January 16, 2009 | Memo

Syria and the Gaza Crisis



The ongoing conflict in Gaza has often been compared, both rightly and wrongly, to Israel’s war with Hizballah in the summer of 2006. One of the points of convergence is Syria’s heavy hand in instigating and sustaining the conflict. Indeed, as in 2006, a regional fault line has once again been drawn between the Iranian-Syrian axis, which includes the terrorists groups Hamas and Hizballah, and U.S. allies like Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Working closely with its ally Iran, Syria aspires to establish itself as a major power player in the region – at the expense of the current interlocutor Egypt. Syria has used non-state actors to subvert efforts to maintain a relative level of calm within the Palestinian territories and undermine the interests of the United States and its allies. Syria’s interest, as has been its modus operandi for decades, is in exacerbating such crises in order to present itself as an indispensable address for “engagers.” Destabilizing Gaza is Syria’s latest tool in re-establishing its regional influence.

Disrupting Negotiations: The Syrian-Egyptian Cold War

Syria has consistently sought to sabotage any Egyptian mediation efforts – whether between Hamas and Israel or between Hamas and Fatah – in the hopes of increasing its influence within the Palestinian sphere. As such, its relations with Egypt have steadily deteriorated in recent years – almost mirroring the now subterranean level of Damascus’ relations with Saudi Arabia and a far cry from the sanguine policy proposals of “returning Syria to the Sunni Arab fold.” This was clearly visible during a 2006 meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to discuss the Israel-Hizballah war. At one point during the discussion, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem stormed out of the session after both Egypt and Saudi Arabia strongly criticized Hizballah, and blocked a Syrian attempt at introducing language supporting the pro-Iranian militia and undermining the Lebanese state.

That same fault line continues to govern the relationship between the two countries, with Egypt now openly calling Syria a conduit for Iran. In 2006, Egypt accused Hamas’ backers, Syria and Iran, of sabotaging its efforts to broker a prisoner exchange that would secure the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Hamas. More recently, Egyptian officials have been critical of Syria’s role in hindering the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas. On December 25, the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat quoted an anonymous source as saying that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told a visiting French delegation that “Syria and Iran manipulate and use Hamas” and that Syria “had stood against” the Egyptian-sponsored talks between Hamas and Fatah (for its part, Syria sees Egypt as being too partial to Fatah).

The breakout of war in Gaza has further increased tensions between Egypt and Syria. A Syrian paper owned by Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, launched a tirade against the Mubarak government claiming it had “tried and failed in its mediation role and failed to put Palestinian interests ahead of Israeli interests, and tricked the Palestinian factions in order to prepare the ground for the Israeli army.” Egyptian papers and magazines retorted with their own campaign against the Syrian regime and its collusion with Iran in the crisis. Furthermore, once the fighting broke out, and Egypt did not back down from its decision to keep the Rafah border crossing closed, Syria, with the help of Qatar, unsuccessfully tried to convene an emergency Arab summit in order to pressure Egypt (and Saudi Arabia) to succumb to Hamas’s demands.

Diplomatic Manipulation

Despite playing a significant role in the outbreak of violence, Syria has attempted to present itself to the international community as an integral player in returning calm to the region – very much at Egypt’s expense. After discussing the Egyptian proposal with President Mubarak in Cairo, French President Nicolas Sarkozy traveled to Damascus with the declared intent of seeking Syria’s help to “convince Hamas” to accept the deal, arguing that it was up to them to “put pressure on Hamas so that peace returns.” President Sarkozy apparently thought he could secure Assad’s cooperation in order to facilitate the implementation of the Egyptian plan (which by now was being marketed as a Franco-Egyptian initiative), ignoring the fact that Syria’s interests and objectives were diametrically opposed to those of Egypt, Israel, and, ostensibly, France.

Syria’s genuine intentions soon became clear. During the joint press conference after their meeting, Assad not only failed to even mention Hamas’s rocket fire against Israel, but he proceeded to demand that France and the international community accept all of Hamas’s conditions: immediate cessation of Israeli operations (with no mention of Hamas’s rocket fire), Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and the lifting of the siege. He stated:

I explained to President Sarkozy the Syrian position and our view for the solution: First, stopping the barbaric Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people immediately, and a ceasefire and an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. This is followed secondly with the lifting of the blockade, the importance of which some may not understand. The blockade is a declaration of war. It’s non-military, but it’s a slow death. When there’s no lifting of the blockade, it’s difficult to have a real, sustainable ceasefire… These terms are essential and form the principles for any permanent and lasting solution in Gaza, and there are many details that would follow these terms.

Two days later, Katyusha rockets were launched from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. While no one declared responsibility for the attack, it was widely suspected both in Israel and in Lebanon that the Damascus-based PFLP-GC was behind the attack. The PFLP-GC’s leader had stated a few days earlier, following a Damascus meeting with Syrian and Iranian leaders, “new military fronts will be opened and the circle of war will be widened as long as the Rafah crossing remained closed.” Another rocket attack, also blamed on the PFLP-GC took place on January 14.

Syria’s ability to prevent a ceasefire is not without limits. For Hamas, the situation in Gaza is continually deteriorating, the killing of Hamas Interior Minister Said Sayyam was a significant loss, and Egypt is exerting increased pressure on the terrorist group to accept its plan. Nevertheless, it has become rather clear that the leadership in Gaza is not calling the shots in the negotiations, and there have even been rumors of surfacing rifts between the Damascus-based and the Gaza-based leaderships. Indeed, recent reports of a potential ceasefire agreement on the part of Hamas were quickly dismissed in a statement today from its Syria-based leader Khaled Meshaal.

A Syrian Defeat in Gaza

Hamas’s poor performance in the Gaza war has certainly devalued its utility as a point of leverage over Israel for the foreseeable future, especially if Egypt and Israel manage to secure their demands for greater security on the border crossings. The acceptance of the Egyptian plan would deal an added political blow to Syria (and Iran), as it would scuttle their attempt to alter the regional political architecture by undermining Egypt, and would strip them of leverage they would have otherwise have used to extract concessions from the incoming Obama administration.

There would be additional repercussions for Syria. As evident from its official rhetoric, the Syrian regime has presented the 2006 war as a catalyst for the subsequent decision of the Israeli government to explore indirect talks with Syria. In other words, the Syrians believed that their logic was vindicated: Israel will only come to the table when it’s militarily hurt through proxy wars. And while Israel has since done much to correct such convictions – including destroying the clandestine nuclear site in northeastern Syria and presumably assassinating Hizballah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh in the heart of Damascus – the pummeling of Hamas in Gaza will at once neutralize the ability to use it as a credible proxy threat as well as deal a blow to the logic of “resistance” that Syria and its allies in the Iranian camp espouse.

If Israel succeeds in degrading Hamas, as appears to be the case, and manages to secure its terms for the ceasefire (including continued diplomatic isolation for Hamas, maintaining the blockade, and keeping Hamas away from the border crossings, and bolstering Egypt’s position and the PA), Syria’s position will be even weaker still – provided that Western diplomats don’t hand it free, unearned leverage and stature through badly managed diplomacy.


U.S. policy would do well to continue to ensure Syria makes no political gains from the Gaza crisis, and to prevent the Iranian-Syrian axis from undermining America’s Arab allies, especially Egypt. It should also strive to ensure that Lebanon and Gaza remain neutralized from being used by Syria and Iran as theaters for their proxy wars. Specifically, it needs to prevent a situation from developing in southern Lebanon whereby Syrian proxies like the PFLP-GC can bait Israel in order to provide Hizballah with a pretext to interfere openly.

While the Obama administration has declared its intention to “engage” Syria, it would be well advised to tread very carefully, as opposed to diving headfirst, in order to avoid the pitfalls of Sarkozy’s recent diplomatic overtures. Most of all, it would do well to assess not only Syria’s actual influence, but also the likelihood of successfully “prying Syria away from Iran” in order to protect U.S. interests and allies in the region. If the Gaza crisis is any indication, this notion is mere wishful thinking.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.