Why is Syria staying quiet on Gaza?

Interesting analysis from a seasoned observer suggests that the Syrians could be eyeing a bigger prize, but adds that this will only transpire if Iran is allowed to join in.

Why is Syria staying quiet on Gaza?

In a recent edition of Kuwaiti newspaper Waqt Al-Siyassah (Politics Time), journalist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed discussed the Syrian regime’s silence over Gaza.

Al-Rashed, a former editor of Al Majalla, offered a unique perspective, suggesting that Syria’s reticence to call out Israeli aggression comes from wanting the US to lift sanctions against it, especially those outlined in the ‘Caesar Act.’

Effective from June 2020, this Act sanctioned the Syrian government, including President Bashar al-Assad, for committing war crimes against the Syrian people.

It applies to Syria’s energy, infrastructure, industry, and military and further applies to any individual or company providing funding or assistance to al-Assad.

Al-Rashed suggested that Damascus was keeping quiet on Gaza because it wanted to show good behaviour, especially after reconciling with the wider Arab world last year.

The veteran journalist, 68, who also chaired the Al-Arabiya editorial board, suggested that a possible Syria-Israel peace deal would be a means to end the sanctions, as well as a potential catalyst for change in Syria.

Such a deal may also lead to the departure of US and Turkish troops from Syrian territory to the east and north, respectively.

Historical patterns

Al-Rashed is no starry-eyed optimist. Syria is allied with Iran, which means that it would be “extremely difficult” for it to facilitate peace talks with Israel, he says. That could be an understatement.

Syria’s closeness to Iran goes back decades. Neither liked Saddam Hussein, a joint neighbour, and both sought his ouster. When the Americans obliged, Syria and Iran worked together to give US forces in Iraq a bloody nose.

Read more: Exclusive: How Syria and Iran plotted over a post-Saddam Iraq

Damascus could be keeping quiet on Gaza because it wants to show good behaviour, especially after reconciling with the wider Arab world last year.

During the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, Syria's then-President Hafez al-Assad aligned with Iran, diverging from his usual Arab nationalist rhetoric. This was during the Cold War. While Washington supported Saddam, Moscow supported Tehran.

After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, the elder al-Assad aligned with the US for the first Gulf War, led by the elder US President George Bush.

By the time the US went to war against Iraq again in 2003, Bush's son (George W.) was in power in Washington, while al-Assad's son (Bashar) was in power in Damascus.

In 1991, around 14,500 Syrian troops took part in Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait. Al-Assad had pledged up to 100,000 when he met US Secretary of State James Baker in 1990.

For al-Assad, it was personal—Saddam had been trying to kill the Syrian president for years. For Washington, Syria's agreement to enter the US-led coalition was vital to entice other Arab states.

In return, the US facilitated a $1bn weapons tranche to Damascus and gave al-Assad the green light to wipe out forces opposed to Syria's presence in Lebanon.

Talks with Israel

At that juncture, Syria was open to the concept of a "comprehensive and just" peace with Israel and participated in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

Several rounds of negotiations took place between Syria and Israel, which was then led by Yitzhak Rabin, with agreement nearly reached, but ultimately, a deal fell through.

In exchange for sending its troops to help the US liberate Kuwait, Syria got $1bn worth of arms and a green light to wipe out forces opposed to its presence in Lebanon.

In early 2011, the United States secretly brokered talks between Bashar al-Assad and Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu. Again, they almost led to an agreement before Arab Spring-inspired anti-regime demonstrations broke out across Syria.

Having tried and come close twice, Al-Rashed suggested that further Israel-Syria peace talks would be easier to aim for than a full peace agreement.

This could allow Damascus to leverage its relations with Iran to negotiate sanctions relief and reclaim control over Syrian territories in return for dialogue with Israel.

Yet, whereas Iran and Syria were both independent and equal partners during the era of Hafez al-Assad, today's Syria falls very much under the Iranian orbit, much like the proxy militias Iran supports, such as Hezbollah.

Question of sovereignty

Yet, as al-Rashed pointed out, despite the internal and external forces pulling at Syria, it remains a sovereign state, despite this sovereignty being heavily overshadowed by Iran's pervasive influence.

Any deal would require Iran's departure from Syria. Yet, this is not as straightforward as it seems. Iran is deeply entrenched in Syria, whether that be in state institutions, governance, agriculture, the economy, security, education, and even tourism.

For a peace deal, Israel would require the expunging of Iranian influence from its northerly neighbour. For Iran, losing its grip on Syria is not an option. Its influence in Iran is linked to Bashar al-Assad, so Tehran would want him to stay.

In part owing to its geostrategic location, Syria gains currency as a critical bridge between the regions' power centres, including Tehran, Baghdad, Beirut, and Amman.

For the ever-pragmatic Iran, it may be willing to negotiate its influence in Syria with Israel, provided it gets assurances over its nuclear programme and the maintenance of its allies' power in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Since October, Hezbollah has engaged in conflict with Israel. That response has not been mirrored by Syria along the Golan Heights.

Risks and rewards

Seen in the wider context, the Syrian regime's silence on the Gaza situation is not solely a result of its inability to act. While the Lebanese regime also faces constraints, Hezbollah has actively engaged in conflict with Israel at the borders.

That response has not been mirrored by Syria along the Golan Heights, despite Israel's ongoing military strikes against Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria, including the assassination of key Iranian figures.

Iran and al-Assad both understand the risks of such provocations, acknowledging that any misstep could jeopardise the regime or al-Assad's leadership.

The absence of war between Syria and Israel does not equate to peace, especially in the absence of a broader, comprehensive agreement.

Today, the idea of a "comprehensive peace" is not what would have been understood by the elder al-Assad, that of a pan-Arab peace with Israel.

Rather, it would be a tripartite US-Iran-Israel agreement that addresses Iran's regional ambitions and secures peace and security for Israel.

This reduced compromise approach may find favour in Tel Aviv, Washington, Tehran, and Damascus.

Given the developments since 7 October, it may be an opportunity for Syria's leader to re-establish his standing.

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