Why Syria Must Regain the Golan to Make Peace
The formula of "full withdrawal for full peace" remains at the heart of the present impasse in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Because the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects, presumably on security grounds, the principle of full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the Syrians see no reason to resume negotiations unless a commitment of Israeli withdrawal is first accepted by Netanyahu. To break the deadlock, Netanyahu may wonder what can be done to motivate Syria to make peace without getting the Golan in return. The answer is simple – absolutely nothing. The Syrians have fought four wars and lived in a continuous state of war with Israel for five decades and are willing to live for another half century without peace.
Since the end of the Cold War, the political and military dynamics in the Middle East have changed. The Syrians' desire for peace is now, in large measure, based on the premise that they cannot recover the Golan by military means. And if peace brings the promise of economic prosperity and a greater sense of security, then Asad will pursue it, but never at the cost of forsaking the Golan. The Syrian people have been persuaded to accept peace, but only peace with dignity. For Syria, the most nationalistic of all Arab states, only a peace that restores the Golan can provide that dignity, especially since Egypt and Jordan have regained every inch of the territory they lost to Israelis – a condition for their bilateral peace agreements with Israel.
Like Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin initially thought he could negotiate "peace for peace" with Syria without giving up the Golan, but soon after entering into negotiations in earnest, he realized that only the recovery of the Golan matters for the Syrians. Rabin's verbal agreement to give up all of the Golan was not made without grave security concerns on his part. But he had quickly learned the alternative was a continuing cycle of violence, something with which his nation was unwilling to live when peace with security became a realistic alternative.
The Syrian position, however, is neither arbitrarily defined nor a matter of fixed principle from which the Syrians simply will not deviate. There are, in President Asad's view, psychological, political, strategic, historical and even personal concerns that bear heavily on the Syrian position. Understanding that position from these perspectives is crucial. Otherwise, those Israelis, including Netanyahu, who believe that Syria, perhaps under different geopolitical conditions, will agree to a peace agreement for anything less than full Israeli withdrawal are dangerously misleading themselves and the Israeli public.
The Strategic Dimension
The Syrians are keenly aware that in the wake of both the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Gulf War, geopolitical conditions in the Middle East have dramatically changed. Not only has renewed war with Israel become futile but even potentially disastrous, peace has become, as President Asad publicly stated, a strategic choice. Given this fact, Asad established one undeviating principle as Syria's minimal national requirement: Israel's recognition of Syrian sovereignty over the entire Golan and its eventual full evacuation by Israel. Syria views the acceptance of this principle by Netanyahu as the point of departure without which there can be no basis for peace negotiations.
It should be especially noted that although the geopolitical changes in the Middle East have compelled Syria to abandon its desire to erase Israel from the map, to contemplate peace as an alternative was a strategic choice representing a quantum leap unthinkable only few years earlier. To suggest that the Syrians should also abandon all or part of the Golan in the process, in the Syrian view, would be nothing less than asking them to commit strategic suicide. Neither Asad nor his successor can make such a concession and live to see it fulfilled.
It should also be stressed that whereas an all-out war to recapture the Golan could be disastrous for the Syrians, Syria still retains the option of waging a war of attrition causing havoc to Israeli communities. The Syrians can tolerate a considerably higher level of casualties that may result from Israeli retaliations than the Israelis can absorb from Syrian attacks. The democratic nature of Israeli society lowers considerably the threshold of acceptable casualties. Netanyahu, not Asad, will be under intense domestic pressure to end the violence, coupled with international pressure on both sides to resume the peace negotiations – without any possible gain for Israel other than the senseless loss of human lives.
The Psychological Dimension
For the vast majority of Syrians, President Asad's characterization of the requirements for peace – full Israeli withdrawal- touches deep nationalistic and emotional chords. Like the Israelis, the Syrians have become prisoners of a national psychological disposition created to explain the 1967 war and its consequences. Whereas for 30 years successive Israeli governments projected the Golan as indispensable to their country's national security, the Syrians during the same period were told by their government that the Golan was captured through a war of aggression that exacted a heavy national toll. Therefore, as desirable as peace has become to ordinary Syrians, national pride and honor loom even larger, making it unthinkable that there be peace under any circumstances other than total Israeli withdrawal. Asad has made the removal of any and all traces of the 1967 war and its consequences a matter of national honor and thereby a prerequisite for peace.
Another factor contributing to the impasse is the serious misperception existing in Israel about Asad's dictatorial powers. Israelis believe that he can impose on the Syrian public any kind of deal he manages to concoct with Israel. Not so. Syrian national pride is not a slogan; it is as real as the territory itself. Anyone with even a faint understanding of Syrian nationalism also understands that the people will not forsake land because they are told to do so by their leader. If that happened, it would only be a matter of time before the public would revolt, regardless of the consequences such a course might entail, and do away with any government perceived as selling their national patrimony down the river.
In a recent conversation I had with Syria's ambAsador to the United States, Walid Al-Moualem, he emphatically stressed his president's position. The ambassador, who is also his country's chief negotiator, explained: "No Syrian government could relinquish a single inch of the Golan to Israel, because that would betray the trust of the people." It is interesting to note that although the Syrian public generally refuses to engage openly in any discussion about government policies, most Syrians speak freely, but now with less excitement, about the prospects of peace with Israel. Here they follow their president's position, completely supporting his concept of "full Israeli withdrawal for full peace."
The Political Dimension
Syria, like any country that has lost territory in war, regardless of cause or circumstances, wants to recover it. Since negotiations began more than five years ago, Asad has invested a tremendous amount of political capital in the peace process, making the formula of "full withdrawal for full peace" central to his new strategy. His formula has consequently, aroused a great deal of attention both in Israel and especially in Syria. What has complicated the peace talks is the question of how to fold this formula into an agreement without compromising Israel's security or Syria's sovereignty over the Golan. Prime Minister Rabin in effect conceded the Golan, and Peres was willing to conclude an agreement on that basis.
However, the assassination of Rabin, the fall of Peres, and the rise of Netanyahu to power have changed the political equation. Netanyahu now insists on starting the negotiations from scratch. He argues that Rabin's verbal commitment to full withdrawal should not be binding to his government; he argues that full withdrawal from the Golan, in any case, is inconsistent with Israel's national security. According to Netanyahu, any Israeli-Syrian agreement should be based on the principle of "peace for peace" rather than "land for peace."
The only problem is that the Syrians remain adamant about their position. AmbAsador Al-Moualem insists that "going back to square one is not only counterproductive from a negotiating standpoint but totally unacceptable from a political and practical viewpoint:
For five years, Syria has made it abundantly clear to three prime Ministers – Shamir, Rabin and Peres- that full withdrawal is the principal requirement from which no Syrian leader can ever deviate. Finally, just as our point was finally understood, we were asked to start the negotiations again from beginning.
If the principle of exchanging territory for peace, based on U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 (which have provided the foundation for the Madrid conference and the Israeli-Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties) is unacceptable to Netanyahu, then the resumption of negotiations in any other guise is equally unacceptable to Syria.
The Personal Dimension
Many Israeli officials tend to believe that Asad has a personal stake in making peace with Israel, especially since it was he who lost the Golan to the Israelis in 1967, when he served as Syria's defense minister. Others speculate that Asad, aging (he is 67) and ill, might be eager to finalize an agreement before exiting the political stage.
It is pure illusion to suggest that Asad will compromise on the Golan because of personal expediency. On the contrary, because the Golan was lost on his watch and because he may not be in good health, he has become doubly immovable about the conditions for accord with Israel. If he had an open choice, he would chose to leave the political scene after recovering the entire Golan. But if he must decide between no agreement and an agreement requiring him to surrender even a small tract of land, he will chose no agreement. Asad prefers to be remembered as the leader who did not give in to the Israelis rather than the leader who committed the double evil of losing the Golan and then perpetuating its occupation.
In Syria, Asad certainly has the final word and exercises absolute power. But there is no wholesale repression in Syria, and he is respected for his stand on the peace process. The Syrian public feels safe under his stewardship in this respect and will follow him. He has provided a framework for peace and asked his people to trust him. He has no personal reasons to make concessions, and he is under no public pressure to compromise on the requirement for peace he has set.
The Israelis can, of course, continue to speculate about what Asad will do next. He likes to remain an enigma in this regard, but it would be a mistake for the Israelis to think that time is in their favor. Asad is no rush, and his successor is likely to be even more committed to preserving Asad's legacy – a legacy of placing national pride above personal and political expediency.
The Historical Dimension
More than a year ago when I first visited Syria, I met with Syria's minster of information, Muhammad Salman. Salman, a learned man with a deep sense of his nation's history, recalled chapters of glory and periods of gloom. In a low voice, but with calm precision and deliberation, he recounted the five decades of Israeli-Syrian struggle:
It took Syria nearly 50 years to finally accept the Israeli reality. Two generations have passed and even then, only following sweeping changes in the Middle East and around the globe, have we come to slowly digest the Israeli existence. We have moved from a determination to destroy Israel to acceptance, to accommodation, and now even reconciliation. In the interim, yes, we had to swallow some of our pride. But remember, a nation, a people, can change course when changing the course promises to lead to a better life, to progress, prosperity and peace. Now we are asked to make peace by perpetuating a national humiliation, by surrendering part of our land that the whole world recognizes is ours and ours alone.
Our President has stated the condition for peace, and this condition, namely, full withdrawal for full peace, will always be required. Israeli leaders can come and go, but we are very patient people. We measure time, not in years, but in centuries. Empires come and go. In this century alone we have witnessed the collapse of three empires – the British, the German and the Soviet – but the Arab nation has more than quadrupled in the last 50 years. By the year 2020 there will be more than 250 million Arabs and 10 to 12 million Jews. This is a demographic revolution that no one can stop or change. It is Israel, not the Arab states, that must make the necessary adjustments to become Middle Eastern and an integral part of this region. Under what conditions, may I ask, should Syria or any other Arab entity accept Israel as a member state and welcome its people to our homes when they represent occupation and are a permanent reminder of our national humiliation?
I cannot tell you what will happen if Israel misses this historic opportunity to make a real peace. How intense the violence will be, how many more innocent people on both sides will die, and what kind of peace Israel will be able to achieve with the rest of the Arab states? But one thing I know for sure: if it takes another 1,000 years, we will recover our land. Time is with us. The sooner Israel recognizes this fact of life, the sooner we can fold our president's formula – the peace of the brave – into a comprehensive peace agreement.
Irrespective of the way Netanyahu and his government paint the importance of the Golan to Israel's national security or delimit the kind of peace that Syria must offer in exchange for the Golan, both Israel and Syria must address certain misperceptions about a number of critical issues. These issues must be better understood before the necessary psychological and political environment for an agreement can be created:
a) Understanding the relevance of the Golan under conditions of peace
The argument that the Golan is vital to Israel's security still looms largest on Israel's domestic political horizon. For 19 years (1948-1967), Israeli military and political leaders maintained that Syrian forces bombarded Israel from the Golan without any provocation, causing havoc to the villages and townships in the valley below. Syria, however, insisted that the Syrian attacks were only in retaliation for Israel's occupation of the buffer zone, created in their 1949 agreement. For decades the Israeli public accepted its leaders' version of the unfolding events and, in spite of a dynamic parliament and free press, the truth did not come out until May 1997.
Correspondent Rami Tal of the widely circulated Israeli newspaper Yediyot Aharonot, published a private conversation he had in 1976 with Israel's former chief of the General Staff and defense minister, Moshe Dayan. Dayan's account of the situation along the Syrian border from the time of Israel's establishment until the Six-day War of 1967 was nothing less than astounding:
After all, I know exactly how at least 80 percent of the incidents began. We would send a tractor to do some ploughing work in some spot in the demilitarized zone where farming activities were out of the question, and we knew in advance that the Syrians would start shooting. If they held their fire, we would instruct the tractor drivers to keep moving forward until the Syrians would lose their temper and start shooting. Then we would begin artillery shelling and, at a later stage, we would bring in the Air Force. This is what I did, and what Laskov and Tchera (chief of staff Zvi Tzur) also did, and what Yitzhak Rabin did as well. We thought then, and we continued to do so for a considerable while, that we could alter the armistice lines through military operations that would be just short of actual war. In other words, by seizing some land and holding it until the enemy would despair and let us keep it.
Sadly, even after such astonishing revelations, there was very little public debate, and Israeli leaders from the left to the right of the political spectrum remained muted. Three decades of public brain washing had created a national state of mind that found comfort in a lie perpetuated even at the cost of losing the opportunity for a peace treaty with Syria.
Thus, from the Israeli perspective, the Golan has provided, and continues to provide, the buffer the Israelis feel they need to prevent the Syrians from repeating their attacks. And so Israeli leaders deny that today's advanced weapons (missiles and supersonic bombers) would render the Golan inconsequential. The Syrians would still have to depend on their infantry to consolidate any military gain resulting from massive air or missile attacks. The Gulf War shows clearly that regardless of how devastating the allied missile and aerial attacks on Baghdad and other Iraqi targets were, the infantry was necessary to chase the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The 1973 Yom Kippur War proved that having the Golan as a buffer zone gave the Israelis both the time they needed to mobilize forces and the strategic advantage that permitted them to stop the advancing Syrian army.
These arguments remain valid only if Syria is as belligerent as it is portrayed by the Israelis and as long as Syria remains unwilling to make peace. Under conditions of full and sustainable peace, however, the Golan becomes much less relevant. In fact, if Syria is ready to deliver the full peace that Israel wants and the Israelis refuse to offer full withdrawal in return, the Golan will no longer be (if it ever had been), a security asset. It will become a liability. What incentive would the Syrians have to keep the status quo of no peace and no war? Should Netanyahu insist on retaining the Golan, another war or a continuing war of attrition – if only to destabilize the political climate and possibly wreck Israel's peace efforts with the Palestinians and Jordan – would be too tempting to resist for long. The arguments against withdrawal appear at first to have some validity. But, weaving a web of political intrigue, those who oppose withdrawal from the Golan have been at best disingenuous, and at worst outright liars, in their portrayal of the facts.
Significant progress was made at the end of May1995, when Syria and Israel reached an agreement on paper. Called "Aims and Principles of Security Arrangements" and brokered by the United States, the agreement provided the framework for all security arrangements. I know firsthand that Syria is prepared to listen carefully to Israel's security needs and to discuss them in the context of full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. These measures, designed to achieve enduring mutual security, included demilitarization, the disarming of anti-Israeli groups, joint patrols, the stationing of American troops on the Golan, satellite surveillance and eventual elimination of weapons of mass destruction.
b) Phased withdrawal and a timetable that meets Israel's needs
Although Syrian officials understand the Israelis' need for a phased withdrawal, they do not accept the logic behind Israel's requirement that it take four to five years to complete. The Syrians view the Israeli pullout logistically. As such, it certainly would not take four to five years. Seen from this perspective, there is no need for an extended period of psychological adjustment that the Israeli public supposedly needs to normalize relations between the two countries. Indeed, the Syrians believe that a prolonged phased withdrawal could complicate matters. The change of government in Israel from Labor to Likud- with Likud opposing any substantial pullout from the Golan – is a case in point. Had there not been problems of distrust, Syria's foreign minister, Farouk Al-Shara, would have been correct in suggesting that "from a realistic point of view, from a logistical point of view, and because of the small size of the Golan Heights, there is no need for a long period to conclude the withdrawal."
It ought to be emphasized, however, that the Israelis need to see and feel that withdrawal of their soldiers from the Golan is gradual, consistent with the evolving attitude of Syria and the progress made in normalizing relations between the two countries. This is not an issue that can be accelerated regardless of the prevailing political conditions. Withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Golan and normal relations must withstand the test of time.
It appears, however, that Syria realizes the need for flexibility on the question of phased withdrawal. Although AmbAsador Walid Al-Moualem, Syria's point man in Washington, speaks of one year, Syria may eventually agree to two years, should this become one of the few remaining obstacles to an agreement. In any event, Syrian officials insist on a specific beginning and an end, leaving no loose threads.
c) The problem of the settlers
One of the main reasons Israel requires a longer period for withdrawal of its forces from the Golan is the presence of nearly 15,000 settlers scattered in about 26 settlements. There is no question that their presence represents a major humanitarian problem, and the Israeli government must take all necessary precautions to avert violent resistance by the settlers and their supporters. When Israel finally agrees to a full withdrawal, it may cause nothing less than a national trauma, affecting not only the settlers but nearly all Israelis. Phased withdrawal over a longer period can provide for national healing, giving the settlers and their large constituency of supporters the time to make the psychological adjustment. Moreover, relocating the settlers will be costly and time consuming, and will require a clear strategy, public support and major financial as sistance. Apart from the importance of time requirement the real question is this: Should Israel forfeit a historic opportunity for a comprehensive peace, subjecting the whole country to a perpetual state of war so that the Golan's Israeli residents can remain in place? As pioneers, the settlers have already played a critical role on behalf of their country. By their presence they have convinced the Syrians that only genuine peace could remove them from the Golan. As painful and heartbreaking as evacuation will be, it must be viewed in the context of other alternatives.
It is hypocritical even to suggest, as has Israeli Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, that the government must stand by its obligation to the public and find a way of achieving peace, but also remain on the Golan. How, we might ask, does he propose to do that? It is easy to say that Israel must "find a way," but neither Netanyahu or any other Likud leader has advanced a plausible alternative. Former Prime Minister Rabin was correct when he bluntly remarked that it is a "deception to argue that Israel can have peace with Syria while holding on to the entire Golan Heights."
d) Dealing with Syria's political unpredictability
The Israelis who oppose full withdrawal do have some real concerns about the potential for political instability in the post-Asad period. Whether Asad's successor will adhere to agreements made by his government is also a valid question. Holding onto the Golan because of Syrian political unpredictability, however, is like putting on blinders and then complaining about being unable to see. Based on Israel's experience with Asad since the disengagement agreement of 1974, there is good reason to believe that he or his successor will adhere scrupulously to an accord with Israel. Of course, the sine qua non of that outcome is that the new agreement be fair and equitable. Successor leaders on both sides would then not only be able to justify the accord, they would also have a vested interest in its preservation.
Future Syrian leaders, be they despotic or democratically elected, would have to be delusional to trade peace and prosperity for a military adventure that would most certainly destroy their country. Israel will continue to maintain a credible military threat that would deter an adversary from a reckless attack. But even if this assumption were in error, Israel will continue to keep a second-strike capability that could inflict unacceptable damage on a would-be ag-gressor. In this context, the potential for the rise of a despot who would reject the peace and resume hostilities against Israel is not limited to Syria; it also exists in Egypt and Jordan. This possibility did not prevent Israel from making peace with these two states, but the opponents of withdrawal from Syria conveniently forget that.
It is axiomatic nowadays that no Syrian leader could defend only a partial Israeli withdrawal in exchange for a "normal and comprehensive peace," whereas no Israeli leader could justify full withdrawal for anything less than full peace.
e) Normalization of Relations
For the Israelis, normalization is the cornerstone of peace with Syria, no less relevant to Israel's long-term security than any other criterion. Indeed, along with creating comprehensive security arrangements in full partnership with the United States, Israel views the process of normalization as paramount in developing people-to-people relationships. During the previous negotiations between the Labor-led government and Syria, both sides reported discernable progress on this critical issue.
The Syrians, I believe, will be considerably more forthcoming concerning normalization than they have hitherto indicated. In the final analysis, peace with normal interpersonal relationships, including trade, tourism, and cultural and diplomatic exchanges is more powerful and more lasting than any security arrangement Israel may seek. Perhaps this is why AmbAsador Al-Moualem has indicated that the issue of normalization of relations will not be allowed "to prevent us from reaching an agreement as long as Israel accepts the correlation between the timetable of full withdrawal, which both sides need to agree upon, and the pace of the normalization."
Under the best of circumstances the peace will not be a "risk-free peace" for either Israel or Syria. Although Israel's search for absolute security is perfectly understandable, it may be unattainable by virtue of the necessity of eventual Israeli withdrawal from the entire strategic Heights. Moreover, Syrian officials admit that, as desirable as the peace may be, Israel will still remain the region's military superpower, a situation inherently fraught with some risks for them. However, some elements of mutual vulnerability may prove useful. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once observed: "Attaining absolute security by one side will inescapably render its counterpart absolutely insecure, which is a recipe for instability."
There is growing concern in Israel and Syria that time is running out. The loss of momentum has already left large segments of the Israeli and Syrian public disillusioned with the prospects for peace. Still, in spite of what Prime Minister Netanyahu believes, and how he may perceive the requirements for peace with Syria, there will be no peace unless the Golan Heights are returned to the Syrians. Asad continues to insist on resuming negotiations at the point where they were interrupted, after Rabin and Peres had both basically conceded the return of the Golan. Netanyahu demands that negotiations restart without preconditions. This difference in position is not only the reason for the stalled negotiations, it is the precise point of dispute between Israel and Syria. How this issue is decided could lead either to peace or to the renewal of a pointless cycle of violence that has no possibility of changing the dynamic of the conflict and its ultimate outcome.