The Syrian regime has always promoted itself to be the castle of steadfastness and confrontation, the castle of resistance and opposition, the protector and champion of October Liberation War. This is the propaganda Al-Assad regime used to uphold its rule internally and externally for years.
For decades, Syrian-Israeli relations witnessed many ebbs and flows and great tensions. Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, Al-Assad media apparatus considered the revolution a conspiracy in collaboration with Israel. Israel which in turn launched tens of air raids on Syria, and after each and every violation Assad kept his right to respond.
In this research, we try to investigate the Syrian alternative media’ coverage of the Syrian-Israeli relations. In particular, we focus on news coverage of recurrent Israeli shelling. We start with a theoretical introduction about Syrian-Israeli relations, then we discuss the outcomes of news coverage of nine of the alternative media newspapers, followed by conclusion and recommendations.
1948 Nakba (the 1948 Palestinian Exodus)
Since the establishment of Syria post-independence, Israel was always present. Following the bitter defeat of Arab armies by Israel in 1949, Husni al-Za’im initiated the “tradition” of military coups in Syria and the Arab States. The military coup lasted few months. Its objective was to liberate Palestine which Arabs could not take back from the Israelis. Therefore, the Syrian people back then were not interested in democracy which Husni al-Za’im had put an end to. He too did not care about democracy as much as he cared about his promises in taking back Palestine. Following al-Za’im military coup, a series of coups followed. Syrians accepted and sacrificed a half-democratic regime for the union with Egypt. They did so because they believed the union with Egypt will bring forth the liberation of Palestine.
1967 Naksa (Setback)
In the 5th of June 1967, Israel embarked on occupying lands from three Arab states. Israel completed the attack in two days. Still, Israel insists on calling it the Six Day War since the number has a special symbolism for Jews.
The Syrian Army was not at its best before the Naksa. The reason is that the 8th of March Revolution (the 1963 Syrian coup d’état) leading council carried out many layoff campaigns of qualified officers on sectarian basis. The officers were accused of “conspiring against the revolution.”
The new Syrian leadership, which has just underwent the 28 February Coup, suffered from confusion and improvisation. This has manifested in the early and arbitrary withdrawal of Syrian army from Golan Heights. The army left a day before the arrival of the Israeli army to the Golan Heights.
The 1967 defeat was a huge strike on the Arab nationalist thought which al-Baath ruling party raised as its slogan in Syria as well as Gamal Abdel Nasser did in Egypt. The then Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assed issued the withdrawal decision from Golan. President Noureddin al-Atassi, by Salah Jadid (Hafez Al-Assad’s foe) considered the defeat Hafez Al-Assad’s responsibility. Hafez refused to take responsibility.
Moreover, the conflict between Salah Jadid and Hafez Al-Assad escalated once more in what is known as Black September events in 1970. Black September happened between the Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat and King Hussein bin Talal in Jordan. Al-Atassi and Salah Jadid encamped in Daraa on the Jordanian border and sent armored forces to support Yasser Arafat there. Hafez Al-Assad refused to provide air force support. As a consequence, the Syrian army was destroyed and Yasser Arafat got defeated and expelled from Jordan.
The conflict between Al-Assad and Jadid ended up in Hafez detaining Salah Jadid and al-Atassi. Eventually, Hafez took power
alone to put an end to a period of two decades of military coups in Syria, starting from 1949 until 1970.
Anwar El Sadat secured presidential office in Egypt in September 1970 while Hafez Al-Assad secured presidential office in October 1970. The two men had to do “something” to stir the airs with Israel and to legitimize their rule in front of the population which did not recover from the horrors of the 1967 defeat.
The two leaders’ objective was not liberation as much as it was “mobilization.” Ironically, al-Sadat started war when he wanted peace. Hafez Al-Assad wanted to “freeze” the front and retain self-regard following the defeat he was responsible for.
Lieutenant General, Saad El-Shazly talked about “war memoirs” in his diary, and it is difficult to include all details here. However, we can say the Syrian Egyptian armies achieved significant advance in the first few days of the war.
The Egyptian army crossed the Bar Lev line and crossed Suez Canal in Egypt. Also, some Syrian soldiers reached Tabaraya Lake.
Nonetheless, Israel took the lead again and bypassed the Egyptian forces from “Deversoir opening” to besiege the forces in Sinai desert. Then Israel attacked the Syrian forces, forced them to back off and captured new villages in the middle and north strip. The defeat of the Arab forces in the war is a result of many reasons: El-Sadat’s interventions in decision-making in the military field, the chaos in the Syrian army, the historical air bridge which America gave to Israel, and the accurate intelligence information America provided Israel with regarding the location of the forces in the two countries.
In a nutshell, the Israeli army at the end of the war was closer to Damascus and Cairo than when it was at the beginning of the war. The war was sufficient to convince America and Israel that the moment has come to end the conflict between these two countries.
Henry Kissinger made few visits to Cairo, Damascus and Tel Aviv. The outcome of the visits was an agreement to end the conflict between Syria and Israel in1974. The agreement is to have United Nations Forces deployed between Syria and Israel. In exchange, Israel is to withdraw from Quneitra in Syria which makes up to 10% of the total area which Israel took over in 1967. That was when the front was frozen and the conflict between Syria and Israel was moved to Lebanon and Palestine.
From Camp David to Madrid Conference
Following the October liberation war, secret negotiations were conducted and resulted in the Camp David Accords which were signed by Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978. Israeli forces withdrew from Sinai Peninsula (which makes 90 percent of land controlled by Israel in 1967) in exchange for peace with Egypt.
Camp David changed the region and excluded Egypt, the largest and most important Arab country, from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arab states boycotted Egypt and suspended its membership in the Arab League until 1989.
Missile crisis between Israel and Syria escalated in May 1981. The missile deployment goes back to four weeks preceding the crisis. In the beginning of April 1981, Syrian forces responded fiercely to fire from the “Lebanese Front” and its base in Zahleh which Bashir al-Jumayil unified under his leadership following a massacre he committed with his, allies al-Numur militia led by Dani Chamoun, the son of previous Lebanese President Camille Chamoun.
The American administration warned Syria back then that intervening in Zahleh will change the current Lebanese situation and that Israel will intervene in Lebanon if it was not for the pressure of the United States (Syria had signed a cooperation and friendship treaty with Soviet Union in 1980). Syria responded on the threat with missile deployment in Lebanese Bikaa. Israel threatened to destroy these bases.
On 7th of August 1981, Emir Fahid (Saudi King later on) announced a project for peace which consists of seven points. The project was called after him “Emir Fahid project”. A move to make the Arab league adopt it. Later on, Saudia Arabia requested King Hasan II of Morocco to make an invitation to convene an Arab summit in the city of Fez in Morocco in November 1981. Syria boycotted the summit because it did not approve of some points in the project.
At the end of the same year, Arafat himself tried to formulate a unified front with Syria; however, the Arab stand was weak especially after Egypt’s exit from the conflict and the division of the Arab States regarding the Iraqi-Iranian war. This has paved the way for Israel with American facilitation to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to remove Yasser Arafat’s threat. This also was a common objective of Hafez Al-Assad.
Syrian relationship with Yasser Arafat was never good. It worsened following the secret return of Arafat to Tripoli in Lebanon through sea. Hafez Al-Assad considered Arafat’s move a challenge to his authority in Lebanon. Following this, Arafat accused Hafez Al-Assad of inciting a split inside Fatih movement and trying to control Palestinian national decision-making process. In return, Hafez Al-Assad distanced Arafat from Syria through Abed al-Halim Khadam and Hikmet al-Shihabi in 1983.
Madrid Conference for Peace
Following the failure of the American intervention in Lebanon and the failure of Reagan Initiative, American Foreign Minister George Shultz adopted the policy of a “turbulent Middle East means turbulent American interests in the Middle East.” Hence, he presented an initiative which also failed.
The weakness of Soviet Union and eventual collapse in December 1991, the second Intifada in 1987, and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August in 1990 led to ushering direct talks between Arabs and Israelis, an opportunity which American Foreign Minister James Baker took advantage of.
Israel wanted to convene a regional conference between Arabs and Israelis in the region; nevertheless, Arabs considered this a kind of free normalization with Israel. Arabs insisted on convening an international conference to be attended by five states of permanent membership in the Security Council and United Nations. Furthermore, Arabs demanded guarantees from the Americans before the conference, meaning the conference should be based on United Nations’ resolutions: 242 and 338.
The Syrian delegate was headed by expert diplomat Ambassador Muwafak al-Alaaf ,Walid al-Mualim in America, Ambassador Zuhair al-Aqaad in Spain, Major General Adnan Tayara representative of Syria in Truce Monitoring Committee with Israel. During the talks, other names joined, the most prominent of which is Riyad al-Dawudi, the legal advisor of foreign ministry.
American Foreign Minister James Baker and Russian Foreign Minister Boris Pankin started Madrid conference in October 30, 1991. The conference did not achieve anything. The objective of the conference was what America wanted it to be and that is breaking enforced taboos on the direct Arab-Israeli talks. The intransigence of Yitzhak Shamir practically stopped the talks.
Yitzhak Rabin’s Pledge
The Labor Party under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin remobilized negotiations once more. Rabin saw Al-Assad as a stubborn person, yet someone who fulfills his promises like he did after the treaty of cease conflict in 1974. Rounds of negotiations took place in Washington, but without real advance. The 8th round of negotiations coincided with Israel expelling hundreds of Hamas Movement fighters into Lebanon. Thus Arabs boycotted the negotiations and returned to their countries. The negotiations were not reactivated until Israel backed off its decision of expulsion the fighters. The negotiations took place again after Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1993 which ended with Syrian-American patronage.
Israel was not very interested in the course Syria is taking. It worked on maturing the Palestinian course which brought forth the Oslo agreement which happened in isolation of Madrid and Washington negotiations and in a secret way. Syria rejected the agreement and considered it directed against it.
Syrian-American talks were made to include the factions which rejected Oslo; however, Al-Assad refused that and used it in negotiations with Israel.
Rabin’s Pledge, again
On 19th of July 1994, American Foreign Minister Warren Christopher visited Damascus and offered Al-Assad what is known as “Rabin’s Bailment” through which Rabin promised to withdraw to 1967 borders if Israel’s security needs were met. Al-Assad responded with not linking his deal with Israel with that of Palestine. Additionally, he agreed to initiate the ambassadors’ meeting in Washington between Walid al-Mualim Syria Ambassador to United States and Rabinovitch Israeli Ambassador to United States. Nonetheless, Israel was not interested, again, with an agreement with Syria. Most of its interest was focused on Jordan which signed Araba valley agreement on the 16th of October 1994.
In November 1994, talks between Walid al-Mualim and Rabinovitch continued. The Israelis confirmed discussing security matters first before the withdrawal principle according to the bailment which al-Mualim insisted to have a written guarantee to it. To which Israel said no.
In December 22 and 23 1994, the meetings between Syrian Commander in-Chief, Hikmet al-Shihabi and Rabinovitch with the Israeli military delegate headed by Ehud Barak. Al-Shihabi proposed that demilitarized area on both sides of the borders should be from 6 to 10 kilometers for the interest of Israel. Syrians refused the idea of land station because it is not necessary for Israel security. Israel insisted on keeping the land station in Golan after its withdrawal from it. The land station has a very strategic position on the peak of Golan Heights and can expose Syrian forces’ locations reaching eastern border with Iraq. Al-Shihabi refused all talks before Israel decides on withdrawing to the 4th of June line and this resulted in the failure of negotiations again.
Following that, American diplomacy continued its efforts and identified its virtual political program of achieving a Syrian-Israeli agreement before the end of 1995. It was a move to benefit Clinton in his elections’ campaign. Americans put forward a work plan and objectives for security arrangements. Accordingly, on 27 June 1995, the second meeting between al-Shihabi and Amnon Shahak Israel Commander in chief took place which failed for the same previous reasons and negotiations stopped completely because of the killing of Yitzhak Rabin by an extremist Jew.
Grapes of Anger
In the beginning of February 1996, a number of resistance operations took place inside of Palestine and Lebanon. This has returned the tension between Israel and Syria. Once more the negotiations stopped by a decision from Peres. The tension continued between Israel and Palestinian resistance until Israel launched a big operation called “Grapes of Anger” in April 1996 in which Israel committed Qana Massacre. Israel underwent a lot of pressure because of the massacre and the tension ended with the April Agreement.
Netanyahu after Peres
Early elections took place in Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu took over. He is considered one of the most Israeli extremists and that’s why his government never sought peace with any party especially the Syrian one. However, Netanyahu tried to communicate with Hafez Al-Assad through an unofficial channel, Ronaldo Lador, an American Jew businessman and a close friend of Netanyahu. This channel came from Walid al-Mualim who was a resident of United States for a long time which allowed him to make good connections with the American Jews close to Israel. Again, this has not brought anything new.
Ehud Barak after Netanyahu
In the light of Clinton’s communication with Al-Assad and the mediators interventions and Barak taking over the government from Benjamin Netanyahu, Al-Assad decided to carefully join the negotiations with big experts with Israel. Riyad Dawudi and Arwi Sagii from Israeli side. The objective was to reach an agreement to resume negotiations since February 1996. These negotiations continued for 6 days from 15 until 21 of September indirectly through the American mediation.
The negotiations discussed the five issues causing conflict and these are: withdrawal, peace, security arrangements, timetable, its relation with withdrawal, and good relations. The meeting stumbled like other meetings because of the talk of the 4th of June line 1967. An issue about new definitions emerged regarding the 67 line. Israel admits the 1923 line which France and Britain defined when they divided land between them. In reality, the difference between the two lines is less than 10 meters. However, this short distance prevents Syria from reaching its borders on the lake of Tabaraya, the biggest source of sweet water in the region.
After a series of meeting with Clinton and American Foreign Minister Albright, a meeting in 15 and 16 of December in 1999 took place between Barak and al-Sharr with the attendance of Albright and the Syrian and Israeli delegate over a day and a half in Blair house. In this meeting, Barak linked any advance in negotiations with Syria by starting talks with Lebanon first.
In January 2000, delegates returned to Shepherdstown, close to Washington. In the beginning of the sessions. It was decided on four committees: mapping borders committee, water committee, security committee, and good relations committee. Syrians comprises led to an advance in all committees, but Barak’s intransigence and his rejection for any agreement foiled the negotiations.
Clinton tried to give negotiations a last chance. He organized a meeting with Al-Assad in March 2000. This was the last meeting for them before Al-Assad’s death. This time, Al-Assad was not interested because he was busy making arranging for his son Bashar to inherit the country. Consequently, negotiations between Israel and Syria collapsed.
It is important to mention that we depended in theory in this paper on the book “The Lost Story” for Syrian Foreign Minister Faruk al-Shaar and the book “Lost Peace” for Denis Russ, the architect of negotiations between the Arab and Israeli sides. Also, the book “October War Memoir” for Saad El-din al-Shazly Egyptian commander in Chief during the October War.
Alternative Media: Israel “a Postponed Enemy”
In this section, we cover nine alternative media newspapers regarding the Israeli issue. We took a historical approach in dealing with the Israeli invasion on Syria and Palestine during the Syrian revolution, starting with the first Israeli shelling in January 2013 until Israeli-Russian agreement on military coordination on Syrian land on 24th of September 2015. We followed with the alternative media newspapers coverage of these events and what they published. We also posed some questions to chief editors to cover the subject in order to produce a comprehensive coverage of this complicated issue.
The Syrian Catastrophe exceeded the Palestinian ones
The significance of the Palestinian cause retreated when the Arab Spring reached Syria. The newspapers focused on the local Syrian matters because of the atrocities Syrians have been facing over the course of 5 years and the intensity of massacres committed.
“We are trying to cover the service sector particularly in Idlib province and we cannot ignore the battles and field developments. The reason is the lack of staff in the newspaper.” Says Raed Razuk, Editor in Chief of Zeitun Newspaper.
Likewise, Hibir Newspaper’s Chief Editor said, “We are a local newspaper. We focused on Syrian north particularly and then the rest of Syria. That’s why we think Israeli shelling news is not of great interest for the readers in these areas.”
Tarek al-Ahmed, Ayn al-Madina Newspaper’s Editor in Chief explained why his newspaper does not cover the Palestinian matter saying, “ the oppression in Palestine does not take priority over the oppression happening in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and other countries and that’s why we focus on the Syrian issue.”
Defiance discourse has expired
Alternative media coverage of Israeli shelling mostly indicated the regime’s retaining its right to respond when it comes to Israel, but not when it comes to his own people.
“Once more, the resistance and defiance axis commits to silence in recognition of its helplessness and failure. This fact was clear to everyone. The slogans of the resistance and defiance axis were mere lies. It was a way to preserve the power of the Syrian tyrant,” says the opening of the 55th issue of Tamaddun Newspaper. Likewise, “Kuluna Suriyun” starts its 20th issue with a mockery, “The boy of the republican palace retains the right to respond.”
Furthermore, Sada al-Shaam comments in its 46th issue on Israeli shelling of Quneitra saying, “the regime described the shelling as flagrant violation, but it did not respond to this violation.”
In the newspapers we surveyed, we found generally an accusation to the regime of protecting Israel in exchange for Israel defending the regime in international forums.
“Syrian regime is the protector of Israeli borders. We also believe that the regime survival all this time is because the Israelis do not want him to fall since he protects its borders and security.” Chief Editor Diyab Sarrieh explained.
Gazza and Syria: Same Wound
Most of the newspapers we covered hold an opposing stand against the Israeli invasion on Gazza in July 2014. The resemblance of the Syrian and Palestinian adversity was always indicated in the newspapers. In the issue # 147 of Souritna Newspaper, “victims sympathize with victims. Freedom is not partial,” says Majid Kayali in an article in Tlina al-Hurriya.
In the same way, Sada al-Shaam Newspaper in its 50th issue mentions, “Syria and Palestine’s battles are the same.” In the same issue, the newspaper commented on the Israeli invasion saying that Syrian regime surpassed Israel in killing civilians according to a report published by Syrian Network for Human Rights.
The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend
The newspapers we covered did not show any sympathy for Hezbollah when Israel killed its leaders via a raid on Quneitra in January this year. The response of Hezbollah following the incident was faced with extreme doubt, “we would have been very happy if Hezbollah and Israel started fighting.” Writes Mazen Diyab in 176th issue of Souritna, considering the war between Hezbollah and Israel a chance “that will prevent the harms done by Hezbollah to the Syrian people.”
Writer Gazi Hamdan wrote in an article published in Tamaddun in the 88th issue, “why call Israel now?” considering creating troubles with Israel today a part of the media campaign directed at Iran supporters in the region.
“While most Syrians consider Israel an enemy, a huge part of the population supports its strikes on the Syrian regime. The Syrians are ready to cooperate with the devil to get rid of this regime. What Syrians suffered does not compare to Palestinians because this bugaboo was used by Arab dictatorships to oppress people. Enab Baladi news coverage focused on non-ending violations on (national sovereignty) which the regime of defiance keeps babbling about.” Writes Ammar Ziadeh in his talk about the editorial policy of Enab Baladi concerning this issue.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The great tragedy Syrians are enduring led to a retreat in the significance of the “central” issue. They live according to what alternative media newspapers confirmed as a tragedy that surpassed the Palestinian tragedy. Also, Syrian regime used the Palestinian cause and depends on it to legitimatize his war against Syrians. Israel whose southern borders are completely calm made a widespread conviction in newspapers that there is a cooperation between the two sides and made a lot of people support the Israeli military strikes on the regime.
The evident position of all alternative media newspapers is that Israel is a postponed enemy. The direct enemy at this point is the Syrian regime. The cause of the big part of the Syrian suffrage. When the newspapers held a unified stand against Israel invasion on Gazza. None of these newspaper has ever published an article calling for friendship with Israel or an article criminalizing the Palestinian resistance in contrast to what regime supporters promote that revolution supporters work and are friends with Israel.
The Editors in Chiefs’ response to our question makes it apparent that there is an absence of cooperation between alternative media newspapers on this subject which confirms again the necessity of joint coordination to produce a disciplinary editorial policy that preserves Syria national fundamentals.