This article argues that Syria considers Israel as an existential threat and that peace or coexistence between the two sides is impossible in the long run, due to the fact that Syria’s perception of its own history and identity, as an entity that consists of a majority belonging to one ethnicity, (90 percent Arabs), and various religious groups, is in direct conflict with Israel’s perception of its own history (80 percent Jews from various ethnicities). This renders Syrian national security in direct conflict with Israel’s perception of its national security. In addition, both sides are competing over the same sphere of influence which is Greater Syria. This has rendered any reconciliation impossible between the two sides and has led to a continuous struggle with the failure of all efforts to establish peace and end the conflict between them.

Introduction

Syria has always been the Arab state with the most radical stance towards Israel. The reasons for this are related to the perception the Syrian Arab Republic has of its own history and identity. This affects the elements determining Syria’s national security and its sphere of influence, which are in direct conflict with the Zionist perception of “Israel’s history and identity,” hence its national security, and its competition with Syria over the same sphere of influence, which is the Levant, that is, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. This is what makes the struggle between Syria and Israel continuous and irreconcilable. Mainstream historians and political scientists have justified this by “the desire of a minority Alawi regime to remain in power, by using conflict with Israel as a pretext to impose authoritarian rule in Syria” (Assad 1994, 83). However, this article argues that Syria’s hostility to Zionism was not a by-product of the Hafez Assad regime, but of Syria’s perception of its identity, history, and mission, which is in direct conflict with the Zionist perception of “Israel’s mission.” The most striking evidence that this conflict is still continuing is Israel’s intervention in the war on Syria through its support of Islamist insurgents and its recurrent attacks on the Syrian army.

National Security and The Sphere of Influence

Michael M. Boll defines national security as being “the most obvious degree that concerns neither foreign policy nor military policy but rather values and lifestyles, that a given society considers as an important legacy” (Boll 1988, 1–2). According to him, national interest and national security could intersect, yet they are not identical. There are components of the national interest that are not part of national security, such as national defense (defending territory and resources) and political stability. From the point of view of national security, these elements could be sacrificed to preserve national security, as was the case when Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) sacrificed Russian territories to Germany in return for the signing of the Brest–Litovsk Treaty (1918) to save the communist revolution (1–2). Thus, it is noteworthy that the perception of national security depends on the extent of the hegemony of the ruling elite or class on the state and society.

Regarding the concept of sphere of influence, Heino Nyyssönen argues that “instead of being a tangible reality, spheres of influence are obscure and contested political constructions, which nevertheless can have an impact on political behavior” (Nyyssönen 2016, 1). According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a sphere of influence is defined as a “diplomatic term that signifies a claim by the state to exclusive control within a foreign territory” (cited in Nyyssönen 2016, 5). To support his argument, Nyyssönen refers to the doctrine of US President James Monroe (1758–1831), which considered Latin America to be part of the sphere of influence of the United States and that of the Soviet Policy that considered Eastern Europe as part of its sphere of influence. It should be emphasized that extending the control or hegemony of a state could include economic, military, or political forms, or “it may concern the overall government of the territory” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, cited in Nyyssönen 2016, 5).

The Syrian perception of national security and sphere of influence would determine its attitude towards its direct surroundings, that is, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, which are considered to be part of Bilad Al-Sham, or the Levant. On the other hand, Israel, established on the historical land of Palestine, would have the same perception of the same geographic area. What makes things more complicated is that the two political entities each have determinants of national identity that put them in irreconcilable confrontation, one with the other. Whereas Syria consists of various religious groups bound mostly by one ethnicity or nationality, as ninety percent are Arabs (Syria Demographics Profile 2018), Israel was founded as a “Jewish State and as refuge for the Jews of Europe,” as it claims, retaining twenty percent Christian and Muslim Arabs, after the expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948 (Stratfor Worldview 2018). This makes the two sides try to affect their zone of influence, contended for in two opposite ways: while Syria tries to stress the nationalist dimension, arguing that the Levant consists of a majority of Arabs bound by one history, language and destiny, Zionists argue that this same Levant consists of minority religious groups.

According to Israel Shahak, an Israeli historian, Israeli leadership is very much driven by the myths of the Old Testament, which are taken too literally, to become the driving force behind Israeli identity and perception of its role and relations with its neighbors (Kimmerling 1997, 96–98). Ilan Pappe, a revisionist Israeli historian, states that: “Zionist ethos committed to the purging of as many Palestinians from the Holy Land as possible and the caging of the rest—Israel systematically planned an elaborate set of legal, political, and physical constraints to lock the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to prevent them from achieving self-determination, or even basic human and civil rights” (Pappe, quoted in Sasley 2018, 150–51).

Syria: The Bonds of History and Heritage

The Syrian Arab Republic is an entity created in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and after two decades of continuous struggle against the French who imposed their mandate on Syria and Lebanon in 1920. The new state had Damascus as its capital, with Aleppo being the second major city in political and economic importance. Both cities have a longstanding history that goes back to antiquity as mercantile cities of Bilad Al-Sham, or the Levant. This region included modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Cilicia in southern Turkey. Some add Sinai and parts of northwestern Iraq to this region. Since the early periods of history, this region was a crossroads of trade routes from India and East Asia, via the Red Sea, Yemen, Persian Gulf, and Central Asia towards the East Mediterranean. Therefore, it was subject to competition between powers based in Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. This is one reason why the Levant was always fragmented unless it was part of a power that could control at least Egypt and and Anatolia or Mesopotamia at the same time, such as in the case of the Umayyads (661–750), Abbasids (750–1258), Memluks (1260–1516) and Ottoman Empire (1516–1918).

Aleppo and Damascus have played a central role in this region since early history as they were trading outposts for the commerce of the Middle East in the ancient world. During the Ottoman rule of the Arab world, Aleppo and Damascus became the gateway of the Ottoman Empire to the area. Both cities were able to subordinate the adjacent rural areas as they were their provincial centers that monopolized administrative, judicial, and commercial activities. Incorporated villages and nomads depended on these centers for protection, social and health services, and to market their products. The nineteenth-century reforms of the Ottoman Empire transformed the city of Damascus into a cosmopolitan place leading up to the adoption of Arab Nationalism, by the Damascene elite, as the new determinant of its national identity (Khoury 1983, 1).

This made French Emperor Napoleon III (1808–73), who was keen on winning over the Arabs after the invasion of Algeria in 1830, propose the establishment of an Arab Kingdom, in 1860, from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Aqaba, headed by Emir Abdul Qader Jazairi (1808–83) as king of this entity. One major reason for this French project was to defend the Suez Canal, which Napoleon III had agreed to dig and construct in 1859, with the Egyptian Khedevi (Ismail 1993, 370–75). Although this project never materialized, it however caught the imagination of the Syrian elite, especially the Damascene elite that had developed into a political movement by the early twentieth century, calling first for Arab rights within the Ottoman context, then for full Arab independence. The Damascenes played a pivotal role in the Great Arab Revolt that erupted in June 1916 with the support of the British Empire. By September 1918, they entered Damascus and established an interim government that called for Arab Unity under the banner of Sherif Hussein (1853–1931), ruler of Hijaz until 1924. Faced with French claims to Syria and Lebanon, the Arab nationalists called for the establishment of the Syrian Arab Kingdom which would include modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and the region of Mersin and Cilicia in southern Turkey (Zeine 1960).

The Pivotal Role of the Damascene Bourgeoisie, 1920, 1970

The course of events would move contrary to the aspirations of the Damascene elite. World War I ended with the defeat of Germany, Austria, and Ottoman Empire, leading to the full collapse of the latter two powers. Great Britain and France emerged victorious and had their own plans for the Arab Near East. According to the Sykes–Picot Agreement, which they secretly signed in 1916, Syria and Lebanon were to come under French colonial rule, while Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine were to be colonized by the British (Zeine 1960). After the Battle of Maysaloun (July 1920), French troops entered Damascus and the French authorities proceeded to establish separate states in Aleppo, Damascus, the Druze area of Hauran, and the Alawi area in northwestern Syria. Greater Lebanon was declared in September 1920 with a Maronite majority and hegemony (Province 2005, 17).

A struggle ensued whereas various Syrian society segments, primarily led by the Damascene mercantile elite, were able to reunite Aleppo, Damascus, and the Alawi and Druze states into the Syrian Arab Republic. By 1946, they were able to secure full independence with the withdrawal of French troops from Syria. Guided by the abovementioned heritage, the Syrian elite adopted Arab nationalism as the guiding ideology of the new state, hence the “highest value,” or doctrine, determining Syrian national security. This was best expressed in the inclusion of an article into the constitution that stated that the legitimacy of any Syrian government should be defined based on its adoption of Arab Unity (Syrian Constitution 1930). In addition, based on the legacy of the Kingdom of King Faisal of 1918–20, the Syrian elite would perceive Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine as territories detached from Syria, hence a sphere of influence for the Syrian Arab Republic.

Thus, any legitimate political power that would claim authority in Syria had to struggle to achieve Arab Unity. Moreover, it should expand its influence over Lebanon, Jordan, and among the Palestinians, and had to accommodate the economic interests of the Damascene mercantile elite. Failing to meet these goals, the ruling regime would be challenged. On the contrary, to guarantee a long and stable rule, the regime had to carefully establish a system that would maintain these three factors. In addition, competition between Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia over hegemony in the Near East in the 1950s and 1960s led to a series of coups d’état in Syria.

Gamal Abdul Nasser (1918–70), leader of the Arabs at the peak of his power, could not keep unity with Syria for more than three years. Having established unity between Egypt and Syria in February 1958, the unification of the two countries disintegrated in September 1961, a few months after introducing socialist measures and nationalizing large companies. The direct effect of these measures had been to damage the interests of the Damascene mercantile elite, who eventually turned against Nasser. In a public speech given at Cairo University in October 1961, a few days after the coup against him in Syria, Nasser accused the Quintin Company (Al-Sharika Al-Khumasiyah)1 of financing the coup against him (Nasser 1961). It is no surprise that the two leading officers of the coup belonged to the Damascene Bourgeois class: Abdul Karim Nahlawi, director of Marshal Abdul Hakim Amer’s office in Damascus, and Haidar Kizbari, Commander of the Desert force in the Syrian army.

Salah Jadid (1926–93), the strong man of Syria between 1966 and 1970, faced a precarious situation, too, and could not establish a stable regime because he threatened Damascene mercantile interests with his socialist policies. His successor and opponent, Hafez Assad (1930–2000), fared much better as he avoided the “mistakes” of Nasser and Jadid by accommodating the interests of the commercial elite. The latter, in return, offered him its support, which tilted the balance of power to his favor during and after the coup d’état against Jadid in November 1970 (Batatu 1999). Assad capitalized on the support of the commercial elite in his confrontations with the Muslim Brothers who could not seriously challenge his regime and win Damascus over to their side during the insurrections between 1975 and 1980. As a token of appreciation for their support, Assad increased the share of the Damascene mercantile elite imports from 1 billion Syrian pounds in 1975 to 3.63 billion Syrian pounds in 1976 and to about 4.17 billion Syrian pounds in 1980 (Batatu 1999, 208).

The Challenge from Israel, 1948–90

In November 1917, a few weeks after the triumphant entry of British troops, under the command of General Edmund Allenby (1861–1936), into Jerusalem, the British Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arthur Balfour (1848–1930), issued a declaration endorsing the establishment of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine (Farsakh 2008, 246–52). This represented a great success for the Zionist movement, which was officially founded in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland, after the rise of nationalist feelings among European Jews who started to call for a homeland in Palestine (Farsakh, 152). The Zionist claim was based on the Torah that was at the time given new interpretations and became not merely a holy book for Jewish believers, but rather a history reference book for the Jews who started to be identified as a national entity.

The Zionists, consequently, would not limit their aspirations only to the land of Palestine, but would look at the region extending from the Nile in the west to the Euphrates in the east as their sphere of influence. According to the founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), “the area of the Jewish State stretches from the brook of Egypt to the Euphrates.” This view is also expressed by Rabbi Fischmann, who stated that the “The Promised Land extends from the River of Egypt up to the Euphrates and it includes parts of Syria and Lebanon” (Shahak and Chossudovsky 2019). These statements became central beliefs for the Zionists, who considered them as the major determinant of the national security of Israel, which brings it into an irreconcilable confrontation with the Syrian Arab Republic.

In 1948, Zionist’s militias defeated the Arab armies and founded the state of Israel on eighty percent of historical Palestine. Then, in 1967, Israel defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, the Golan and Sinai Desert. In 1973, Egypt and Syria waged a concerted attack against Israel to reconquer the territories occupied in 1967. Anwar Sadat (1918–81), the Egyptian president who succeeded Nasser in 1970, attempted to regain the Sinai Desert, while the goal of Assad was the liberation of the Golan. In addition, both claimed to want to reach a comprehensive peace with Israel based on international resolutions. At least this was what Assad claimed (Seale 1987, 319). On the other hand, Sadat concealed his intentions from the Syrian president and aimed at a limited military operation that would empower him in future peace talks with Israel. After 1974, Syria and Egypt parted ways, and the latter signed a separate peace agreement with Israel in 1979, leaving Syria to face Israel on its own.

Israel took advantage of Egypt’s withdrawal from the Arab–Israeli struggle to turn its attention eastwards. It wanted to promote its designs for a fragmented Near East based on sectarian entities in order to replace the surrounding Arab-Muslim majority into a group of sectarian minority states. This explains its longstanding relations with Iraq’s Kurds, the Lebanese Maronites, and the Druze leadership (Arlikh 2017; Shultze 1999). In reaction to this, Assad adopted a strategy to establish an eastern front against Israel that would consist of Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in addition to Syria itself (De McLaurin, Mughisuddin and Wagner 1977, 254).

In 1975, a civil war broke out in Lebanon between the Lebanese Front, which consisted mainly of right-wing Christian parties, and the National Front, which consisted mainly of leftist nationalist, non-confessional parties. The latter allied itself to the PLO, whose leadership moved to Lebanon in 1970 after King Hussein (1935–99) of Jordan waged a war against in the same year.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to expel the PLO from Lebanon, install its ally, Bachir Gemayel, to power, sign a peace treaty with Lebanon, and weaken Syrian influence in the country. The invasion was considered a serious challenge to Syria in an area beheld as an integral part of its national security (Jansen 1982, 66). By September 1982, Israel was able to achieve most of its objectives. However, the assassination of Gemayel on 14 September 1982, three weeks after his election, unhinged the Israeli agenda. The Syrians, backed the anti-Phalange regime forces, mainly the Druze, led by Walid Jumblatt (1949), and the Shiite Amal, then led by Nabih Berri (1938) reversed the tide. The United States, France, Britain, and Italy came to the rescue of President Amin Gemayel (1942), who had been elected after the death of his brother, but he could not fare as well as Assad, backed by the Soviet Union, who proved resilient (Randal 1984, 270).

In spring 1983, the US embassy in Beirut was bombed by a pro-Syrian group. In October 1983, the US Marine headquarters and the French headquarters were bombed, too, leading to the death of 244 US soldiers and about sixty French soldiers. By February 1984, the anti-Gemayel forces, already winners in the Battle of the Mountain, were able to take over West Beirut (Mackey 1989, 187). Amin Gemayel, having been let down by the Americans, had to comply with the terms of Assad and, in March 1984, he annulled the 17 May Peace Treaty with Israel (Laurent and Basbous 1987, 205). A few months later Israeli troops withdrew from most of the occupied territories in Lebanon, except for a strip of land that was to be liberated by the Lebanese Resistance in May 2000.

The Peace Process, 1991–96

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev (r. 1985–91) became leader of the Soviet Union. His ascent to power would generate a sequence of events that, by 1989, led to the collapse of the Socialist Bloc and the end of the Cold War, and, by 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. The United States took advantage of the elimination of its principal enemy to impose its full hegemony in the oil-rich Middle East (Amin 1993, 15). Iraq was considered an obstacle that had to be eliminated, which the United States achieved after pressuring Kuwait, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to lower oil prices by exceeding their production share in order to exert pressure on the Iraqi economy, which at that time was recovering from the eight-year war with Iran. In retaliation, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, which led to the formation of a US coalition that destroyed Iraq’s military force and compelled Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait in February 1991. This presented a golden opportunity for the United States to impose its hegemony in the Middle East and to prepare to confront the rising Eurasian powers, mainly Russia, China, and later Iran (El Hamad 1991, 73).

These changes at the international level were alarming for Assad, who started to be convinced that the United States would dominate the world for the coming decade (Fuller 1991, 65), and it encouraged him to improve his relations with the United States and avoid direct confrontation with it in the Middle East (Karawan 1994, 434). This was the major reason why he joined the US-led coalition to “liberate” Kuwait in 1991. The rapprochement toward the United States, Assad hoped, would help Syria gain a partnership with it in the Middle East. Syria received US$2 billion from Saudi Arabia and established a sort of alliance with Egypt and the Gulf States (Declaration of Damascus 1991). In addition to this, conformity with the United States allowed Syria to overthrow the rebel General Michel Aoun in Lebanon and impose the Taif Agreement (1989) (Atherton 1992, 129). Finally, however, Syria did not oppose the peace process that aimed to end the Arab–Israeli conflict and to normalize the existence of Israel in the region. The United States sponsored the peace negotiations between the Arabs and Israel (1991–96). These peace talks were able to conclude a peace agreement between the PLO and Israel in 1993, and between the latter and Jordan in 1994, but fell short of establishing peace between Syria and Israel. In June 1996, Benyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel, and this marked the end of the Madrid peace process.

The 1996 deal was a watershed. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995. His successor, Shimon Perez (1923–2016), was unable to retain power for long and lost in the June 1996 elections to Netanyahu, who intended to end the peace process with the Arabs. This led to Israel’s adoption of the “Clean Break” doctrine that same year. The doctrine was set by a group of US neoconservatives as an implementation of a US strategy pursued after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm was the title of a paper drafted by one of Dick Cheney’s assistants and issued by the Institute for Advanced Strategic & Political Studies (IASPS). It included a section titled “A Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000” (IASPS 1996). It was prepared as a policy guideline for Netanyahu and instructed him to make a “clean break” with the Oslo Accords and the idea of peace with the Arabs.

Netanyahu adopted a new set of ideas stating that Israel could forge a peace process and strategy based on restoring strategic initiative and adherence to the principles of Zionism in establishing a Jewish state in historical Palestine. In order to achieve this, Israel had to work closely with Turkey and Jordan to contain and destabilize its opponents, including the Palestinians, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It even called for working to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and the promotion of regime change in neighboring countries that could pose a threat to Israeli hegemony (IASPS 1996).

The document was handed to Netanyahu during his 1996 visit to Washington. It is important to note that it was in that year that the Israeli-Turkish strategic partnership was sealed with the blessing of the United States. Few attempts were made, between 1996 and 2000, to revive the peace process. On 26 March 2000, presidents Bill Clinton and Hafez Assad met in Geneva in a last attempt to make peace between Syria and Israel. The moment was crucial for Clinton, whose presidency was in its final months, and for Assad, who was in poor health and expected to die in a few months. It was also crucial for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (r. 1999–2001) who was facing mounting opposition from the Israeli right as he was preparing to withdraw his troops from south Lebanon, occupied by Israel since 1978, in a bid for a high-risk maneuver to isolate Syria by neutralizing Lebanon, which was under its hegemony (The Guardian 2000a).

The talks were warm and Clinton held three-way telephone negotiations between Assad and Barak in order to help deliver positive results towards a comprehensive peace between Syria and Israel. However, the talks failed to resume Syrian–Israeli peace negotiations. Analysts considered that the failure of the summit was because of Assad’s insistence that Israel should fully withdraw from the Syrian Golan, occupied by Israel in 1967, and return to the pre-1967 War ceasefire line. Israel rejected this Syrian request and insisted on keeping a strip of land on the eastern bank of Lake Tiberias, which provided Israel with forty percent of its water needs, in return for another parcel of land that it would give to Syria (The Guardian 2000a).

Regional Upheavals, 2000–11

Thereafter, the course of events led to dramatic changes in the situation in the Middle East. With the dawn of the new millennium, the United States took measures that would ensure its supremacy vis-à-vis contenders to its international hegemony. Full control of the Middle East was a prerequisite for US continued hegemony of the world, as this region had been the crossroads of international trade routes since ancient history. A rearrangement of the geopolitical map in the region would ensure US hegemony with a minimum cost.

On 10 June 2000, Assad died and was succeeded by his son, Bashar Assad (1965) (MacFarquhar 2000). On 29 September 2000, Ariel Sharon, Head of the Likud Party, then the leading opposition party in Israel, stormed into the Al-Aqsa Mosque with his bodyguards, leading to Palestinian outrage which sparked the Second Intifada in the Occupied Territories (The Guardian 2000b). In January 2001, Georges W. Bush (r. 2001–09) was elected US president and, in his inaugural speech, gave signs of shifts in the United States’ policies, especially towards the Middle East. He stated that Washington would no longer play the role of mediator between the Arabs and Israelis; rather, it would give unconditional and full support to Israel (Whitehouse Archives 2001). Two weeks later, the hawkish Sharon was elected as prime minister of the State of Israel, which would raise the tension in the Middle East, especially with the Palestinian Authority, which led to a further escalation of the Palestinian Intifada (CNN 2017).

On 11 September 2001, the Al-Qaeda terrorist group attacked the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and The Pentagon building in Washington, sparking outrage in the United States and an outcry to strike back and launch a war against International Terrorism (History.com 2019). Thus, in late 2001, the US army invaded Afghanistan. A year later, it invaded Iraq and called for regime change throughout the Middle East (Council on Foreign Relations 2019). In late 2004, Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, died in controversial circumstances, and later Israeli Prime Minister Sharon was accused of having poisoned him (Aljazeera.com 2019). Soon after, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (1944–2005) was assassinated, on 14 February 2005, in Beirut, which caused a Lebanese outrage that culminated in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after three decades (Khairallah 2019).

The United States thought that the invasion of Iraq would drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, isolate both countries, and drive their respective regimes into implosion. This made Iran and Syria consolidate their alliance, support resistance groups in Palestine, and support anti-American resistance groups in Iraq to limit US influence in that country (Manfreda 2019). In July 2006, the United States backed an Israeli attack against Lebanon. The aim of this attack was to destroy Hezbollah, a strong ally of Syria and Iran in Lebanon, with the aim of weakening Damascus and Tehran (Marshall 2006). The attack did not achieve its goals. The United States and its regional allies, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, supported an uprising against the Assad regime in March 2011. The Syrian insurgence was influenced by several uprisings that swept across the Arab world, which were dubbed “the Arab Spring.” Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, insisted on various occasions, the last of which was in August 2019, that the crisis in Syria was an attempt to topple the Syrian regime because of its support of the resistance against Israel, and also as a part of the US–Israeli agenda to push forward the geopolitical reshuffle of the region to fit Israeli interests (Al Manar 2019).

Attempts to Revive the Peace Process, 2000–11

When Bashar Assad became Syrian president, he primarily did not give much attention to proceeding with the peace process with Israel for several reasons. The new president had to establish himself in power and arrange his agenda before venturing into any new political bargain. In addition, the failure of the March 2000 summit between his father and US President Bill Clinton had discouraged him from turning his attention to this complicated issue. In addition, the Israeli leadership was being supported by new US President George W. Bush, who took office in January 2001 and did not show any interest in pushing the peace process forward. Ariel Sharon, whose volatile policies had already sparked the Second Intifada, became prime minister of Israel in early 2002 and had no intention of withdrawing from the Golan.

It was not until late 2003 that Syrian President Bashar Assad expressed his interest in resuming peace talks with Israel. It is significant to note that by then the United States had already invaded Iraq and started to exert mounting pressure on Syria, as Assad was defying US influence. In an interview with The New York Times in December 2003, Assad, criticizing the Bush administration for abstaining from engaging in the peace process, called on the United States to play its role as mediator and to revive the peace talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv (MacFarquhar 2003). However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected Assad’s demand and asked Syria to expel resistance groups from Damascus and stop its support for Lebanese Hezbollah. In January 2004, Israeli President Moshe Katsav (r. 2000–07) called on Assad to come to Israel and meet with its leaders to discuss peace (The Guardian 2004).

However, this invitation was rejected by Syrian officials who considered it deceptive. In my opinion, the Israelis had no intention of reviving the peace process, especially because they presumed that Syria was isolated and facing mounting pressures against its presence in Lebanon. In February 2005, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated. Israel’s assumption was supported by the anti-Syrian wave of demonstrations, which eventually culminated in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The Israelis rejoiced at the dramatic change in the Lebanese political situation and saw this as a sign of the further weakening of Syria. A few months later, Ariel Sharon declared that he was not willing to withdraw from the Golan, dismissing any possibility of renewing the peace talks (Daoudy 2008, 215–34).

In January 2007, two senior Syrian officials, Riad Daoudi, adviser to the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Boushra Kanafani, spokesperson for the ministry, headed to Madrid to participate in a ceremony to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the inauguration of the Madrid Peace Process. An Israeli delegation was also present and speculations were high as to the possibility of renewing talks between the two sides. However, these hopes were dismissed when Syrian Vice-President Farouq Sharaa (b. 1938) declared that peace was impossible in the Middle East, especially with the United States declaring its intention to send more troops to Iraq (Daoudy 2008, 215–34).

Simultaneously, secret contacts were made between Syria and Israel, orchestrated by the-then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Attempting to distance Syria from Iran and bring it closer to Turkey, Erdogan initiated a plan to renew peace negotiations between Damascus and Tel Aviv. Erdogan enjoyed good relations with both sides. In mid-January 2007, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed that there were secret talks between Tel Aviv and Syria that culminated in the acceptance of Israel to withdraw from the Golan as far as the pre-4 June 1967 borders. In addition, Israel proposed that the withdrawal would span over a period of fifteen years. In return, Syria opposed the offer and demanded that the period should not exceed five years (Daoudy 2008, 215–34).

In February 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During the meeting, Olmert asked Erdogan to mediate the peace talks between Israel and Syria, expressing his will to “bear the price of peace with Syria.” In return, Olmert wanted to know the position of Syria towards Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas in case peace was reached between the two countries. The message was transmitted to Syrian President Bashar Assad in April 2007, who replied to it in his speech in the Syrian Parliament on 19 July 2007. In the speech, Assad reiterated the Syrian position regarding peace and asked the Israelis to issue a clear official statement in that respect. The statement, Assad said, should include their desire to establish peace, provide guarantees for a full Israeli withdrawal from Syrian territories occupied in 1967, and define the nature of mutual security guarantees and relations, based on what was achieved in 1995 with late Israeli Prime Minister Ishak Rabin (Al-Awdeh 2015). The Israelis agreed on a new round of negotiations with Syria.

Negotiations dragged on for nearly two years. The Syrian position was fully articulated while the Israelis tried to maneuver in order not to commit to any clear-cut agreement, but, at the same time, attempting to obtain concessions from Syria. One-and-a-half months later, the Israeli air-force attacked a presumed nuclear site in northeastern Syria. The Turks had to double their efforts to overcome the escalation between the two countries. Indirect talks were then held in Istanbul on various occasions in order to reach a deal; however, it seemed that all that Olmert wanted was to strike a deal with the Syrians without paying the price for this peace. It seems he wanted to get some credit that he could then use in the forthcoming Israeli elections in spring 2009. This was the main reason why the talks could not succeed. It was the Likud Party and Netanyahu who won the parliamentary elections, and the end of peace talks between the two countries came with it (Al-Awdeh 2015).

The Syrian Crisis, 2011–19

In December 2010, protests erupted in Tunisia leading, a few weeks later, to similar protests in Egypt and Libya, which ended in the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (1928–2020) in January 2011 and the Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi (r. 1969–2011) in October 2011. Protests also erupted in Yemen, leading to a set of events that resulted in the sparking of the Yemeni war and the ousting, then killing, of President Ali Abdullah Saleh (1947–2017). Syria itself was not immune to this wave, and people soon started street protests and called for regime change.

The United States, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia supported and financed several neo-Salafi groups, which soon launched armed insurrection against President Assad. US President Barak Obama, addressing the issue of the so-called Arab Spring, called on Assad to “lead the reforms in his country or resign” and warned him that “the quelling of the protests may lead to international intervention” (The Guardian 2011a). France called on the European Union and the United Nations to impose sanctions on Syria, and this call was also adopted by the UK, Germany, and Portugal (Charbonneau 2011).

On the other hand, Syria received the backing of Iran, Russia, and China, which considered that regime change was aimed at establishing a new order in the Middle East under US hegemony, which would deny them access to the Eastern Mediterranean. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that the protests “were part of a western conspiracy to destabilize a government that supported resistance against Israel” (Now Lebanon 2011). Sergei Lavrov, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed Russia’s opposition to any attempt to condemn Syria by in the United Nations Security Council (Assafir 2011). China supported Iran and Russia, and soon joined the latter in using its veto against a US-backed UN resolution that tried to condemn the Syrian government (The Guardian 2011b).

The Syrian crisis would soon take a new turn with the United States’ and Israel’s military involvement with airstrikes against the Syrian army, direct support of insurgents, the US occupation of the Tanf region in eastern Syria, and the installment of US military bases in northeastern Syria. On the other hand, Hezbollah, Iranian experts, and Russian troops were deployed to back the regime against its local, regional, and international opponents. This has given the crisis regional and international geopolitical dimensions and contributed to proving that the confrontation between Syria and Israel was not a mere border dispute, but had a deeper geopolitical dimension related to the perception of each state of its own national security.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in March 2011, Israel has been active in supporting anti-Syrian government armed groups. Its involvement was not confined to this only as it started to increase tension on the occupied Golan frontline and to stage attacks deep into Syrian territories against the army and its allies.

Conclusions

This article argued that Syria considers Israel an existential threat, hence differences with it are irreconcilable because of basic issues related to the national security of each political entity, and due to the fact that both sides compete over the same sphere of influence. Syria’s modern national identity was fomented over long decades with the interaction of social, economic, and political factors, wherein it came to portray itself as the heart of Arab nationalism, seeking to achieve Arab unity. This was not only used as a pretext to expand its interests in the Middle East; rather, it was related to its efforts to create a common identity for a people characterized by its religious plurality. On the other hand, Israel, a colonial project created on the land of Palestine, on the pretext of providing refuge for the “Jews of the World,” consisted of various ethnicities that were united by one religion. The conflicting strategies of the two states eventually made them totally at odds with each other.

What makes things more complicated is the competition of both sides over the same sphere of influence. Syria, a country that was established around the city of Damascus, which has a longstanding history as mercantile city in the Levant, had been the center of the Vilayet of Damascus which included much of the Levant, embracing southern, eastern, and central Syria, in addition to contemporary Palestine, Mount Lebanon, and the Jordan valley (countries which were created by colonial powers). Its mercantile elite played a major role in the modernization process unleashed in the nineteenth century, which culminated in the adoption of Arab nationalism. Two early calls for an Arab Kingdom of Syria, one in the 1860s, the other in 1918–20, made Syria perceive the Levant, including Mount Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, as its zone of influence. Israel was established on parts of southern Greater Syria, with its national identity based principally on the Torah, which in its view entitled the new state to consider the region stretching from the Nile in the west to the Euphrates in the east as its sphere of influence. This is how Israel has been positioned in direct competition with Syria over the same zone of influence.

The abovementioned historical, cultural, and political factors made it impossible for the Syrian leadership and Israeli leadership to reach a peace agreement. It suffices to state that peace is impossible between the two political entities, which leads to a conclusion that, in the long run, one of the two states should prevail over the other, which will lead to the collapse of the weaker state, thus facilitating the rise of a new regional order. To a greater extent, this explains the course of events that followed the failure of the Geneva Summit of March 2000 between Assad and Clinton.

1

Al-Sharikah Al-Khumasiyah was founded in 1946 by Decree No. 21 issued by Syrian President Shukri Quwatli, and was owned by major Damascene mercantile families. It was nationalized on 20 August 1961 by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, who was also President of Syria, which had entered into Union with Egypt in February 1958. One month after the nationalization of the company, a coup d’etat ended the union with Egypt and the company was restituted with indemnity to its original owners. However, in April 1962, the company was nationalized once more under pressure of nationalist elements. For further information, see https://www.alkhomassya.org/ar/.

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