impossible for Israel at this point, especially after the American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This forces the regime to maintain its stance that guarantees its existence. Otherwise, normalization would be totally in vain.

On the other hand, Muhammad al-Abdullah believes that as the regime has previously accused Arab countries of betrayal and association with Israel, normalization will be problematic. The aforementioned countries would return the criticisms. Moreover, the issue of normalization with Israel became common to the Arab regimes and governments. There have also been Arab countries that already have existing relations with Israel and yet condemn new normalization by other countries, which sounds politically ironic.

The head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad sparked widespread controversy in the aftermath of the 2006 July War 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah, when he described the leaders of Arab countries as “half-men,” in reference to the Gulf countries that refused to stand by Hezbollah, which angered the leaders of these countries.

Al-Abdullah added that the regime will lose the “superiority” in the Palestinian issue, although it has enough impudence to accuse others of treason even when acting similarly.

It seems that the Syrian regime knows very well that losses and consequences will not be easy, especially under the current Arab and international isolation and sanctions, in addition to the restlessness of citizens in its areas of control and their suffering from stifling economic crises.

Hazem Nahar believes that the current pace, pressure, and stated goals of the US will not push the Syrian regime towards this option. The regime can resist these pressures and remain in power. The American pressures are designed to hurt and embarrass the regime, but not enough to make it feel that it is on the verge of collapse.

There are many stops that the normalization train will have to pass through before the possibility of the Syrian regime. Nahar believes that the Syrian regime, if there is a possibility of normalization at all at the present moment, will not initiate normalization before seeing Saudi Arabia and other countries go in this direction so that the regime will be the last of the “normalizers” in a certain sense.

An Israeli tank in the occupied Golan Heights

An Israeli tank in the occupied Golan Heights

Obstacles to Syria-Israel normalization

Despite the assertion of the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad that there are no current negotiations, he did not rule out establishing “normal” relations with Israel. Rather, he considered it a “straightforward matter.” Still, he stipulated the restoration of the land in return for that, in an interview with the Russian agency Sputnik Posted on October 8.

Assad did not mention “comprehensive Arab peace,” which contradicts the Syrian Foreign Ministry’s statement at the beginning of last October. This indicated that the Syrian attitude rejects concessions and individual agreements with Israel, regardless of their form or content, based on its “firm conviction that such agreements harm Arab causes in general.” These words came in the first official statement regarding the normalization of Arab countries with Israel.

Two stances preceded the Foreign Ministry’s statement on Arab normalization with Israel. First when Walid al-Muallem, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, said in a speech before the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, on 28 September, that “the era of annexing the lands of others by force has passed, and deluded is who believes that the crisis in Syria can divert us an inch from our right to retake the entire Golan.”

The second stance was presented by the permanent representative to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva, Hussam al-Din Ala, on 30 September, as he ignored the talk about normalization and criticized Israel for its “practices in the occupied Syrian Golan and Palestine, and its violation of human rights.”

The regime’s stance regarding Arab normalization with Israel at the time came days after Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper reported that there was a “widespread belief in the existence of secret negotiations between Damascus and Tel Aviv.” on 27 September.

The newspaper cited that whenever the Syrian regime was in isolation or a crisis, the “exit” was to resume negotiations, according to the saying; “The road to Washington always passes through Tel Aviv.”

Hafez al-Assad and former US President Bill Clinton in Geneva, Switzerland, for peace talks between Syria and Israel, 1999 (Reuters)

Hafez al-Assad and former US President Bill Clinton in Geneva, Switzerland, for peace talks between Syria and Israel, 1999 (Reuters)

 Russian Role is welcomed

When discussing negotiations between the Syrian regime and Israel, all eyes turn to the regime’s allies’ positions regarding those negotiations because of their influence and role in the Syrian file both politically and militarily.

International relations specialist Dr. Bilal Salaymeh said in an interview with Enab Baladi that Russia will not object to rapprochement between Israel and the Syrian regime or the start of negotiations between the two parties, pointing out that the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys “friendly” relations with the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, political analyst Raed Jabr goes further than Russia’s lack of objection to the normalization of Syrian-Israeli relations. He believes that normalization is “one of Moscow’s goals for the next stage,” but this requires “certain conditions” from the Russian perspective.

Jabr believes that the priority now is in the path of political settlement, the return of refugees, and reconstruction, according to what he told Enab Baladi.

He pointed out that the normalization of Syrian-Israeli relations is currently linked to the regional situation and is mainly linked to the comprehensive settlement of the many different files.

Moscow gave previous indications of its intention to move forward in this direction in terms of stabilizing the situation in the Israeli-occupied Golan by assisting in re-conducting international patrols and declaring that the situation in Golan must be preserved in order not to allow the situation to slide towards comprehensive confrontations. In addition to this, Moscow helped deport the Iranians from south Syria, according to Jabr.

Jabr also spoke about the conflict of information regarding the existence of Syrian-Israeli communication or communication attempts under the UAE-US auspices. Moscow observes cautiously because it believes that doing this the “American way” is not appropriate. Russia wants to have its own path to have a word in this matter.

Would Iran obstruct a potential agreement?

Political analyst Raed Jabr considered that Moscow is aware that the conditions are currently not suitable due to the Iranian presence in Syria, which is the first factor to obstructing any Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

The Iranian role in Syria is considered to be both rough and complicated. Therefore, Moscow does not want to preempt matters, as it is working to maintain the balances it has established with the various parties in Syria before taking such a step.

The second point is relevant to Moscow’s unwillingness to participate in the process of this kind without Israeli indications of readiness to hold negotiations on Golan’s future. That is, Moscow cannot start with normalization and then go to the political settlement process. This is important for Moscow that declares commitment to international laws, and to that, Golan is occupied Syrian land. The data Moscow has obtained from Israel so far say that the latter is not serious, according to Jabr.

As for the direct Iranian position, Dr. Bilal Salaymeh told Enab Baladi that Tehran takes a hostile stance towards Israel and supports the Lebanese Hezbollah and some Palestinian forces; it does not encourage any negotiations between the Syrian regime and Israel, unlike the Russian position.

Researcher on Iranian affairs, Alaa al-Saeed, disagrees with the previous point of view and believes that “the truth” indicates a complete harmony and secret plans between Israel and Iran that the public cannot see. He supports his point with several examples, such as the July war.

Al-Saeed considered that if any Syrian-Israeli normalization is announced, Iran will object in the media, but it will not intervene to stop any normalization or “Syrian-Zionist” relations, complementing the “cooperation between Israel and Iran.”

He added saying; “Both regimes are based on religious beliefs, and both countries are considered religious states. This congruence ends the existing debate. Neither Iran nor Hezbollah will object to any Syrian-Zionist normalization.”

In terms of legality… What will happen to any Syrian normalization with Israel in the event of Assad’s departure?

A question arises about the future fate of the international agreements concluded by the Syrian government in the Syrian regime’s departure, led by Bashar al-Assad, and the legal system that governs these agreements.

Some of the relevant aspects to the matter were clarified in a paper prepared by “The Syrian Program for Legal Development” for Enab Baladi.

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969 came into force in January 1980. It regulates treaties concluded between states and is considered the main instrument governing treaties. It determines how the treaty is formulated, amended, interpreted, and how it works and how to be ended.

This agreement does not establish specific rights or obligations on the parties but rather establishes states’ rights and obligations in their diplomatic relations. The agreement defines “the treaty” as “the international agreement concluded between States in written form, which is regulated by international law, whether it is contained in one, two or more related documents and whatever proper name it has.

The “Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties” differentiates between two main cases about termination or expiration of international conventions. Namely, the agreement’s termination or expiration is based on the agreement of the parties or without agreement between the parties.

However, there is a widely accepted principle in international law that government changes do not affect its treaty obligations. However, some trends confirm that revolutionary changes in governments affect those states’ treaty obligations.

Lawyer Bassam al-Ahmad believes that the assumption that the current Syrian regime has signed an agreement with Israel will entail “difficulty” when the withdrawal is needed and may entail certain obligations on Syria.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, he said that the withdrawal from any Syrian-Israeli agreement is “presumed,” and if the regime is taken down, then withdrawing from that agreement may be “possible by legalists working on loopholes regarding the illegitimacy of the regime in the first place.

He indicated that any country’s power plays a “big role” in ignoring or canceling agreements, as in the case of Russia and America, for example, that violate UN Security Council resolutions and ignore agreements.

According to Al-Ahmad, it is not necessary to cancel the “supposed” agreement completely. It may rather be sufficient to amend it, indicating that the political context, details, and legal loopholes greatly affect the future of the “supposed” agreement and the new government’s vision of normalization and its stance toward it.

An Israeli tank destroyed in the battles of the 1974 war in the occupied Golan Heights - 2018 (shutterstock)

An Israeli tank destroyed in the battles of the 1974 war in the occupied Golan Heights – 2018 (Shutterstock)

 

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