Israel/Palestine Conflict

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A High Price: The Triumphs & Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism by Daniel Byman (Oxford University Press: 2011) pp. 464. By Judith Gosewisch

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

A High Price relates the story of Israeli counterterrorism policies and practice, and the balance between tactics and strategy from the early years of the Israeli state to the first decade of the 21st century. The author, Daniel Byman, is a professor in the Security Studies programme at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institute. In an interview on SOAS radio , Byman confers how the idea for this book first came to life whilst he was doing research in the Middle East in 2002. Ruminating about potential strategies for US counterterrorism in the wake of 9/11, Byman turned to Israel. For almost seventy years, Israel has been fighting terrorist attacks and through trial and error, has managed to stand up against terrorism. In Byman’s words (p.3) “…Virtually every counterterror instrument that Americans debate today was pioneered by Israelis in their desperate attempt to find some answer to their own terrorism conundrum.”

A High Price strives to explore and analyse the lessons we can learn from Israel’s successes and failures. The book is divided into an introduction and five sections, each of which reflect upon different periods of Israeli counterterrorism based upon the nature of the adversary and Israel’s response. The thread connecting the various sections in this book concerns the dilemma of choosing measures that hopefully guarantee the safety of the state on a daily basis whilst working towards long term peace.

A High Price explores Israel’s use of targeted killings, interrogations and efforts to improve Israel’s defences –most notably the security barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian territories. Byman has shown how the implementation of counterterrorism measures –or lack thereof- generally resulted in good immediate tactical results, but created a ripple effect with more hate and continued-if not increased- violence in the long run. Targeted killings proved effective in temporarily crippling an organisation, but did not stop the socio-political movement behind it. Nor did it prevent organisations from regaining momentum. The separation barrier kept out the suicide bombers, but increased animosity between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and caused an international outcry.
The book might have benefited from a stronger theoretical framework. Although A High Price analyses asymmetrical warfare, it fails to fully reflect on the implications of this in its findings and conclusions. Byman presents an either/or choice between a strategy of continually combating terrorism through deterrence to temporarily secure the state or implementing non-violent measures aimed at establishing long term peace. He suggests a dual-approach is necessary, but does not analyse how these approaches can complement rather than undermine each other. Byman offers an orthodox approach trying to understand terrorism; readers seeking a more nuanced and complex understanding of the subject offered by the School of (Critical) Terrorism Studies will not find it here.

Perhaps too entangled with the War on Terror narrative, the book is encumbered with a static view on how the nature of the state- and non-state group’s goals and policies may change over time and fails to explore how this influences the way in which the game is played. For example, leading up to the peace negotiations of the 1990s, the PLF hijacked the Achille Lauro. This act could be considered as an attempt of this PLO member-group to fortify its position at the negotiation table with Israel, with the latter also being a hesitant partner for peace. Nevertheless, Byman’s sole comment on the matter is how, “while Fatah moved toward negotiations other PLO groups proved less amenable” (p. 75). Byman ignores how the course state-actors and “terrorist” organisations take is affected by the other party’s actions and prescribes one interpretation of the events.

Contributing to this conceptual stagnation is Byman’s definition of terrorism (p. 7) as “a non-state actor’s use of or threat of violence against non-combatants for political reasons to produce a broader psychological effect.” This definition excludes the possibility that a state can use violence one might interpret as terror, legitimise its use, and refuses to acknowledge that state violence itself may be part of the cycle of violence. The definition precludes any discussion that the causes of terrorism arise from varied and vexing social inequities and injustices. Furthermore, this definition fails to recognise the fluidity of the terrorist label. For example, Byman recognizes that organisations such as Hamas, Hizballah or Fatah, are not solely or always aiming to terrorise but also undertake charitable and political endeavours. But he insists on labelling them primarily as terrorist organisations, arguing (p.7) that to ‘not use the term terrorist would miss an important aspect of these groups’. It is difficult to believe that anyone would overlook or forget Hamas’s or Hizballah’s use of violent tactics. But Byman’s failure to contextualise such organizations results in few suggestions on how terrorists may be incentivised to further their interests through non-violent means.

Byman’s traditional analytical approach of viewing terrorists first and foremost as perpetrators of violence hinders the possibility to (re-)humanise the subject and actually understand what motivates them. This, in turn, is vital in preventing individuals from engaging in acts of terrorism in the first place. By emphasising their terrorist nature, Byman fails to fully contextualise organisations such as Hamas, Hizballah or Fatah. As a result, A High Price offers few and limited suggestions on how terrorists may be incentivised to further their interests through non-violent means.

A High Price is caught in the dilemma of being unable to choose either in favour of short term tactics or long-term strategy. Byman advocates a political solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict which ends – not surprisingly – on a cautious, dispirited note. He instructs (p. 381) how “counterterrorism, even at its most impressive, comes with trade-offs, and most of the time effectiveness simply means fewer attacks or less deadly ones rather than a complete end to violence” and rightfully states that there are ‘no easy answers’ to the question on how to combat terrorism.

     All in all, the book contains a detailed analysis of asymmetrical warfare by one of the foremost experts on counterterrorism and the Middle East. It is based on a wealth of data accumulated through, amongst others, interviews with authoritative figures on both the Israeli and Arab side and as such, is a valuable contribution to the literature on the subject. A High Price guarantees an interesting read for any student of counterterrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular, despite its equivocal conclusions on how best to end terrorism.

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Judith Gosewisch received a Master’s degree in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding from the Durham Global Security Institute at Durham University, U.K. and currently is doing research and writing in the field of (Critical) Terrorism Studies.

 

Israel’s Palestinians: the Conflict Within by Illan Peleg and Dov Waxman (Cambridge University Press: 2011) 262 pgs. Reviewed by Uri Gopher

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Israel’s independence in 1948 heralded the establishment of a homeland for the Jews but persisting within its parameters has been a large Arab Palestinian minority estimated to make up 20% of its population (a figure that includes the Jewish settlements in the west bank and the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem). With rare exceptions, animosities run deep between the two communities where discrimination against the Palestinian minority is widespread and sharp inequalities and mistrust separate Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. October 2000 witnessed a convulsion of intercommunal violence when the state deployed heavy police forces to put down the protests of Palestinian citizens against the events that marked the beginning of the second Intifada, resulting in the deaths of thirteen Arab protestors by police gunfire.

What’s remarkable about this state of affairs is how little attention it receives outside the internal Israeli discourse, largely because Israel has no interest in internationalizing this divide, which it would rather frame (and have others frame, too) as a domestic affair. In this book, however, Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman convincingly argue that continuing to focus on the “external” Jewish-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank and Gaza at the expense of the “internal” conflict portends disaster for Israel’s already strained democracy and a complete collapse of the two-state solution.  The authors put forth concrete proposals to effectively ‘manage’ the internal conflict, thus providing a roadmap for the internal Jewish-Palestinian conflict, as they often refer to this divide, to complement the often-discussed, roadmap to the external Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These suggestions are based on the authors’ in-depth analysis of the Israeli case-study as well as drawing on their combined expertise of the way majority-minority tensions have been dealt with in other democracies.

The book is meant to sound as an alarm and instill a sense of urgency, and it does so quite compellingly. The logic behind this urgent call for action can roughly be stated as follows: 1) Only a holistic approach that takes into account both external and internal Jewish-Palestinian relations can provide both parties enough stability and viability; 2) Most efforts have heretofore focused on the external conflict, which has far too long overshadowed the internal one; 3) Israel’s intentional and unintentional mismanagement of the internal conflict “courts disaster”, in their words. This is already apparent in current anti-democratic trends that may further undermine democracy in the region, lead to civil unrest, large-scale violence and a complete collapse of the two-state solution; 4) Incremental steps towards meeting the demands set by the internal conflict will not suffice. Major changes in the definition of state, increased provision of both individual and collective rights and new social contract between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority are necessary and still possible to achieve, albeit difficult.

The first part of the book provides an in-depth account of the “conflict within”, to which this book is dedicated. Those already familiar with the issues discussed – the Palestinian minority’s identity, history, politics, the extent of inequality and discrimination that exists, the majority’s views and attitudes towards the minority – may find that this part of the book adds little to their knowledge. Still, most readers, regardless of their background and experience, will appreciate the framing and narrative style in which information is conveyed.

The temporal thrust of this book is the present and future of Arab-Jewish relations. The first section of the book largely focused on the analysis of the events of the past decade and the authors’ account of the events and development of the conflict is fair and informative. One minor exception was their treatment of what is termed “the vision documents”. These refer to a series of four documents published in 2006-2007 that were produced by different Palestinian organizations, intellectuals, academics and political activists, all Israeli citizens. These documents present a harsh critique of the way the Palestinian minority has been treated by the state and set clear demands to the Israeli state and political system. Peleg and Waxman analyze these documents in great detail, exploring their implications for the future of Jewish-Arab relations. Though their analysis is comprehensive and persuasive, the authors tend to focus only on that part of the vision documents directed at the Jewish majority whilst ignoring those parts that feature self-criticism and challenge the Palestinian minority. As such, the authors’ replicate the manner in which these documents were presented to the Jewish majority, which is mostly in threatening terms.

The fact of the matter is that these documents also encountered heavy opposition from Palestinians in Israel. This was because all the documents recognized explicitly or implicitly the existing Israeli state as the point of reference and did not challenge that or relate to the status of a Palestinian state. They also referred little to the Palestinians living elsewhere. In addition, some of the documents were also highly critical of Palestinian society, especially towards its treatment of disempowered factions within the Palestinian society. These details should have been included in the authors’ analysis of these documents, so as to provide a fuller picture of their meaning, especially since they contain promising indicators for the minority’s commitment and willingness to enhance principles of liberal democracy.    

The second section of the book turns to suggesting new ways for significantly improving Jewish-Palestinian relations. The authors’ grand strategy for how Israel could better meet the needs of its Palestinian minority so as to enhance their sense of belonging and loyalty to the state includes three main elements:

1) A new state definition: despite Israel’s self-definition as “Jewish and Democratic state”, the former has been much more forcefully maintained than the latter. Based on their assumption that a re-calibration between the Jewish and democratic commitments is essential, the authors creatively propose to define Israel as “the Jewish homeland and a state of all its citizens”. Changing the existing formula from “Jewish state” to “Jewish homeland” the authors believe would soften the collective definition without altogether eliminating some Jewish collective rights, deemed crucial by the authors, in-order to reach compromise. The designation of “a state of all its citizens” granting legal equality to all citizens as “owners” of the state and providing members of the Palestinian minority a measure of recognition and protection which, together with other elements of this strategy, could move Israel towards a more inclusive and stable future.

2) A new rights regime: the authors propose a series of policies meant to enhance both the individual and collective rights of Palestinians in Israel as a distinct national minority. These policies would ameliorate internal tensions and reduce the future likelihood of large-scale inter-communal bloodshed. This list includes: establishing functional autonomy for Palestinians in some areas of public life, improving the overall economic conditions of Israeli Arabs through long-term development plans and equitable funding arrangements, adopting an aggressive anti-discriminatory policy, increasing the amount of land available to Arab municipalities, initiating affirmative action programs, and formally recognizing the main representative institutions of the Palestinian minority and strengthening the status of Arabic as an official language of the country. At first blush some of these recommendations may seem far-fetched to some but almost all of these have been raised at different points in time by prominent Israeli figures and scholars, including by the Orr Commission, the official state commission of inquiry into the October 2000 events.

3) A new socio-political contract between the majority and the minority: the Palestinian minority’s willingness to enroll in a voluntary civilian service, in lieu of the mandatory military service imposed on the Jewish majority, would lead to the reassessment of common conventions in both Jewish and Palestinian societies and help foster good relations between the communities. However, this notion is less developed in the book as compared with the other two elements.

Peleg and Waxman make clear that they write in the hope of avoiding future bloodshed. They want to assure the success and viability of a two-state solution because “there is absolutely no way Israeli Jews will accept a one-state solution. They will staunchly resist this, even at the cost of war.” (p.230). In recent years, however, a growing number of scholars and public figures, among them Jewish and Palestinian ones, have challenged this two-state consensus by calling for a one-state solution and/or claiming that the former is no longer achievable. Peleg and Waxman do not in any way relate to these recent trends, which are necessarily linked to possible solutions for the internal conflict. This is somewhat surprising, given that one-state supporters, like the authors, share the conviction that a solution to the Jewish-Palestinian conflict needs to address both the internal and external conflicts. While there is much sense in tapping into the existing paradigm of a two-state solution as a starting point from which pragmatic change may be initiated, the authors were intellectually amiss for not at least widening their theoretical scope to include possible ethno-national scenarios, even if they do not support them. .

For starters, it is not clear that the attitudes and emotional reactions towards a one-state solution by those who oppose it will be significantly different than their reactions towards the kinds of ground-breaking proposals set forth by the authors, as evident in the reluctance to adopt hardly any of these proposed measures to date. If prevailing attitudes and emotional reactions are key factors in determining which solutions should be addressed and considered in the book, it is an argument that could serve to dismiss the authors’ own propositions.

More problematic is the authors’ reliance on current demographics in “Israel proper”- inside the green-line – to guide the assessment of potential applicability of different theoretical frameworks used elsewhere in the world with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian case. For example, in page 157 the authors state that “In general, although consociationalism[1] might work in a demographically balanced ethno-national situation, such as Belgium or Northern Ireland, it is unlikely to work in countries where one group enjoys a clear demographic and political advantage. Canada, Estonia, Israel, Slovakia, Spain and Sri-Lanka are some examples”. Since the authors’ comparative unit of analysis is the Palestinian citizens of Israel who make up roughly 20% of Israeli population (16.5% if East-Jerusalem Palestinian residents are excluded from the analysis) the authors’ decision to omit any discussion of solutions that fall outside the two-state paradigm because of its inapplicability to the Israeli case seems plausible. However, since current estimates, including official ones, show that Palestinians already make up over  50% of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which is the prism used by one-state supporters, this represents the kind of a more “balanced ethno-national situation” that the authors themselves state might lead to different conclusions.

This omission, though, does not in any way detract from the important contribution the authors make in shedding light on possible holistic ways to move forward on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their book may well constitute a “last call” for two-state supporters; a cry the authors indicate towards the end of their book may be too late.

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Uri Gopher is a recent graduate of the Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and served until recently as the Director of Policy Change at The Abraham Fund Initiatives in Israel.



[1] Consociationalism, a concept developed by Arend Lijphart, is part of the mechanisms included in power-sharing and was one of the demands put forth in one of the four “vision documents”  written by intellects of the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel, discussed earlier.

The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival by Hirsh Goodman (Public Affairs, 2011). 256 pages.

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Hirsh Goodman started his career as the Jerusalem Post’s astute defense correspondent; 30 years later, he is now an associate at the influential Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. With such mainstream credentials, his schizophrenia-like assessment of Iran’s threat to the Jewish state and blurry vision of a two-state solution was wholly unexpected.

In the opening pages, Goodman invokes all the trash-talk typically associated with Iran: “maniacally dedicated to Israel’s destruction,” a threat unmatched “since Hitler,” “dream[s]” of hitting Israel with nuclear weapons, and immune to traditional deterrence theory. Yet 15 pages later, he’s suggesting that deterrence does work, explaining that if attacked by Iran, a nuclear armed Israel would inflict a “devastating” retaliatory blow. He cautions against a preemptive Israeli attack, warning that it would not fully destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and only trigger a “vast and enduring” cycle of retaliation between the two countries. An “Iranian attack on Israel or an Israeli attack on Iran,” concludes Goodman, “is strategically nonsensical.”

Shortly after the book’s publication, Goodman had a change of heart. He now advocates attacking Iran, even hinting that tactical nuclear weapons should be used. Why the predicted cycle of violence between the Israel and Iran would be tolerable has not been explained.

Israel’s survival, Goodman argues, is not in question. The Jewish State’s superior armed forces thwart any serious military challenge from any Middle Eastern state. But issues will continue to plague Israel’s future stability and shape its character. One will be ceaseless attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations Goodman judges are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Islamic Republic. Such attacks will be painful and will elicit Israel’s retaliation but are something Israel can live with.

The more serious threat to Israel’s well-being is Palestinian nationalism and Israel’s West Bank settlements. Goodman is sympathetic to the Palestinians’ suffering and views the settlements as a political and moral disaster for Israel. He fears that if left unresolved, the occupation could intensify fractionalization between Israeli Arabs, national religious Zionists, and secular Jews and twist Israel into a “de facto theocracy.” He predicts that only when the “Palestinian issue is off the table” will Israel’s economy and culture flourish and its relations with the Arab world normalize.

But Goodman is willing to accommodate Palestinian nationalism only on Israeli terms. He opposes uprooting the larger settlements because of the violent upheaval it would cause in Israel. “Israel cannot be expected,” Goodman instructs, “to tear itself to pieces for the sake of peace.” The improbable alternative scenario he offers is for Israeli settlers to “live as good neighbors and control their violent and fanatic elements.” It’s not clear how this stance squares with his advise that Israel reconsider the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative offering Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Goodman’s final word is that if necessary, Israel should unilaterally impose a settlement of its own design.

Goodman’s favoritism toward Israel is expected; what is harder to accept is his refusal to recognize any legitimacy in the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS). He refuses to consider that after 60 years of occupation the international community may have a moral duty to pressure Israel to withdraw from the territories. He instead insists that BDS is nothing less than an insidious strategy to delegitimize Israel and undermine its right to exist. Goodman uncritically defends Israel’s 2008 war on Gaza, its 2010 attack on the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, and equates “unions in Norway” with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Jihad. This political myopia shuts down the meaningful political debate Goodman purportedly seeks and confirms his assessment that “how Israel will look in the future is as unpredictable as a flip of a coin.”

Palestine: Sixty Years Later: Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank 2008-2009 by Thomas Suarez (Americans for Middle East Understanding, 2010) 112 pages plus photos.

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Individuals insisting that the Palestinians reject peace with Israel found affirmation in a report analyzing Palestinian political opinion expressed in social media.  P@lestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn From Palestinian Social Media, examined an array of West Bank and Gaza-based internet resources to conclude that Hamas exhibited “little desire for a negotiated peace with Israel,” “most Fatah supporters embraced the notion that Israel was an enemy, rather than a peace partner,” and half its members seek “armed conflict and terrorism against Israel.” And if that was not sufficient argument for the Obama Administration to discard the Palestinians, the study warned that Hamas was aligned with “Salafists such as al-Qaeda” and that Iran’s influence in the territories goes unchallenged.

P@lestinian Pulse comports with the views of its sponsoring entity: the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a self-described “policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism” whose policy recommendations echo Likud party viewpoints. The report may be exaggerated hyperbola but there is no dispute that the Palestinians deeply hate their 60 years of Israeli military occupation. An overwhelming majority of Palestinians believe that Israel aspires to annex Palestinian lands, while denying them political rights or expelling them from the West Bank. That P@lestinian Pulse chose not to ask why such hostility toward Israel exists is characteristic of rhetoric that dismisses Palestinians as worthwhile political actors and deeply affects public opinion.

Palestine: Sixty Years Later provides a forceful explanation for Palestinian anger against Israel. It’s a full bore assault against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, rejecting assumptions of symmetry between Israel and Palestine or presumptions that Israel acts in self-defense.  Thomas Suarez thesis is straight-forward: the Zionist movement since its earliest days has sought to cleanse the land of non-Jews. Zionist acceptance of 1948 U.N. partition plan was only a tactical concession and the subsequent 20 years of conflict was geared toward conquering all of Palestine. Israel’s military provokes Arab attacks in order elicit a whole slough of attacks in the name of self-defense. By cloaking every offensive action as a defensive one, Israel successfully reversed the identity of the victim and aggressor. That is why, Suarez explains, statistics demonstrating vastly greater Palestinian casualties and suffering have no meaning in the West. The “peace process,” says Suarez, has always been a distraction from the reality of on-going Israeli aggression, whether it be attacks on Gaza or the settlement construction in the West Bank.

That last claim resonates today as Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu chose settlement construction over continued talks with Palestine Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Likewise, notwithstanding Netanyahu’s endorsement of an emasculated Palestinian state, the official platform of the ruling Likud Party of which he is chairman, “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river” and affirms that Jewish settlement of “Judea and Samaria” “is a clear expression of the unassailable right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.” That the mainstream media considers Likud’s policy statements insufficiently newsworthy to report underscores Suarez’s complaint about a compliant and uncritical media.

Readers may dispute Suarez’s historic critique of Israel but his photographs of contemporary Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank are incontestable. They offer an unnerving portrait of a people and a land under an inconsolable occupation. Israel’s fixed presence in Gaza was replaced by what Suarez makes clear is a suffocating land, air, and sea blockade. Photos illuminate everyday life, depicting children dressed in traditional as well as contemporary dress, at school, playing on the streets, or at home with family. Images of vendors at the seashore and merchants hauling produce on mule-drawn carts adds to the sense of normality. But as the photos shift to scenes of collapsed buildings destroyed during “Caste Lead,” Israel’s 2008 attack on Gaza, a child standing on the rubble of his home, or a family standing next to a UNICEF supplied tent they now call home, it become evident that Gaza is anything but normal. Most unnerving was a photo of a bomb crater so deep that it dwarfed the people standing atop its lip. It suggested the depth of terror the people of Gaza suffered under Caste Lead.  Photos of the tunnels that Gazians rely on for goods and products smuggled from Egypt underscored their everyday hardships.

Separate chapters on East Jerusalem and the West Bank provide similar images telling a similar story: Palestinians at work, at home, and at play but always enveloped in Israel’s intruding occupation. The value of this photo essay lay in its capability to remind its readers that Palestinians are people like themselves, wishing the best for their families, but living under extremely harsh conditions. The photos counter publications such as P@lestinian Pulse that propagates accounts of senseless Palestinian violence. Suarez’s narrative accompanying the photos provides a powerful indictment against Israel’s practices and ultimate goal of erasing the Palestinian presence. Critics rightfully will complain that he is partisan. But images of the military checkpoints, soldiers enforcing Jewish-only neighborhoods in Hebron, and the wall cutting through West Bank communities make clear why Palestinians resist Israel’s occupation.

Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East by Jubin M. Goodarzi (I.B. Tauris London, 2009) Reviewed by Mateen Rokhsefat

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Jubin Goodarzi’s dense book is full of detailed historical events mapping the thirty year long Syrian-Iranian alliance. Goodarzi effectively reiterates his main points throughout the book. He maintains that with careful research and analysis he has detailed the origins and development of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, a feat different from other scholars who only provide a general overview of the formative years. He points to several key reasons for the alliance to have remained resilient and united for the past thirty years: regime survival in view of their authoritarian nature; a defensive alliance against Iraqi, Israeli and American encroachment in the Middle East; maintaining national security and the territorial integrity and independence of each country; their different areas of concern (Gulf for Iran and Levant for Syria) does not interfere with each other.

In his first chapter, Goodarzi explains that inter-Arab politics and revolutionary Iran’s foreign policy orientation and ideology were critical factors for this alliance. In late 1970s, the relation between Syria and Pahlavi Iran was severely damaged due to Iran’s close ties with Israel which prompted Syria to welcome the new Iranian government. Another deciding factor was the contentious relationship of both countries with Iraq. Iraq’s invasion of Iran brought Syria and Iran closer together, with Syria providing valuable diplomatic and military aid. Many expected Syria to join other Arab countries in backing Saddam against non-Arab Iran. However, Syria supported Iran and played a key role in preventing a united Arab front against Iran which strengthened the Syrian-Iranian rapprochement and transformed it into a formal alliance. Syria saw in Iran a powerful non-Arab ally that would increase the ability of the Arab states to undermine Israeli and Western power in the region and provide leverage against Syria’s Arab rivals.

Chapter two examines the period between 1982 and 1985 with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and engaging Syria in the fifth Arab-Israeli war. Iran having pushed the war inside Iraq reciprocated Syria’s help and lent support by mobilizing Lebanon’s Shiites to drive out Israeli and Western forces.  These events created a period of even closer cooperation between Syria and Iran against their common enemies. However, by 1984 Iraq became the stronger partly due to rapprochement with Washington and Moscow and played a main role in “the Reagan administration’s overall approach to safeguard Western interests against states such as Iran and Syria.”

The third chapter covers the 1985-1988 phase which was the most critical and tumultuous time in the alliance when the two allies developed conflicting agendas. Areas of contention included Iran’s support of Hezbollah who was at odds with Syria-supported Amal. In addition, Arab states and the USSR were pressuring Syria to abandon Iran and there were signs of rapprochement with previously staunch enemies: Jordan and Iraq.  However, by late 1980s, their partnership had solidified and they had overcome difficulties by handling the extremely turbulent crises in Lebanese and Gulf politics. Goodarzi explains that Syria and Iran: “saw a unique role for themselves in the region and utility in preserving the alliance to pursue an independent foreign policy to shape events in the Middle East in a desirable manner in the long term, and to minimize foreign influence and penetration of the region.”

The very concise final chapter explains why the alliance lasted beyond the 1980s and into the 21st century. The Kuwait crisis changed the entire political equation in the Middle East overnight and gave Syria and Iran opportunities to capitalize on the new situation and recoup their positions. Furthermore, Iraq’s attack on another Arab country and the subsequent division in the Arab world provided an opportunity for both Iran and Syria to reconcile with Arab and Western governments and to break out of their regional and international isolation. Goodarzi states that the United States was a main reason for the fortification of Syrian-Iranian alliance in the late 1990s and specifically after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “Overall, Washington’s pro-Israeli stance in the Arab-Israeli negotiations, its support for the emergence of a Turkish-Israeli alliance after 1996 to isolate Iran and cow Syria into submission, and its willingness to exploit Iran-Gulf Arab differences to justify military presence and huge arms sales to its regional allies reinvigorated Syrian-Iranian cooperation in the period after the cold war.”  Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and increased US domination and presence in the Middle East, Syria and Iran have become more resolved in reinforcing their alliance.

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Mateen Rokhsefat is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Affairs at the University of Toronto

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