In the complicated realm of the Middle East, Syria plays a central role. Giyus.org sat down with Professor Eyal Zisser, an expert on the modern history of Syria and Lebanon, to get a better understanding of Syria and the way it uses terror to advance its political goals in the region. Prof. Zisser is the head the department of Humanities Studies in Tel Aviv University; he is a frequent speaker and writer on this subject.
Giyus.org: What’s Syria role in the region and how is it impacted by the rising power of Iran?
Professor Zisser: Syria has a central role in the Middle East. First of all, it has a central geographic location practically at the heart of the region. Secondly, Syria borders Israel and plays a major part in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its conflict with Israel allows Syria to maintain close relationship with Hamas and Hezbollah and help them out.
The Assad family has been in power since 1970. During this period Syria became a stable country, strong from the military and political perspective. Syria is involved in Lebanon and with the Palestinians, but most of the attention it gets from the Western world is due to its close ties with Iran.
This Syria-Iran alliance allows Iran to benefit from Syria’s central location and provides a gateway for Iran to Israel’s immediate vicinity. Syria, on the other hand, benefit from the rising power of Iran. By partnering with Iran, Syria seems stronger in the eyes of the West.
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Giyus.org: Iran is ruled by a deeply religious Islamic regime, while Syria is completely secular – does that impact the relations between the states?
Professor Zisser: At the moment the political gains for both countries outweighs the religious differences. In the long term this is definitely an issue that can cause tension between Syria and Iran. However, since this alliance was forged 30 years ago, both countries have dealt with much greater threats to their existence so it is in their best interests to partner and over look the religious issue.
Giyus.org: What are some of the major threats facing Syria in recent years?
Professor Zisser: The list is very long. In the 80s Israel entered Lebanon in the first Lebanon war. This then created problems in Lebanon, the front yard of Syria. This last decade since September 11th attacks was marked by the war on Terror. Bush invaded Iraq and was considering an invasion to Syria as well.
In light of these threats Syria needs Iran as an ally to back her up. In the eyes of Syria, Israel and the US are a strategic threat, much more so than Iran.
Giyus.org: What are the motivations behind Syria’s support of terror organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah?
Professor Zisser: Syria views terror as a tool to achieve its political goals. Syria does not have a strong army and is using its terror support to show its presence and make the West take it into account as a major player in the Middle East.
On top of that, by supporting terror organizations Syria is keeping radical Islamic terror at bay. Bashar al Assad said that radical Islam is a great threat for Syria since it is a secular regime. By supporting anti Israel terror organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria stays on the “right side” of Islamic terror organizations like Al Qaeda.
And of course, by supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria gains popularity in the Arab street as the main backer of the resistance forces against Israel.
Giyus.org: Moving from supporting terror to peace – what’s Syria strategic stand with regards to the peace process with Israel?
Professor Zisser: Syria would like to see the peace talks move forward but is not willing to take any actions as condition for the talks. Syria refuses to stop supporting terror as a condition to resuming the peace talks. If and when there will be peace talks Syria might be willing to discuss its terror activities.
However, when we think of a possible peace agreement between Syria and Israel, it will be more like a friendly divorce agreement than a unity in a marriage. There is too much suspicion on both sides for this to be a warm close peaceful relation. But there can be a lasting peace where each country minds its own business.
Giyus.org: How does Syria view the efforts by the US and the European Union to bring it closer to the West?
Professor Zisser: There is actually a great disappointment in Syria from the Obama administration. Syria expected Obama to start talks and advance the relationship but this didn’t happen. Despite the rhetoric about engaging Syria, there is still no US Ambassador in Damascus (the last US Ambassador left in 2005 after the assassination of PM Harriri in Lebanon).
The US on the other hand demands that Syria make some changes that demonstrate they are heading for peace. The US would like to see Syria sending Hamas’ leader Mashaal away from Damascus, or stop assisting anti American terror in Iraq. Syria refusal to take these steps makes it very hard for the US to make real advances.
As for the European Union, while they can offer some benefits, Syria does not view them as a strategic partner.
Since these advancements from the EU came with no conditions, it only convinces Syria that supporting terror organizations pays out. They believe that they can convince the world to accept them as they are, as long as they stick to their guns and continue supporting terror activities.
Giyus.org: How does Syria view its relations with Lebanon?
Professor Zisser: Lebanon is very important to Syria which views it as its own front yard. While they were kicked out of Lebanon a few years ago, they are now gradually increasing their involvement again.
Lebanon is a highly fractured country and Syria is the only one that can keep the balance and help maintain stability. Since this is in everyone best interests and no one wants to see Lebanon torn apart in a civil war again, Syria has been allowed back in the game.
Syria is willing to meddle in the Lebanese swamp and is the only one that can keep Hezbollah in its place. Hezbollah’s weapon route from Iran goes through Syria. This gives Syria great leverage over Hezbollah since they can cut off their weapon supply at any time.
Giyus.org: Will there be any impact to the expected UN tribunal announcement regarding Hezbollah’s involvement in the assassination of Harriri?
Professor Zisser: No one has an interest to burst the Lebanese bubble. Not the US, or France, which were behind the tribunal in the first place, nor the regional Lebanese players which know their power limitation.
The main question is if Hezbollah is willing to accept an indictment. It’s clear that even if there is a report accusing Hezbollah of involvement in the assassination, nothing will be done about it. But at the moment Hezbollah is not willing to accept any report claiming the organization or its people were involved.
It is not clear how far Hezbollah will go with its reaction on this issue but I don’t feel it will escalate to a new civil war. It’s much easier to bury a report by the UN and ignore it than to start a civil war over it.
Giyus.org: What was Syria role in previous internal Lebanese conflicts such as Hezbollah’s coup in 2008?
Professor Zisser: Until 2008 there was a strong anti Syria camp in Lebanon which included the Druze and Sunni and was backed by France and Saudi Arabia. When Hezbollah took over key areas in Beirut in 2008, as a reaction to an anti Hezbollah resolution in the government, the anti Syria camp was left alone in the field against the Shiite Hezbollah army.
Knowing their own power limitations, the anti Syria camp realized they cannot stand up to Syria alone. So they turned around and decided that Syria must be engaged again since they are the only ones that can maintain balance in Lebanon. The Druze and the Sunnis camps have made their peace with Syria, basically paving the road for Syria’s involvement in internal Lebanese politics once again.
Giyus.org: Syria is also bordering Turkey – how would you describe the relations between these two countries?
Professor Zisser: Syria and Turkey enjoy close relations these days. They have strong economic ties and Turkish PM Erdoğan is a close ally. This was not always the case. In the past Syria and Turkey were enemies and Syria supported the Kurds anti Turkey terror activities. Since Syria stopped supporting the Kurds, the relations with Turkey have greatly improved. The recent Islamization process which Turkey is going through has also brought the two countries closer.
Giyus.org: Can you describe the daily life of the people in Syria?
Professor Zisser: Syria is a totalitarian regime which is becoming more aggressive over the years. The hopes that Bashar al Assad, as a young leader, would bring about change have faded.
In the Middle East, before you seek the right to speak your mind, you seek the right to walk safely in your street. Take a look at Iraq, at Lebanon, personal safety is not granted. The people in Syria know very well where they live and realizing the alternative is chaos, therefore they stick with their dictator regime to gain stability and safety. It’s a choice between two evils – a tyrant regime or chaos in the streets.
Giyus.org: What keeps Assad’s regime in power? Why doesn’t it collapse like the Soviet Union?
Professor Zisser: There is no real opposition to the Assad regime. Most people are very passive and there are no demonstrations against the ruling party. Assad power base relies on this passiveness and the fact that it brings stability. Of course the security forces play an important role as well.
Assad’s anti Western and anti Israel rhetoric is also very popular in the Syrian street. This unites the people in Syria against Israel and the West further strengthening Assad’s control.
From an economic perspective things have been rather good so again no cause for people to make a change.
This is an ethnic family based regime, similar in concept to the regime of Castro in Cuba or North Korea.
Other than Israel, there are no democracies in the Middle East – it’s all dictatorships which last a long time. The only dictator that lost power is Saddam Hussien and if September 11th attacks didn’t happen Saddam would probably still rule over Iraq.
Assad keeps a tight ship, and Syria has been stable throughout the years. While so many changes have happened in Israel or the US, Syria has shown remarkable stability and this stability is at the base of their power.