Dr. Laura Drake Speaks at Al-Hewar Center About
Regional Strategy and Geopolitics in the Mashreq

On March 22, Al-Hewar Center hosted a presentation by Middle East expert Dr. Laura Drake, who spoke about "Earth, Water, and Fire: The Middle East Trilogy – Regional Strategy and Geopolitics in the Mashreq." Dr. Drake is an adjunct professor of International Relations at the American University in Washington, D.C., and had just returned from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Her presentation was followed by a lively discussion with the audience. The event was moderated by Chief Representative of the Arab League Dr. Khalid Abdulla.
Dr. Drake began by explaining the significance of the Mashreq area, which she described as the flash point of the three Middle Eastern subregions and the most volatile area in recent times because it is "where the life and death issues of the area are being decided." It was the birthplace and the heart of Arab Nationalism and it has seen the overthrow of monarchy in every country but Jordan and the replacement of colonialism with "hardcore nationalist ideological republican forms of government" that are seeking regional change. The Mashreq was also the point where east met west head-on in the country of Lebanon, resulting in 17 years of civil war and the loss of over 150,000 lives. But the most important event, she said, was the implantation of the Zionist entity, with its expansionist mission, into Palestine – the very heart of the region. This event disrupted the entire area and threatened the very basis of Arab national existence.
Dr. Drake noted that the Lebanese resistance is very close to accomplishing what no one has been able to do before – to rid the country of Israeli occupation by military force. She said the price to Lebanon for its freedom has steadily gone down due to the resistance efforts and the tenacity of the Lebanese people. In 1983, the price was the May 17th agreement which called for a permanent Israeli political, military and diplomatic presence in the country. This was aborted with the help of the Syrian strategic umbrella over Lebanon. By 1995, the price was lowered to something approximating Lebanese security guarantees for the border. But by 1996, there was a major shift in the ownership of the strategic leverage on the Lebanese war-front, which was by then in the process of passing from Israel to Lebanon. This was due, she said, to the success of the Lebanese resistance in invoking Israeli domestic opinion and using it as a weapon against the Israeli government in pursuit of its objectives. Without that, the Israelis could have stayed for another 20 years because their casualties were minimal. Compared to the number of Lebanese who died during the 17-year civil war – 150,000 – the number of Israelis who died during the 17 years of Lebanese resistance is very low. By 1996-97, because of this shift in Israeli public opinion, suddenly it was Israel that had to pay for the privilege of being released from the Lebanese quagmire. In addition, because of the linkage of the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, the Golan Heights have been added to the price.
We know about this shift in Israeli opinion, said Drake, because during that period high-level Israelis, such as former defense and intelligence officials, were beginning to bring up the issue of unilateral withdrawal in the international press. It became apparent that the Israeli establishment was searching for a way to escape the game, because it didn’t want to pay the price for the normal route of exit.
When Benjamin Netanyahu came into power, these voices moved into the center of the government, first in the Israeli Defense Ministry and then into the Israeli establishment at that time. The first attempt to exit was Netanyahu’s so-called "Lebanon First" proposal which was essentially his way of trying to cheat the game, said Drake, by attempting to impose an Oslo-type condition on the Lebanese under the guise of unilateral withdrawal. Israel wanted Lebanon to prevent actions across its southern border – something that Israel itself couldn’t do. Of course, if Lebanon failed in that task, then it would have been subject to the severest of retaliations, and Israel would have escaped international condemnation. Syria and Lebanon saw through this trick and they balked. They saw that they would not only lose their leverage on the Golan Heights, but they would have also had to pay the additional hidden price of losing UN Security Council Resolution 425 which would have become inoperable in world opinion, much in the same way that Resolutions 242 and 338 became inoperable after Oslo. Thus the two states refused, and Israel’s attempt failed.
Today, under Ehud Barak, the scenario of a real unilateral withdrawal is intended to put pressure on Syria in the context of a withdrawal from the Golan, because it is a threat to take away that leverage from Syria. If Israel withdraws unilaterally from Lebanon, Barak will gain leverage on the Golan, but at the huge price of allowing Lebanon to be crowned the first Arab country ever in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict to liberate its territory from Israeli occupation by military means. This has huge implications for the Palestinians who are just starting to make the connection, thanks to the recent gaffe by the French official, Jospin, who called the southern resistance in Lebanon "terrorists" and was met by a hail of stones from Palestinian students in Nablus and elsewhere. The Palestinians are now chanting and singing the praises of the Lebanese resistance in the form of "We are all Hezbollah."
This same situation could have emerged in the small frame of time between the election of Yitzhak Rabin and the institution of the Oslo agreement, said Drake, when there were initial stirrings of unilateral withdrawal or redeployment from Gaza and the famous Rabin sentiment of hoping that Gaza would drop into the sea. So it is conceivable that Gaza could have been liberated in the same fashion as Lebanon, without the concessions that were, in fact, attached to it. Indeed, it could have been used as a starting point to move on toward liberation of the cities of the West Bank. As it is, not much more than the cities are in the hands of the Palestinian Authority now. But the implications for the Palestinian future are still enormous, said Drake. Some people, including the leadership of Hamas, are beginning to think about how to restructure their operations in light of Lebanon’s achievement. The Palestinian people are saying "If the Lebanese can do it, why can’t we?"
Although Lebanon is likely to consummate this monumental achievement and possibly the return of the Golan to Syria, as well, this could come at a steep, though momentary, price as we saw in the recent Israeli attacks on the Lebanese infrastructure. The Israelis acknowledge that they are targeting the infrastructure of Lebanon’s rehabilitation and trying to prevent it from recovering from the civil war as a means of demoralizing its people and turning them against their own resistance, said Drake. Fortunately, they do not have enough time left to use that technique to alter the strategic balance as they did against Hamas in Gaza and against the countries that hosted the PLO forces in the days of Arab nationalism.
Israel will likely want to retreat under a position or façade of strength, if it finds an opportunity. It is unlikely that Hezbollah will let up right now because if it does, then Israel could relax a little bit on every front. Now that it has totally dispensed with the 1996 understanding, Israel could continue to bomb civilians in response to attacks on its occupation forces, Drake said, and it could be a very hot summer in Lebanon.
Dr. Drake also noted that it would be better for both Syria and Israel to sign an agreement now, before Hafez Al-Assad is gone, because Israel can deal with a "known quantity" –somebody they know is capable of enforcing any agreement that is signed. Any successor will need time to put his house in order and will not be in a position to readily enforce an agreement. Drake stated that all efforts will probably be exerted in that direction and that Barak will hold a referendum that will include southern Lebanon in order to make it popular and more likely to pass.
If the withdrawal does takes place with or without a Golan agreement, a new element may emerge, namely the intersection of the final status of both the Palestinian and Lebanese tracks due to the issue of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. There are currently 360,000 refugees who want to go home , and the Lebanese government says it will not sign any agreement that does not include a provision for them. The refugee leaders and the PLO both want the refugees to be able to return to their hometowns. This convergence of the interests of the Lebanese state with those of the refugee leadership in Lebanon and the PLO is very unique given all of the unfortunate difficulties in the relations between these two entities in the 1980s and before. Syria will also share these same interests, she noted.
Should the withdrawal come to pass, said Drake, we can expect the escalation of Israel’s so-far failed schemes to transfer Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to places like Iraq and the southern Gulf countries. There has been a lot of pressure on these countries from Israel and the United States to solve that problem for Israel. Fortunately, everyone has refused and is standing firm on this issue, she said. The pressure on Iraq started as early as the end of 1993, before any of this was made public, and around 1997 Congressman Benjamin Gilman’s office sent a delegation – including his top Zionist advisor – to the GCC countries to ask each of them to take 30,000 refugees from Lebanon. All of these US-Israeli pressure tactics are taking place behind the backs of the people directly concerned – the refugees themselves, Drake pointed out, noting that they should be involved in any plans regarding their future.
Drake then turned to the sensitive subject of Iraqi-Syrian relations. The persistent discord between Iraq and Syria has hung as a dark cloud over the entire Arab Mashreq, she said, because it underscores the severance between the two wings of the party of Arab unity. The reconciliation of these two pillars of the Arab Mashreq is essentially the dream of all Arab nationalists, she said, who deep in their soul believe that Iraq and Syria should be together – or at least not be apart.
This unfortunate situation started to change in 1994 as certain geo-political realities began emerging. The Israeli-Turkish alliance was the primary instigator, she said, because it made Syria feel surrounded and presented the threat of a two-front war. Fortunately, although Jordan is unofficially part of this alliance, the Syrians were able, to some extent, to take advantage of the Jordanian succession to improve Syrian-Jordanian relations so that they could reduce hostility on that front at least. However, this wasn’t enough, said Drake, because the core reality in the Arab Mashreq is that Iraq is Syria’s natural, geo-political, strategic depth. This is absolutely inescapable from a purely geo-political point-of-view, she said. With the Turkish-Israeli threat looming, especially the Turkish threat in the direct sense, and with uncertainty of the Middle East peace process, Syria gradually started looking toward Iraq for possibilities of improvement.
Iraq has relatively decent relations with Turkey, despite the United States’ use of Turkish airbases to conduct surveillance against Iraq, Turkey’s occasional forays into northern Iraq, and the fact that Israel spies on both Iraq and Syria, and even as far away as Iran, from Turkish air space. But Iraq and Turkey share an interest in the Kurdish subject and an oil pipeline. Turkey is not as threatening to Iraq as it is to Syria on the water issue because Iraq has the Tigris river, but the Syrians are totally dependent on the Euphrates river from Turkey, and they were hit very hard by the Ataturk Dam project. There has been talk about Turkey doing something on the Tigris as well, which would threaten Iraq, but Iraq has some of its own tributaries so it will not be in as much danger of losing its water supply as is Syria.
In addition to the "hegemonic-led" embargo against Iraq enforced by the United Nations (an organization, Drake noted, which due to the lack of global balance in the post-cold War era, is now being used by the United States to diffuse power throughout the world), Iraq has the problem of the geo-political shift in Jordan, which heretofore was Iraq’s only gateway to the outside world. The shift began in 1995 with the defection of Hussein Kamel, the military-industrial head in Iraq’s apparatus. Kamel’s friendly reception in Jordan was used to complete Jordan’s shift from functioning as Iraq’s strategic buffer to becoming Israel’s strategic buffer. Drake asserted that Kamel was very ready to become a servant of US regional objectives, remarking that when she interviewed him by fax about the future of the region, his answers universally pointed to one thing: whatever the US wants. While he was in Jordan, Kamel saw a number of Israelis, and may have even been taken into Israel on at least two different occasions. Subsequently, Israeli intelligence became deeply involved in the activities of the UN Special Commission for the Disarmament of Iraq through the person of Scott Ritter and others, ultimately compromising the Commission beyond repair, and exposing it for what it was – a sophisticated espionage apparatus wearing the UN camouflage.
Drake then turned to the important issue of normalization. If Syria signs an agreement, she said, this could lead to other states opening relations with Israel. She said that some of the countries further afield are asking why they shouldn’t sign agreements if the PLO has signed one and the Syrians and Lebanese are an the verge of one. Her answer was that these are the front-line states and they are in a position in which they have to sign an agreement in order to get their territory back from Israel. They don’t do it because they want to or because they see any inherent benefit in relations with Israel, she said. The states further out do not have to open relations with Israel, and if they do, she warned, they will take away some of the frontliners’ leverage because even after agreements are signed, there will still be a lot of issues to deal with. It will be important for the countries further out to reject normalization, because what they are going get from Israel is not as important compared to what the frontliners will lose, she said. In addition, she said, they will save themselves from the type of suffering the Jordanian people are experiencing right now due to the penetration of Israel and Israeli capital into their economy.
So it is in this environment that the Syrian-Iraqi reconciliation is taking place. First steps were taken with the re-opening of the border and the desert road between Damascus and Baghdad, mainly for trade and diplomatic delegations at this point. There are also discussions about re-opening the Syrian-Iraqi pipeline which is almost finished. Early last year, talks began about expanding the reconciliation from trade and economics into the political realm. The talks stumbled over the summer and froze up due to several issues and events, but momentum was regained in September and Syria made an invitation to the Iraqi deputy foreign minister to visit Damascus and the exchange of diplomatic interests sections was announced. The interest sections were opened in February of this year and are scheduled to become full-fledged embassies within six months.
Drake noted that the two countries still have a number of issues to work out, and she warned that there are points that could be, and indeed are being, exploited by their enemies, including the obvious and recurring problem of the chronic distrust of intentions of each side by the other. So the relations are still fragile and must be protected from those who seek to destroy the reconciliation. Fortunately, she added, there is presently nothing but good faith and sincere intentions between Damascus and Baghdad. These improved relations would greatly benefit Iraq who would have an outlet to the world other than Jordan, and they would also give Syria economic benefits, she said.
Regarding the geo-political significance of these developments, Drake said that, first, they should not be overestimated. This is not an alliance, and it does not pose a threat to anyone. It is an opening, a healing of past wounds, a gradual and staged, but steady, "improving of the atmosphere." However, its importance should not be underestimated either, she said. The central pillar in Martin Indyk’s Israeli-inspired dual-containment strategy, she said, was not directed only at Iraq and Iran, but at the entire region. It was designed to separate the "domain of peace" (i.e. the circle of frontliners conducting agreements with Israel) from Iran and Iraq, the "domain of containment," in order remove any strategic leverage that these countries could provide to the frontliners and basically to weaken the Arab participants in the peace process. According to Drake, this meant: (1) the severance of Iraq from its Jordanian buffer (which was accomplished); (2) the severance of Iran from Syria (this failed); (3) the severance of Iran from Lebanon (this also failed); (4) the severance of Iran from the Palestinians (this has been only partially accomplished); and (5) the severance of Iraq from Syria (now gone). If these links between Syria and Iraq continue to be built, she said, it will mean the end of the dual-containment strategy, which is already old and sick. The chances for success right now are extremely promising, said Drake, who warned that each party must do its part to remove old doubts and to be resilient to any efforts to implant new ones.
The basis for change in the Middle East, said Drake, is in the Middle East. She has encouraged people in the region not to rely too much on the US or become dependent upon it for their future, because if they do, they risk losing both their national interests and their national soul. The US will put their vital interests to the side. Syria, she said, has been the model state in this regard, because it has resisted a lot of pressure and it has been very successful in repelling or deflecting elements that threaten to diminish its national sovereignty. Iraq and Iran have also resisted, she said, under tremendous pressure, both past and present.
In response to a question from the audience, Drake stated that the US was actually looking for an excuse to attack Iraq since 1988 – since the end of the war with Iran (a war which the US did everything in its power to perpetuate, she added). In late 1990, Drake conducted a review of every article that was published in major newspapers in 1988 and ‘89 that had anything to do with Iraq. From those articles, it was apparent that pressure was building for some kind of action against Iraq. There was "a parade of excuses", she said, including the hanging of the Iranian British spy Farhad Barzoft in Baghdad; the krytons, the nuclear components; and the supergun, the technical man behind which was assassinated by the Israelis. Normally, these events would have been relatively minor in the overall scheme of things, she said, but for some reason a sense of urgency was being created against Iraq in those days – before there was any Kuwait situation at all. Added to this was the exchange of threats between Iraq and Israel. Iraq suspected that Israel was planning to bomb its facilities again after the 1981 episode and it warned that it would retaliate by burning up half of Israel with its binary chemical. In addition, the geopolitics of the region were shifting, for a very brief moment, in favor of Arab nationalism and the coming together around national goals. Then, right after Israel launched its three-stage rocket, Iraq launched a three-stage rocket. So, the US and Israel were afraid of Iraq’s emerging geo-political weight after the war with Iran. Iraq was technically advanced, it was cooperating with European countries, etc. This atmosphere was building to the point that in 1989 or 1990, the face of Saddam Hussein appeared on the cover of U.S. News and World Report as "The Most Dangerous Man in the World." All of this preceded Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing events. The US and Israel were looking for a reason to weaken Iraq. If it were a strategic depth, not only for Syria, but even for the other actors in the region simply because of its geo-political placement, its resources, and its population, then getting rid of Iraq would make these other countries much more strategically vulnerable. The fall of the Soviet Union, as the balancing world power, was the final straw.
As for the role of Arabs in America, Drake believes that that they should not devote their efforts exclusively to working to change US foreign policy in order to help bringing change in the Middle East. She used a military analogy of not hitting your enemy directly in its most heavily fortified position. You find out where it is weakest, or you go around it. Trying to change US foreign policy should not be an exclusive strategy, she said. Strategies have to be diversified, multi-dimensional, and fully integrated with the reality that they are seeking to change. The Arabs in America, she said, should increase their links and connection points with those actually in the region – the people and the governments. They should lend them material and operational support wherever they can, and interact directly with their efforts – not in parallel, but in intersection.
We are seeing this with the people who are involved in the movement against the sanctions on Iraq. Although this is a humanitarian mission, it has huge political implications, she said, and the people involved not only try to lobby officials here, but they risk their livelihoods, their futures, their jobs and reputations, and criminal prosecution by taking supplies to Iraq in contravention of the embargo. This is an example, she said, of linkage where the people here are involved with the people over there. The only thing that that movement has to do now, she said, is to coordinate with the governments that oppose the sanctions – France, Russia, China, etc.
In response to a comment from an audience member about civil society in the Arab world, Drake pointed out that Lebanon has a thriving civil society. It has always had one of the most vibrant civil societies in the area. Syria is also starting to mobilize more of its intellectuals into very interesting discourse about the future of that country. Unfortunately, the civil society in Iraq has been destroyed by the sanctions. The intellectual class in Iraq was very potent before the war and the embargo, she said, but the middle class, the professionals, the intellectuals, the intelligentsia, the great thinkers, the great poets of Iraqi society – all of this has been destroyed. The middle class in Iraq is now the poor class. The sanctions have destroyed the basic economic structure of Iraq, which, before, was called the "transition country." It was definitely second world and was headed for first world status in certain areas like medical care. Its literacy rate was 80 percent. But that is all gone now; the civil society has been decimated since the war and the embargo.
Dr. Drake said that the most important thing that civil society can do, including people in the US who want to connect to the civil society there, is to be involved in the anti-normalization movement that is being put together by intellectuals all over the Arab world. It is really quite promising and it is very important, she said. Syria is not going to normalize with Israel the way that Jordan did. There will be a minimalist approach – what has to be done has to be done, and that’s it, nothing more. But in these countries further afield, and even inside Jordan itself, the anti-normalization movement is going to be seriously needed, she said. It is getting stronger, and the fact that it traverses all of these Arab boundaries is very important, because it would be disastrous if Israel is allowed to penetrate into these countries’ economies.
As for PLO-Israeli negotiations, PLO Chairman Arafat has reached the two red-lines that he will not cross: Jerusalem and refugees. Israel’s intransigence became apparent, said Drake, when it was fussing over relinquishing areas near Jerusalem, about giving back lands even in the outlying areas. What this will mean for the final status talks is anybody’s guess, she said, but Arafat cannot concede any more than has already been conceded. 

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