All Writings
January 23, 2000

The Final Requisites For A Syrian-Israeli Peace

"Full withdrawal for full peace" is an axiom that Israeli and Syrian leaders, along with a clear majority of their public, have long since they accepted. No Syrian leader can accept a partial Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for warm and normal peace, and no Israeli leader can justify total withdrawal for any thing less than normal peace with security.

The question is then why the two sides cannot fold this formula into an agreement fairly quickly without encountering so many obstacles and difficulties, and without displaying so much intransigence. Certainly there remain some legitimate claims and counterclaims, regarding water, final borders and unresolved security issues, that need to be addressed. Nevertheless, following years of mutual posturing, both sides have come to understand each other's bottom line on these and other pending matters. And while trying to exact concession from one another, they have brought themselves to a point from which they cannot escape the consequence of failure. They cannot allow these remaining issues to torpedo a deal. They must now deliver peace that fits the parameters of public expectation or risk tremendous backlash among their people. That said, two interrelated issues of paramount importance are preventing Israel and Syria from striking a deal.

First, Assad and Barak have now entered a new psychological battle designed to win a change in the national mindset of their respective peoples, preparing them for the newly emerging reality of peace. Each must convince his public that he is not giving in on a single issue without intense struggle and without exacting commensurate concessions in return. This perception cannot be created unless the public in both countries is "dragged" into the negotiating process and shares the fateful decisions with which they must live. Prime Minister Barak, who faces tremendous opposition at home, needs to disabuse the Israeli public of the notion that the Golan is indispensable to their national security, and he cannot do so unless he shows that peace with iron-clad security arrangements offers greater security than the Golan.

President Assad, on the other hand, wants to convey to his public that he has not only recovered every inch of territory but has exacted better terms from Israel than Sadat of Egypt or King Hussein of Jordan before him. Moreover, Assad who is eager to pass the reign to his son Bashar wants to make sure that peace with Israel does not unravel his socialist order. He must demonstrate that peace will produce immediate and direct benefits while safeguarding the national matrimony and preserving national pride. This is not brinkmanship for the sake of brinkmanship. It is a critical exercise to transform public perception and create, in both camps, a new mindset supportive of the agreement which is bound to have enormous impact on daily life.

Second, although Syria and Israel can conclude an agreement, in principle, on their own, they will not do so without direct and active American involvement. For Syria, peace in and of itself is important, but with the United States as a partner, it would have far greater benefits and significance. Syria's economy is in shambles, and its military power has seriously deteriorated since the early nineties. Only the United States could assist Syria directly and indirectly through outright grants, investments, market liberalization, information technology, loan guarantees, trade, and help in modernizing its military machine. It is a tall order, but without such a relationship with and a commitment by the United States, Syria will remain an underdeveloped country for the foreseeable future, relegating Assad¹s "dynasty" and his revolution to the abyss of unfulfilled promises and shattered dreams. That is why Assad will not rush to make a peace agreement unless he can solidify Syria's relations with the United States.

Barak too, albeit on a different level, wants America to be an active partner in all security arrangements with Syria and to further enhance Israel's strategic cooperation with the U.S. through the transfer of new technology, joint military projects and sharing of real time intelligence. In addition, Barak wants the U.S. to foot much of the bill, upward of $15 billion, for relocating the settlers and military installations from the Golan. To be sure, it is only when the U.S. becomes a complete partner in the security arrangements, that the Israelis will recognize a new dimension to the future American-Israeli relationship that markedly enhances their national security (at least psychologically).

As a result, both Israel and Syria are conducting separate bilateral negotiations with the United States to insure that their respective arrangements with Washington become integral parts of the final peace agreement. All three sides ‹ the United states, Syria and Israel — recognize that there exists an unsurpassed historic opportunity to strike a deal now. Assad and Barak are clearly counting on President Clinton's time table in an election year and his eagerness to conclude a peace agreement between their countries to crown his presidency.

Although the parameters for peace have more or less been defined, the United States must continue to work feverishly to conclude an Israeli-Syrian agreement. Time is of the essence. There is always the danger that too much brinkmanship and tactical maneuvering, with the best of intentions, could derail the negotiations and risk leaving the peace process a victim to the volatility of the Middle East and the cynicism of those who oppose it.