Assad changes tunes on Israel in interview with Russian media

The Syrian president avoided linking the issue of normalisation with the Palestinian file, in a remarkable change in Damascus’s approach to its relationship with Israel.
Friday 09/10/2020
An Israeli army outpost in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a directional sign for cities in the region and the world. (Reuters)
An Israeli army outpost in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights shows a directional sign for cities in the region and the world. (Reuters)

DAMASCUS – Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview with Russian news agency Sputnik that he was not against normalising relations with Israel, but only if certain conditions are met.

Among these conditions is that Tel Aviv seriously commits to returning occupied Syrian land. The Syrian president, however, avoided linking the issue of normalisation with the Palestinian file, in a remarkable change in Damascus’s approach to its relationship with Israel.

The Syrian regime remained silent over the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain’s move to normalise relations with Israel last September, in contrast to Damascus’s ally Iran, which harshly criticised the deals and raised questions about the Arab Gulf countries’ commitment to the Palestinian cause. 

However, Syria’s ruling Ba’ath party, which is headed by Assad, did issue a statement condemning the move, in what appeared to be an attempt by its leadership to save face and avoid accusations that it had turned its back on its principles. 

A file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad speaking during an interview in Damascus. (AFP)
A file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad speaking during an interview in Damascus. (AFP)

Damascus has long linked normalisation to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the return of Syrian land.

However, Assad’s recent statements, which avoided use of the phrase “Zionist entity” to refer to Israel, seem to indicate a shift in the country’s foreign policy.

Assad said that in order to hold Syrian-Israeli negotiations, it is imperative that Israel “restore all Syrian land” it is occupying. 

“Our position has been very clear since the beginning of the peace talks in the 1990s, almost three decades ago, when we said that peace for Syria is correlated with regaining our rights,” the Syrian president added.

He explained that “holding talks will be possible only when Israel is ready to return the occupied Syrian lands, but they (have) never been ready, not now, not ever.”

Assad’s statement comes a few days after Lebanon and Israel, which are still technically at war, said they had agreed to begin UN-brokered negotiations over the shared frontier, in what Washington hailed a “historic” agreement.

Hezbollah on Thursday said US-backed talks with Israel did not signify “reconciliation” or “normalisation” with the Jewish state, in what appeared to be an attempt by the Iran-backed party, which must have approved the agreement, to assure its supporters that it was not caving to its arch-enemy. 

The talks will be held at the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura under the banner of the United Nations. They are expected to begin on October 14, according to US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East.

In their first stage, the talks will likely focus on the issue of maritime borders, but more comprehensive agreements are also expected to be reached.

The demarcation of land borders between Israel and Lebanon cannot be achieved unless Damascus is involved. The issue is complicated by Syria’s failure to acknowledge  Lebanon’s right to the Shebaa Farms, a small strip of land that has been occupied by Israel since 1967.

There is considerable confusion about international and regional understandings that are being discussed behind closed doors, one of the axes of which is Syrian-Lebanese relations with Tel Aviv, especially after diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and Arab Gulf states the UAE and Bahrain. 

The Syrian president denied that Israel was seeking to make peace between the two countries, saying, “We have seen no Israeli official who is ready to move one step forward toward peace.”

Assad was careful in his interview with the Russian agency to leave the door open for potential negotiations with Israel, and he is believed to have already begun taking steps to break down social barriers to forging better ties with Tel Aviv. 

The Syrian regime realises how important leverage with Israel is to helping it allay US pressure. Observers say an American operation to bring down Assad could have taken place within a few weeks of the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2012, as Washington had multiple motivations for military intervention. 

The US, for example, could have intervened after the Ghouta massacre in 2013, but reports say that Washington was advised by Israel not to when it was ready to act.

Israel also played a major role in bringing the Syrian south back under regime control in 2018 after Damascus lost it in late 2013.

Tel Aviv, in fact, prevented the regime from seeing a repeat of the Idlib scenario in the south, as Jordan sought to exploit the collapse of the Assad regime through a US-led Military Operations Center (MOC) based in Amman. 

Jordan also provided support to tribes in southern Syria before the plan was put to an end and Arab Gulf funding to the country was stopped.

Israel is believed to benefit from the survival of Assad and his regime, and is not interested in bringing it down, as it believes that could result in Damascus falling into the hands of more hostile groups.

Analysts point out that the main problem between Damascus and Tel Aviv is the influence of  Iran and its proxies.

Since 2013, Israel has launched air strikes on Iranian and Iran-backed militias’ sites across Syria. In recent months, it has stepped up its targeting range while avoiding painful strikes on Syrian regime sites.

Israel rarely confirms that it is responsible for such strikes, but has always argued it will continue to block what it describes as Iran’s attempts to consolidate its military presence in Syria and send advanced weapons to its most prominent arm in the region, the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah. 

In his interview with Sputnik, Assad denied the presence of Iranian forces within Syrian territory, noting that the country only has military experts working with the Syrian Army on the ground.

“We do not have Iranian forces, and that is very clear,” Assad said. 

“They support Syria, they send military experts and work with our forces on the ground, and they are with the Syrian army,” he added.

“Let’s take a practical example: about a year ago, the Americans told the Russians to convince the Iranians that they should be 80 kilometres from the border with the Golan Heights that is occupied by the Israelis,” he said.

“Although there were no Iranian soldiers, the Iranians were very flexible, so they said: ‘Well, there will be no Iranian crews south of that line.’ The Americans said that if we could agree on this, we would withdraw from the occupied eastern part of Syria on the border with Iraq, or the area called Al Tanf, but nothing happened,” Assad explained.

Assad claimed the US was only using claims of “Iranian presence” as a pretext to occupy Syrian land, support terrorism and “cover up their true intentions.”

Assad appeared to contradict himself at times, declaring that there are no Iranian forces in Syria while also speaking of a potential trade-off of an Iranian withdrawal from the south for the US’s exit from Al Tanf near the Iraqi-Jordanian border.