All Writings
August 7, 2006

The Case for Engaging Syria

In my last weekly article “The Missing Link,” I argued for the need to engage Syria in any future negotiations that may lead to a sustainable ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon. Since the reaction to my article was mixed, I thought that, given Syria’s critical importance, I should offer a more comprehensive argument in support of this view. I say this because I believe that ending the war in Lebanon has the potential of changing dramatically the region’s geopolitical landscape in such a way as to lead to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. By refusing to engage Syria, the Bush administration will forfeit another historic opportunity to bring to an end the Arab-Israeli conflict, however remote that prospect may now seem.

Although the Syrian government will fiercely deny it, it is entirely possible that Damascus has resorted to many unsavory means to disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supported militant groups, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and promoted tensions on Israel’s border with Lebanon. But while Syria can be penalized for its underhanded activities, it cannot be left out of any arrangement involving Israel and Lebanon. Excluding Syria may seem appropriate punishment for its actions; yet the consequences will be far more negative for the United States and Israel.

It is hardly a secret that Syria has a special interest in Lebanon. Washington must accept the reality that, with or without Syrian troops in Lebanon and with or without Hezbollah’s active militia, this interest will not end. To suggest that any lasting resolution between Israel and Lebanon can be achieved without the full support of Damascus is more than utter naiveté: it is a truly dangerous illusion. Even if we assume that Syria is guilty of every charge hurled against it by the United States and Israel, does it not make sense to engage Syria now that it openly and unambiguously wants to join the peace camp? What does it take to engage one’s enemy? Does Syria’s willingness to become part of any future agreement run contrary to U.S. interests? The administration may not like it, but Syria is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. How then can isolating it any further benefit the cause of peace?

The Syrian government knows only too well that the administration is fully committed to a regime change in Damascus. >From the Syrian perspective, this, in itself, justifies any effort to thwart the American design. If the administration wishes to see a real change in Syria’s behavior, it must first assure President Asad that the United States has no intention of undermining his government. It is absurd to think that any government will cooperate in its own downfall. That said, however justified American grievances against Syria may be, Damascus can also compile a long list of its own grievances. Neither side’s complaints against the other can be adequately addressed by public pronouncements or recriminations. Only a direct dialogue provides the clarity to realistically assess each other’s intentions.

For more than six years, the administration refused direct negotiations with North Korea and Iran–the result has been complete defiance by both nations. The American strategy led North Korea to develop nuclear weapons and Iran to successfully enrich uranium, bringing it much closer to mastering the technology for the development of nuclear weapons. How then can the administration possibly think that isolating and refusing direct talks with Syria will be more successful in taming Damascus? So far, Washington’s refusal to deal with Syria’s grievances, however objectionable they may be, has pushed Damascus into Iran’s arms, providing Tehran with a golden opportunity to expand its sphere of influence into the Mediterranean. This, of course, comes on the heels of the disastrous war in Iraq, from which Iran has emerged as the greatest beneficiary. Now, the only way to blunt Iran’s ambitions to become the regional hegemon is to co-opt Syria into the Sunni Arab States’ orbit. This is both wise policy and essential strategy. Iran must be stopped in its tracks: this can be done only by denying it access to Lebanon and making Syria’s national interests align squarely with those of the West and Israel. Bogged down in Iraq and with Lebanon in ruins, the United States needs Syria to neutralize what otherwise will be Iran’s sweeping and for now unstoppable gains.

Syria’s main interest is in regaining the Golan Heights. On two occasions in the past two years, Syria’s President Bashar El-Asad offered to resume the peace negotiations and twice he was rebuffed by Israel and the Bush administration. If it cannot regain the Golan through negotiation or by force, Damascus will refuse to allow the United States and Israel to forget its legitimate claim, as stipulated by U.N. resolution 242, which calls for the exchange of territories for peace. Israel may take comfort in the fact that Syria cannot force its hand militarily, but then no Israeli government should delude itself into believing it can keep the Golan indefinitely. Neither should Israel expect it can maintain calm on its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon while the Golan remains occupied territory. To be sure, the longer Israel holds on to the Golan, the more untenable the overall situation will be. Those Israelis who believed in retaining the West Bank under any circumstances have now come to realize that occupation, at least from a demographic perspective, is simply unsustainable. The same goes for the Golan, although for a different but equally valid reason. While it can be argued that under conditions of hostility between Israel and Syria, the Golan, as a buffer zone, constitutes a security asset, if Syria offers normal peace with security in exchange for the Golan and Israel refuses, the Golan becomes a national security liability. Recent events only illuminate this, and nothing will change the nature of the Israeli-Syrian conflict while the Golan remains under Israeli occupation.

For many years, I have studied and been involved directly and indirectly with the Israeli-Syrian conflict and the peace negotiations. My experience leads me to state with absolute certainty that the Syrians have never once deviated or wavered from their commitment to regain the Golan. Israel recognizes this, and twice, in the mid-1990s and in 2000, both sides came very close to an agreement. Unfortunately, negotiations collapsed in May, 2000, over a relatively minor border disagreement. Whereas Israel insisted on withdrawing to the 1923 international borders, Syria remained adamant on a return to the June 4, 1967, ceasefire line–a total difference of seven square miles–a thin line along the Israeli-Syrian border giving Israel a few hundred feet depth to the east, mainly along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Throughout the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations from mid-1990 through the year 2000, Israel has not once agreed to concede the Golan for less than a full peace of reconciliation. Normalized relations in stages were directly linked to a phased withdrawal from the Golan. Israel insisted, and Syria finally conceded, that peace between the two nations had to be framed as a people-to-people peace, in which both peoples develop a vested interest in its preservation. If Syria refuses to offer such a peace agreement now, it will not secure a single inch of the Golan either by negotiations or war. This much, I believe, Syria fully understands.

Those who claim that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and southern Lebanon produced neither calm nor peace are wrong! Barely a single act of violence has occurred between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan since they signed peace treaties in 1979 and 1995, respectively. The prerequisite for real peace was then, and it still holds true today, complete withdrawal. Until Israel establishes the same principles with Syria and the Palestinians, various repeats of the tragic war in Lebanon are inevitable.