Itamar Rabinovich

Itamar Rabinovich

Itamar Rabinovich is the former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, D.C., Chief Negotiator with Syria, and President of Tel Aviv University. Dr. Rabinovich has also held visiting appointments at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Toronto, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. He was an A.D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University from 1997-2002, and currently serves as a visiting professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

The End of Syria?


Will there be a Syrian state in 2014 or 2015? Unfortunately, it is a legitimate and pertinent question. The Syrian civil war is well into its third year and there seems to be no resolution in sight. Bashar al-Assad’s regime did register some achievements during the past few months and its foreign backers (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) are steadfast in their support, but the opposition continues to fight on. Assad’s decision in August to authorize the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population in the outskirts of Damascus bears testimony to the threat he sensed to his seat of power.

In the absence of a major change in the current balance of power the civil war may drag on for quite some time. It is also difficult to envisage a clear cut decision, namely a total victory of either side. If the regime does well, it can consolidate its hold over the capital, the coast, the corridor between the two and other parts of the country; but it is difficult to envisage the Assad regime restoring the control it used to have over the whole of Syria, let alone its legitimacy and authority. A victory by the opposition, on the other hand, could result in de facto partition. The regime’s core, and a large portion of the Alawite community, could withdraw to their mountains in the Northwest and hold on to the coast or part of it (possibly with Russian and or Iranian naval bases) and a corridor to the Shiite parts of Lebanon. The Kurds in the country’s Northeast may well create their own autonomous area. This would be a rare case in which the regime leads a secessionist movement.

Such a scenario would have deep roots in Syria’s history. The Syrian state rests on weak foundations. There is a discrepancy between the territory designated by the historic term Syria (sham in Arabic) and the state that emerged in 1945. The French took their time in forming one Syrian state; they chose to encourage sectarianism as a tool against the Arab nationalist establishment in Damascus and Syria’s other large cities. In French eyes, Arab nationalism was a British tool designed to rob France of its historic role in the Levant.

This French policy was facilitated and given greater power by two other elements. One was an Arab Nationalism-Sunni tincture. In theory, all speakers of Arabic who saw themselves as Arabs were equal members of the Arab nation. But in practice, the minorities, Christians and heterodox Muslims, were treated as less than equal. This drove many of them to invest their ultimate allegiance elsewhere, in their own communities, not in the Sunni dominated post-1945 Syrian state. It was in the nature of things for the “compact communities” to join radical parties that sought to transform the political and ideological landscape.

Further, several of Syria’s minorities, the heterodox Alawites and Druze and the non-Arab Kurds were territorially concentrated. This enabled the French to create statelets for them and to encumber the young and weak Syrian state with a legacy of regionalism and particularism. In 1958 the weak Syrian state collapsed under its own weight and for three and a half years merged itself with Egypt.

Through a long and complex process (that cannot be fully described in this space) members of the Alawite minority, through their massive presence in the Syrian officer corps and the Ba’ath Party, were catapulted to power in 1963.One of them, Hafez al-Assad, seized full power in 1970 and managed to build a powerful regime and a powerful state. But even the great Hafez al-Assad had feet of clay. Between 1979 and 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood galvanized the Sunni population to rebel against what they saw as an illegitimate rule by a non Muslim minority. The rebellion was put down brutally and the regime seemed well entrenched for nearly three decades until the events of March 2011 developed into a full-fledged civil war.

The prospect of de facto partition or failed statehood in Syria should also be seen in a larger context. Its two neighbors, Iraq and Lebanon, two other products of the same post WWI order in the Middle East, are in fact failed states. Any policy planners who would like to address such a scenario in Syria will have to examine it within that larger context.

Itamar Rabinovich, noted historian and former president of Tel Aviv University, served as Israeli Ambassador to Washington, D.C. and Chief Negotiator with Syria.


Morsi’s removal from power and the exacerbation of the conflict over Egypt’s identity and political future add yet another compounding element to the murky arena of Middle Eastern regional politics. During the first decades of the post colonial Middle East there was a pattern to its regional politics. Turkey and Iran, the successor states to the former Muslim empires, played for different reasons only a marginal role in the region’s politics. The Arab-Israeli conflict was a cardinal issue, but given the Arab consensus not a polarizing one. The nascent Arab state system was governed by the rivalry between the two Hashemite kingdoms and the Saudi and Egyptian royal houses. Arab politics was then transformed by the hegemony of radical pan-Arab nationalism and Abdul Gamal Nasser’s messianic leadership and Egypt’s hegemony. A clear pattern emerged as the Arab cold war (to borrow Malcolm Kerr’s terminology) was fitted into the Cold War. In the 1970′s this pattern and clarity were broken by a whole series of developments: Nasser’s decline and death, pan Arabism’s decline and the rise of political Islam, Syria’s emergence as a regional power, the accumulation of wealth and political influence in the Gulf and the introduction of an Arab-Israeli peace process. Subsequent developments–the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the end of the Cold War–led to further fragmentation.

In the first decade of the current century those looking for patterns and governing principles would point to the conflict between Iran and its allies and clients (Syria, the new regime in Iraq, Hizballah and the radical Palestinian organizations) and its rivals, the pro Western conservative Arab states headed by Mubarak’s Egypt. But a more fruitful approach would point to the novel elements: Iran’s much more aggressive quest for regional hegemony (facilitated by Saddam’s disappearance from the scene), Turkey’s return to the Middle East as a powerful Islamist actor, a more prominent role for Islam and Islamic groups in the region’s politics, and the new importance of soft power exemplified by Qatar’s use of money and satellite television to acquire a degree of influence disproportionate to its size and power.

It was against this background that the events commonly and erroneously known as the Arab Spring began to unfold in December 2010. The fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes and the evident pressure on other conservative governments led many to view these events as a net gain to Iran and its followers. But the outbreak of the Syrian crisis and its evolution into a civil war transformed the landscape. Iran’s most important asset was jeopardized, Iran’s massive support of an Alawite regime antagonized the Sunni Arab majority in the region and Syria became the stage on which regional and international rivalries are being played out. The Syrian crisis also exposed Turkey’s weakness as a regional actor and put into stark relief America’s current reluctance to invest in protecting its interests in the Middle East and Russia’s willingness to step into the vacuum.

There are two ways to evaluate the recent turn of events in Cairo. One is to take stock of winners and losers; such a list would count Bashar al Assad and Saudi Arabia as winners, Turkey and Qatar as losers and Israel and Iran as pondering their bottom line. A better choice would depart from the assumption that the internal Egyptian conflict is not over and will likely unfold over time, that the domestic, regional and international tug of war over the future  of Egypt is of such importance that it will eclipse other issues and its outcome will reshape the regional politics of the Middle East.

What happens in Cairo never stays in that great city.  Pan-Arabism was a project of the intellectuals, but Cairo under Nasser gave it power and a big stage.  Likewise today, it is fitting that Cairo is the all-important stage on which unfolds a deadly struggle over political Islam and its place in the life of the Greater Middle East.

Itamar Rabinovich, noted historian and former president of Tel Aviv University, served as Israeli Ambassador to Washington, D.C. and Chief Negotiator with Syria.


The use of force as an instrument of foreign policy has been an important and salient issue in America’s grappling with its role as the world’s sole superpower for more than two decades now. Europe could not muster the resources required for putting an end to the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and was relieved by the arrival of the US cavalry, but Europeans and others were irritated by George W. Bush’s use of force against another bloody tyrant. And American opinion vacillated from one end of the spectrum to another as Washington had to deal with successive challenges and crises in Somalia, Darfur, North Korea, Iraq and Iran, to name just a few. Was America willing and ready to serve as the global policeman? What were the practical and moral constraints on the use of force? And was it not true that if you had credible deterrence the actual use of force could be avoided?

In this context, the Middle East worlds of the Arabs and of Islam have occupied a special place. These are unstable parts of the world. Their attitudes toward America are ambivalent at best. Societies that are still grappling with the challenges of modernity and the West view America as the epitome of their predicament. It is to use the Ayatollahs’ language, “the great Satan” and therefore the legitimate and prime target for terrorist and other attacks. But it is also the power they want to come to terms with. It was from these lands that the attack on America was launched in 2001 and further attacks are waged and plotted. It is there where Washington’s allies wonder whether the cavalry would be available yet again should they be attacked by domestic or external foes. And it is there where Iran is building a nuclear arsenal and a stockpile of ballistic missiles.

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Things To Do


Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on your reelection.

I am taking advantage of the opportunity provided by The Caravan Project at The Hoover Institution in order to respectfully offer advice on US policy in the Middle East in your second term. Middle Eastern issues, as we know, occupied an important place in your foreign policy agenda during your first term. Most of them remain unresolved and are likely to present significant challenges in the coming years.

There is too much talk of “the end of the American era,” the rise of China rise, and so forth. Objective realities and economic trends must not be ignored, but the US is the only power capable of leading the global system and it must convey the sense that it has the power and the will to play that role. This is true in other parts of the world, but is felt most acutely in the Middle East.

Let me turn to four specific challenges. The first and most urgent is the Iranian quest for a nuclear arsenal. The clock is ticking and we do not want either a nuclear Iran or a messy regional war. We understand that the ground has been set for an American – Iranian dialogue. Teheran always saw Washington as the real negotiating partner for a potential settlement. But the negotiation must be conducted with full awareness of the Iranian skill to play for time. The negotiation should be part of a four-part strategy for a peaceful resolution of this crisis: the negotiation, a credible threat to use military force if needed, crippling sanctions, and a face saving exit for the Iranian regime. Needless to say, strict verification measures are a crucial component of any solution.

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The policy debate on the proper response to the challenges presented by the recent surge in Islamist power and influence in the Middle East is also a matter of geography. The position obtained by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Egypt or Turkey’s quest for a hegemonial role under an Islamist Prime Minister are seen differently from the distant capital of the American superpower, from the concerned capitals of Mediterranean European countries and from Israel, Egypt’s neighbor and the object of Islamist wrath.

For Israel, the Islamist challenge is manifold and the policy choices complex. The Iranian regime openly calls for Israel’s destruction. It established itself on the shores of the Mediterranean north and south of Israel, seeks regional hegemony and a nuclear arsenal. A dialogue is out of the question and Israel’s policy is clear: to combat Iranian influence and to abort its quest for nuclear weapons. The debate in Israel is whether it should, if all other efforts fail, resort to a direct attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The proponents of this option argue that a regime of deterrence is not feasible when Ayatollahs possessed by an apocalyptic vision are on the other side of the equation.

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The unfolding Syrian crisis presents the U.S with a manifold policy dilemma.  Several issues and challenges are at stake:

1) The current impasse is likely to continue for some time and with it the unacceptable massive killing of civilians.

2) The future of Syria is of crucial importance for the Middle East. The replacement of the Assad regime with a functioning secular democracy (or even a semi democratic regime) would have a hugely beneficial effect on the region. A successful suppression of the opposition (even temporarily) would constitute a victory for Iran and Russia and would have adverse effects on the region’s politics.

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