All Writings
October 12, 2003

Changing The Dynamic

The strike at what Israel has characterized as a training camp for Palestinian militants near Damascus and the fact that the Bush administration condoned the attack (1) changes the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and 2) sends an ominous warning to Damascus to stop the flow of Syrian nationals into Iraq for the purpose of fighting our troops there. Israel has determined that the Arab states, especially Syria, have helped to frustrate the attempts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by their continued financial, logistical and political support of various militant groups, notably Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Israeli strike was meant not only to put Damascus on notice that it can no longer support Palestinian militant groups and meddle in Iraq with impunity, but to force Syria to rein them in whether they are Syrians or Palestinians.

This Israeli strategy is reminiscent of the one Israel employed in the 1960s and 1970s when it retaliated against Jordan, Syria, and Egypt for allowing Palestinian terrorists to infiltrate Israel proper to commit acts of terror or sabotage. After consistent and increasingly harsher retaliatory attacks that wrought havoc on all three of these nations, each concluded that it had to put these groups under a very tight leash in order to end Israel's punishing blows. In fact, the PLO's refusal to abide by the Jordanian government's demand to cease attacking Israel, resulted in a civil war in Jordan in 1970, which culminated in the exile of the PLO leadership and their families to Lebanon.

Obviously much has changed since then: Jordan and Egypt are at peace with Israel, but Syria remains the main culprit, continuing to support Palestinian militancy and offering sanctuary to many extremist groups. Syria does this not to protect these groups' interests but to safeguard its own. Understanding this dynamic, the Israeli government reasoned that since Israel enjoys an overwhelming military superiority, striking Syria would entail a limited risk. Because there would be public pressure on the Syrian leaders to respond militarily should Israel attack Syrian territory again, they have no choice but to rein in Palestinian militants under their control to prevent this scenario.

Certainly, it was not lost on the Syrian government that President Bush openly stated that Israel "must not feel constrained" in defending itself against terrorist attacks and punish the perpetrators, regardless of where they may be found. Mr. Bush's remarks are consistent with his doctrine of fighting a war against terrorism. His giving Israel a de facto green light to strike Syria again if it becomes necessary at a time when we are militarily engaged in Iraq, represents a dramatic departure from previous U.S. policies toward the Arab states. During the first Gulf War, the administration of Mr. Bush's father went out of its way to prevent the Israelis from retaliating against Iraq after it attacked Israel with a barrage of Scud missiles. At the time, we badly wanted to avoid reinforcing the already existing impression among Arabs of there being a "Zionist-American conspiracy" to dominate the Middle East. What was most feared then was a serious Arab backlash. But today, living in a post- 9/11 world, we have come up with a pretty stark strategy in our war on terrorism. In the new world we find ourselves in, we could not tell the Israelis to take no action to protect their national security. And, at the same time, we needed to deal with Syrian nationals who are infiltrating Iraq, where they are attacking American forces. But, with our still being mired in Iraq and lacking international support for our role there, the Bush administration is not inclined to start a new military campaign against a third Islamic or Arab country. Thus our support of the Israeli attack on Syria had a dual purpose: (1) to warn Syria to cease its support of Palestinian militants, and (2) to stop the flow of Syrians with the goal of killing Americans into Iraq.

One might ask why Syria is playing with fire. The answer is that there is nothing that Syrians want more than the recovery of the Golan Heights which they lost to Israel in 1967 and the removal of their country's name from the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism, a development that will open it up to U.S. trade and investments. But the Syrian government is painfully aware that it neither can recover the Golan by force, nor does it expect Prime Minister Sharon to relinquish it voluntarily. This twin realization is what led Syria to rally behind the Palestinian cause and support militant groups in their efforts to frustrate and destabilize the Israeli and American occupations. Although this strategy entails high risks, Syrian officials, without admitting to any wrong doing, insist that their country can ill afford to remain on the sidelines and thereby let the occupation of the Golan be forgotten.

Whereas we must resort, as warranted, to coercive diplomacy to send a clear message to Syria, we must also seek interest-based approach that serves Syria's national concerns. American punishment of Syria, including, economic sanctions–currently under consideration in Congress–will not yield us the results we desire. In a recent conversation I had with a top Syrian academician, a conversation sanctioned, I am sure, by his government, he insisted that Syria is ready and willing to be supportive not only of our war against terrorism (as it already has been, he emphasized), but to deal effectively with any other issue of concern to us if Syria's regional concerns, especially the Golan and its special interests in Lebanon, are not forgotten. We, of course, have many reasons to be suspicious of Syrian intentions. Yet the reality is that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in tatters, and Iraq's continuing violence and instability should give us pause. We need to ask whether a more collaborative approach toward Syria might not be the better strategy.

Syria understands only too well that its military forces are no match for Israel's and certainly not for those of the United States either, but its leaders also know the limitations of America's and Israel's power. Israeli retaliations will have their effect, but neither American nor Israeli military might will persuade Syria to abandon its role as an important player in the Middle East, either now or in the future. Syria needs a different type of attention than what we have previously given it, an attention that respects and understands its peculiar dynamics. We cannot conquer every country that may support terrorism, just as we cannot bully every country into submission. We should use Syrians' interests in Lebanon and their passionate feelings about the Golan as the building blocks of a changed relationship. In other words, they need us to secure these interests just as much as we need them to play a constructive role in our war against terrorism and to stabilize the region.