All Writings
October 6, 2002

Defying Conventional Wisdom

To suggest that there might be an opportunity for Israel and Syria to achieve a peace agreement at this juncture when turmoil and uncertainty rule in the Middle East defies conventional wisdom. But it is exactly when everything seems to break down that people with vision seek a breakthrough. With war between the United States and Iraq looming large, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seemingly stuck in the mud, removing Syria from our enemies' list will be tremendously beneficial to Syria, the United States, and, certainly, Israel.

Prime Minister Sharon does not really expect peace between Israel and the Palestinian anytime soon, and definitely not before the next Israeli elections scheduled for October 2003, especially while violence continues to undermine the prospects for even an interim agreement. Meanwhile, the United States is gearing up for a war to oust Saddam Hussein causing tremendous anxiety throughout the region, by deepening the sense that the worst is yet to come. Both consumer states and producers of oil are already taking desperate measures to protect their national economies from the disastrous effects that a serious disruption in the flow of oil are likely to produce. And, finally, the countries that surround Iraq, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the small Gulf states, are bracing themselves, not knowing what might befall them once a war is waged next door in a state governed by a ruthless, vindictive, and unpredictable dictator who might unleash his weapons of mass destruction against them. It is this sense of uncertainty and confusion which permeates the region that leads me to believe that now just might be the moment for Israel, with the active support of the United States, to turn its attention to Syria and try to reach a peace agreement with Damascus while keeping the Palestinian channels open. Obviously, such a strategy is easier imagined than enacted. But an acknowledgment of the enormous benefits that all three nations could derive from it might just encourage them to seize on an historic opportunity.

Syria is in a precarious position: torn between the desire to normalize relations with the United States and its inability or unwillingness to relinquish its ties to various Palestinian terrorist organizations headquartered in Damascus. The government continues to champion the Palestinian cause mostly for public consumption (there is no love lost between Syria and the Palestinians) and will continue to do so as long as Israel occupies the Golan Heights. For Syria to fully fall into the American orbit three intertwined developments must occur: (1) Syria must sever its ties to all pro-Palestinian terrorist organizations, (2) the United States needs to respond by removing Syria's name from the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism and normalize relations with Damascus, and (3) Israel must be willing to withdraw from the Golan Heights under the conditions of a new peace agreement. I believe such a scenario is possible because Syria desperately needs the economic assistance for modernization that the United States could largely provide. The removal of Syria's name from the list of terrorist states would open up opportunities for American investments, trade, commercial ties, and cultural and political exchanges, for which the Syrian public has been anxiously awaiting. Another benefit to Syria would be a substantial reduction in its military expenditures which now consume more than 40 percent of the national budget; more than half of this money could be channeled into social development. But for any of these benefits to become reality Syria must first regain the Golan Heights because its recovery has been and continues to be synonymous with the restoration of its national pride. No Syrian government will ever compromise over regaining the symbol of Syria's struggle against Israel. The Golan's recovery is viewed by the Syrian people, therefore, as nothing less than the most noble achievement possible for any Syrian president, especially so for Bashar el-Asad, who bears the additional burden of preserving his father's legacy.

As for the Israelis, I believe an overwhelming majority have long since concluded that there will be no peace with Syria unless Israeli forces are fully withdrawn from the Golan an action consistent with UN resolution 242, the separate peace agreements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan. Former Prime Minister Barak came very close in mid-2000 to making a deal with Syria on that basis but ultimately failed because of a disagreement over the final borders. Sharon, who never subscribed to such a deal, is now faced with strategic choice that can revolutionize the prospects for peace and stability in the region. He knows that if he does not make peace with Syria in exchange for the Golan, one of his successors will, simply because there is no other alternative. But acting now could spare the lives of thousands on both sides. He also is aware that peace with Syria at this time would offer huge dividends for Israel: It would break the back of extremist Islamists, especially Hamas and Jihad, isolate the Palestinians and force them to reconcile themselves, once and for all, with Israel's existence, establish immediate peace with Lebanon (and neutralize Hizbullah completely), end, for all intents and purposes, Iran's meddling in the Arab-Israeli conflict, greatly lessen Israel's military expenditures, and open up unprecedented trade and business opportunities that would benefit the entire region. Because of his ideological bent and affinity for the West Bank, Sharon seems constitutionally unable to make peace with the Palestinians. But he does not have the same commitment to the Golan Heights. As a general, he knows that only under conditions of war would the Golan have a strategic value — serving as a buffer zone. But if Syria offers a normal peace in exchange for the Golan, and Israel refuses, the Golan would become a liability to Israel rather than an asset. Now, when Sharon enjoys the Israeli public's confidence, is the time to give up the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria. The question is: Will he show the necessary courage and vision?

For the United States, peace between Israel and Syria would change dramatically for the better the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East. Whether or not we wage war against Iraq, bringing Syria into the fold will help us appreciably in our fight against terrorism, enhance our strategic interests throughout the region, reduce tension, and improve regional political stability. Moreover, a friendly Syria will increasingly undermine Saddam Hussein by shutting down one of the critically important northern arteries he uses to circumvent the sanctions against Iraq. A friendly Syria will also prevent Hizbullah from initiating new hostilities against Israel, actions which can only complicate any war effort. If we do oust Saddam, and Iraq becomes a friend, having Syria as an ally will further isolate Iran (Syria's only Arab state friend), change the regional dynamic for the better, and weaken the influence of Islamists. That there is a growing exchange between the United States and Syria of intelligence about el-Qaeda should pave the way for even greater trust, leading to full normalization of relations. Hence, it is vitally important for the United States to take advantage of the new situation.

Finally, although an Israeli-Syrian peace may still appear far-fetched, close observers of, and participants in, the Israeli-Syrian negotiations agree that most of the stumbling blocks that previously prevented an accord between Israel and Syria were removed during the negotiations between Barak and Syrian foreign minister Farouk el-Shara'a. What emerged was a general agreement on mutual security measures, phased withdrawals, what steps to take toward normalization of relations, and the future of the Israeli settlements. Once an agreement on the final borders is achieved, along either the international borders, as Israel had demanded, or along the June 4, 1967 lines, as Syria insists on (or somewhere in between), a new agreement can be quickly negotiated. But for this scenario to become a reality, all sides must see simultaneously its benefits and thus capitalize on the new dynamics of the Middle East brought into being by our war against terrorism.