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The Syrian Opposition, Non-state Players, and the Peace Process

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There are two views floating in Syria today. Theory I says that the U.S. wants to break the Syrian-Iranian alliance through regime change in Damascus. They argue that if the regime collapses in Syria, it would result in a rapid decline for both Iran and Hezbollah. Theory II, however, claims that contrary to what is being said, the U.S. is un-interested in severing Syria's alliance with parties, fearing the worst in the Middle East. It would rather manage than break that alliance, they believe. Advocates of this theory don't believe that regime change in Syria automatically spells out a quick demise for Hezbollah and Iran. If change does happen, the U.S. would still want a regional heavyweight that can deliver when it comes to non-state players like Hezbollah and countries like Iran. One of the pitfalls that the Syrian opposition is falling into is telling the world that if they come to power, they would automatically sever Syria's alliance with Hezbollah and Iran. That sounds logical, but is emotional more so than pragmatic given that they are focused on charting a course that is completely different from everything Syrian officialdom has done since 1970. Let us take a look at Theory II.

The United States, they argue, is more interested in the security of Israel than in the democratization of Syria. America's track record since 1949 -- the date of Syria's first military regime -- speaks volumes about Washington's desire for change in the Arab World. Its focus on Syria since the late 1980s has been namely because of its ability to influence non-state players that give Tel Aviv a headache. It used those connections in recent years, for example, talking Hezbollah into joining the political process in Lebanon, and convincing Hamas into accepting the Arab League Initiative of 2002 and abiding by the 1967 borders of Palestine. During the heyday of Hosni Mubarak, for example, he made sure that Camp David was upheld from Egypt's side, and pushed the right buttons with Fateh, while Syria did the same on its border with Israel, making sure that it remains quiet, while moderating the behavior of militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. With Mubarak gone, the U.S. lost a major "stabilizer" in the Middle East, and now with the Syrian regime in shaky waters, it runs the high risk of seeing a leadership in Damascus that cannot deliver when it comes to the security of Israel.

If the Syrian opposition does come to power and puts its words into action, that leaves Iran as the only player with considerable leverage over non-state players like the PKK, the Mehdi Army, the Badr Brigade, Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent, Islamic Jihad and Hamas who nowadays, are allied to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Let us take Hezbollah as an example. The turbaned leadership of Hezbollah realized, early into the Syrian uprising, that there was an entire street in Syria that it is clueless about; namely the boiling anti-regime demonstrators. Hezbollah was indeed taken aback by angry young Syrians tearing apart pictures of Hasan Nasrallah and burning the yellow flag of Hezbollah. Swiftly, it tried to build bridges with these groups, offering to mediate in the Syrian crisis but its calls fell on deaf ears, namely because of its staunch commitment to the Syrian regime, which meant that nobody in the opposition took them seriously as honest brokers. Nasrallah's remarks only complicated matters, as he adhered to the conspiracy theory being marketed by the Syrian state-run media and refused to give the anti-regime street the slightest respect -- or even the benefit of the doubt. The wider the gap between Hezbollah and Iran on one front, and the Syrian opposition on another, the more worrying this was to realists in Washington D.C.

The Syrian opposition today has to sit back and come up with answers to the following questions: What to do with the military, governmental, and security institutions if they come to power? How to manage the Syrian economy? How to handle Syria's relationship with people like Muqtada al-Sadr and Hasan Nasrallah? More importantly, what to do with the Syrian-Israeli peace process, which is now on hold? This is something that is extremely important to both Israel and the U.S., and which is being completely overlooked in all rhetoric and strategy since March 2011. Israel has not changed its conditions for peace, after all, since the famous Assad-Clinton meeting in Geneva in March 2000. Back then, it explicitly asked for full sovereignty over the Jordan River and Lake Tiberias, which is their major freshwater reservoir. Israel wanted a sovereign corridor of ten meters on both sides of the creek from the springs of Banias in the northern Golan down to Lake Tiberias. Hafez al-Assad said no, refusing to accept the 1923 international borders, abiding by the June 4 borders, while turning down all suggestions for territorial swaps. At one point, if the regime is changed in Syria, new rulers will have to answer these very thorny questions, and U.S. officials are doubtful that neither they nor the current regime can deliver anymore when it comes to peace. And if they do, it is doubtful that their peace can last.

These are challenges that are yet to be addressed properly. If the opposition does have answers, then they have not yet been articulated properly to those who matter in Washington circles, which might explain why the U.S. is seemingly so reluctant to push for real change in Syria.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. This article was published in Gulf News on April 23, 2012.