How Shebaa Farms talks could begin new chapter for the region
In 2000, then-Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak unilaterally withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon. It was also at that time that Israel and Syria started direct negotiations under the auspices of US President Bill Clinton.
As always with negotiations under Hafez Assad, Syria was looking for regional agreements and packages, among other key points, to keep Lebanon under its influence. Therefore, Lebanon was always a key point of the negotiations. As Israel withdrew, it was considered a victory for Hezbollah and the true beginning of its ascent to the control over Lebanon that we see today. However, a technicality planted by the Syrian regime made the withdrawal incomplete — the contested Shebaa Farms. This territory is lost between Syrian and Lebanese sovereignty, making any future agreement with Israel linked to both Lebanon and Syria.
This is a region where everything keeps changing but essentially stays the same, and where to close one file we need to open another. It is difficult to determine whether Assad was playing for time and influence by pretending to engage in these negotiations or if he was truly looking for a deal that would bring stability and economic openness to Syria. One thing is for sure: It enabled his regime to feed off Lebanon and exploit it, with the complicity of the local elites.
It is a different balance in the Middle East today. To start with, Bashar Assad does not seem to be the master of his own land, let alone capable of deciding on peace for both Lebanon and Syria. There is, as everyone knows, the Iranian dominance and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ military presence, along with Hezbollah units, on Syrian territory, although this is balanced to a certain extent by the Russian influence. In the north, Turkey has also become a pressure point on the Syrian regime. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is the true master and logistically responds only to Tehran, while coordinating with the Syrian regime that it helped keep in place.
But there is, despite everything, a real change in the dynamic of the region that was brought about by the Abraham Accords. This is, in my view, a positive dynamic: It shows that the Arab region is open to peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with any country, as long as they choose to cooperate, do not interfere in Arab domestic affairs or threaten their stability. The same could hence apply to Iran and Turkey. The Abraham Accords are symbolic of a change and a positive move toward Arab countries searching for their national interest, the well-being of their citizens, and a refusal to be guided by supranational ideologies. It is a sign of maturity that one hopes will reach all countries in the region.
In an amusing twist, it seems that Turkey — which has bilateral relations with Israel and has NATO membership, as well as commercial exchanges with Tel Aviv — is more vehemently opposed to these new peace agreements than Iran and even the Syrian regime, which has chosen to remain silent.
It is also quite interesting to notice the constant arrivals of new players in the Middle East, which makes it look like a video game with never-ending levels. We are used, when trying to figure things out in the region and building potential scenarios, to factoring in Iranian interests and how they impact the regional geopolitical balance. Now it seems we will also need to do the same with Turkey.
The Syrian silence on the Abraham Accords has led to much speculation on renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations, especially as talks between Lebanon and Israel over their disputed maritime border have begun. As we are all aware, the eastern Mediterranean is an important file involving not only Israel and Lebanon, but also Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, the EU and NATO. It also carries the importance of energy supplies to Europe, which is a common theme in any deal in Syria and Lebanon. Despite all these tensions, there is a genuine chance for peace negotiations between Israel, Syria and Lebanon.
A key point in any agreement from the Israeli side is to guarantee 100 percent the security on the Lebanese and Syrian borders. This would mean no IRGC in Syria, no threats from Hezbollah and no missiles pointed at the country. This would also mean solving the Shebaa Farms issue, which links both Lebanon and Syria to a common deal. On the Syrian side, a deal would need to give the regime an assurance of staying in power, and this also means economic relief and large investment packages.
Bashar Assad’s declaration that Israel would have to withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights to start negotiations is another way of saying that he is not opposed to negotiations under certain conditions, which could even change. For example, the Golan Heights could become an international investment zone — there are always solutions.
Most analyses have hinged the ability of Bashar Assad to make peace on his capacity to remove the Iranian influence from his country. They argue that, for him to do so, he needs the support of Russia and Arab countries too. However, when discussing Damascus using Russia to leverage out the Iranian presence and influence in order to secure a peace deal, they are assuming that Tehran is not willing or would stop a peace negotiation.
One should also ask what Russia would gain from peace negotiations between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Is Moscow willing to remove, in a short period of time, the Iranian presence in Syria and deal with the instability this could bring, especially with Turkey’s actions in the north? Also, it seems there is nothing much the US could or would be willing to give them in return for reaching this deal.
With the never-ending entrance of new players, the Iranians are starting to be outplayed and they know it.
Khaled Abou Zahr
In my view, this time it is not Russia but Iran that will be more eager to make a deal or at least show willingness to enter into indirect talks followed by direct negotiations. Russia might also support this. With the never-ending entrance of new players, the Iranians are starting to be outplayed and they know it. Iran’s economy is suffering badly and, whether its leaders admit it or not, the regime is under extreme domestic pressure. If supporting Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli negotiations could bring some relief from this pressure, Tehran will go through with it this time. It would also be a good way for Iran to bring about the return of the nuclear deal from a different angle. The Syria-Lebanon file might give the Iranians the perfect ground to close its current chapter and begin a new one.
This potential Iranian maneuver would indicate that the spirit of Hafez Assad has moved to Tehran, while his son Bashar has become the equivalent of an 1980s Lebanese warlord: Always capable of surviving by reading geopolitical shifts, but not capable of making a true difference. This tells a lot of the price to be paid by both Arab countries, but also the depths to which the Lebanese political elite — Hezbollah included — has sunk.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.