On the sidelines of a cease-fire, an increasingly defiant Syria
Syrian president Assad says that putting peacekeepers on the Lebanese-Syrian border would be a hostile move.
DAMASCUS, SYRIA AND CAIRO — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is generally seen in the US and in Israel as a weak leader who has to end his country's support for Hizbullah or face the consequences.
But in a string of recent statements, Mr. Assad has signaled that he has no intention of backing down and is determined to use the fraught situation in Lebanon to push his longstanding claims to the Golan Heights.
On Wednesday, he warned that if peace negotiations on the Golan fail to materialize soon, Syria will take a more aggressive stance toward its old enemy.
"We are continuously seeking preparations, at least in the first phase, to defend our territories because Israel is an expansionist state," Assad said on Dubai TV. "If peace is not achieved and the peace process does not move, then war is the natural future in the region and Syria will be the first party concerned in the matter."
Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Daily Star, an English-language Lebanese newspaper, says Assad's interview carried the same spirit of defiance as his past speeches and was a sign that Syria, like others in the region, feels emboldened by Hizbullah's performance against Israel.
"When he says there is a war option, I think that's more of confrontation or resistance," says Mr. Khouri. "What he's really trying to say is, 'let's not keep having these wars every three years. Let's look at the peace option.' The peace side is more significant than the war side of his message. It's more possible and more desirable."
The Syrian government has expressed its support of Hizbullah throughout the 34-day war between the Lebanese guerrillas and Israel, even though its own border with Israel remained quiet. Assad also said Wednesday that stationing international peacekeepers on its border with Lebanon would be considered an "infringement on Lebanese sovereignty" and "a hostile stance toward Syria."
"In essence, what we see going on in Lebanon is a classic struggle for an important sphere of influence," says Joshua Landis, a historian of Syria and director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
"Since the American invasion of Iraq, the US decided to take Lebanon away from Syria. [But] Lebanon is the major card that Syria has to play in order to get back the Golan Heights, and Hizbullah is the most important card in Syria's hand."
Mr. Landis says that from Assad's standpoint, abandoning Hizbullah means abandoning his country's claims to the Golan Heights, which were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. Doing so is something he doesn't seem inclined to do. Such a step would severely damage his standing among his own people and in the broader region.
"Bashar's latest speech saying he would close the border with Lebanon, and that [putting] foreign troops on the border would be considered a hostile act – this is a message from Bashar to the French," says Landis. What he is saying, Landis says, is: " 'Do not think you can come here and oppose us and shut down Hizbullah because we will consider this an act of war.' He's seeking to use tough talk to scare off the French."
Assad's interview with Dubai TV softened statements he made during a hard-hitting speech last week in which he voiced his support of the "resistance" and of Hizbullah, called Arab leaders "half men" for not supporting Hizbullah in the war in Lebanon, and slammed the pro-US Lebanese politicians in Lebanon.
Assad's speech comes in the same week that Israel signalled the possibility of dialogue with Syria. In the aftermath of the war, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz became the first senior Israeli official to call for resuming talks with Syria.
"We must hold a dialogue with Lebanon, and we should create the conditions for dialogue also with Syria," he said.
But, on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Syria must first stop its support of militant groups if Israel is to consider reopening negotiations. Mr. Olmert's statement came after a cabinet minister urged Israel to give back the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.
Syria's overtures over the past two years to reopen negotiations over the Golan have repeatedly gone unheard. Israel has preferred to maintain the status quo since Syria is viewed as a weak state that poses little threat to Israel.
Indeed, Syria's military appears to be in no position to confront Israel directly, particularly its air force as conflict with Israel over the skies of Lebanon demonstrated in 1982. A week of fighting then ended with the loss of over 80 Syrian planes, with no losses for the Israelis. Since, the gap between the two militaries has grown.
Analysts say that although the Syrian side of the Golan is sparsely inhabited and has no indigenous resistance movement, Islamists and nationalists within the country could easily be mobilized and armed. But that move could be a risky one for the government itself, others say.
"Only a revolutionary type of war will work using an explosive mixture of Arabism and Islam," says Samir al-Taqi, an adviser to the foreign ministry and the manager of OCS, the Orient Center for Studies, a newly opened think tank based in Damascus. "Now Syria is in a deadlock. The choice is either you go to war or do this by peace."
Over the past month, Syria has said that it is preparing its army and calling up reserves in case that war with Israel becomes inevitable.
"The Syrian people are pressuring the government to start the resistance after the failure of negotiations," said Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal, who added that Syria would be the third front that Israel would have to deal with apart from that of Lebanon and the Palestinian conflict.
"If the Israelis are really seeking peace, then we as Syrians shall be ready to resume negotiations to get back the complete Golan Heights. The Israelis should pull out to the border of June 4, 1967. With such conditions, we are ready."
On the Damascus street, where cars with Hizbullah flags are a regular sight, a common proverb summed up public sentiment: "If the problem doesn't get worse it can't get better."