All Writings
January 2, 2000

The U.S.: Indispensable To Israeli-Syrian Peace

As the United States dispatches troops to Kosovo to keep the peace, it may soon have to answer yet another call to play a direct role in finding a solution to the Israeli-Syrian conflict. American troops along with other security arrangements will be needed, to resolve issues of paramount importance to the national security of Israel and Syria.

Despite all the grumbling from friends and foes alike about American arrogance and bullying, they continue to seek U.S. intervention in resolving local and regional conflicts. The reason? Because the United States remains the only credible power that can project its military and economic might without exacting in return a heavy toll for its efforts. In that sense United States is indispensable.

We have already been intensely involved in the Israeli-Syrian conflict over the Golan. With the prospect for the resumption of negotiations between the two nations now imminent, in the wake of Barak's election as Prime Minister, the U.S. will be called upon to play even a greater role than before. The reason is that national security concerns will continue to bedevil the Israeli-Syrian negotiations unless the U.S. becomes a partner in any future security arrangements.

Historically, no Israeli-Syrian, or for that matter, Israeli-Arab agreement has been achieved without active U.S. involvement. The Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement of 1974 and the end to the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982 offer only two vivid examples. Today too, no power that both the Israelis and the Syrians trust is better suited or more strategically situated than the United States to become part of the solution. Moreover, direct involvement by the U.S. is very much consistent with its own long term strategic interests in the region.

Considerable progress had been made on security matters during the Israeli-Syrian talks at the Wye Plantation before their suspension in March 1996. But several critical security issues remain, including Israel's demand for an early warning station, both on location, and with real-time verifications. Only the U.S. can satisfy these and other security requirements by undertaking air and space surveillance to provide in real-time data to both sides. In addition, the U.S. will have to station its own monitors on the Golan as part of a larger security framework acceptable to both nations.

Those who are opposed to the stationing of American troops argue that they will (a) become targets of terrorist attempts to undermine the peace; ( b) force the U.S. to become neutral rather than remain Israel's ally; (c) compromise Israel's freedom to take unilateral action, and finally; (d) replace American admiration for Israel's military self-reliance with resentment because our troops will now risk their lives protecting Israel's borders. Although these arguments may initially appear to have some validity, in reality, they matter very little. Indeed, as long as the American public understands the far-reaching implications of the mission–the establishment of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace and its direct benefit to the United states' strategic and economic interest in the region –they will support it.

Israel is actively seeking such an American involvement, and although Syria prefers troops under a UN umbrella, it remains open to the idea. One drawback is that American forces would have to be further stretched globally. But this disadvantage would certainly be outweighed by the safeguarding of U.S. strategic interests. Moreover, American involvement will provide us with the opportunity to be at the center of all future regional security arrangements, thereby consolidating our presence in a such a vital region. Congress should in due course, give the matter full support.

In a recent conversation I had with Syria's ambassador to the United States Walid Al-Moualem, he emphatically suggested: "U.S. involvement is absolutely critical.. . . The Clinton administration will have to redouble its efforts to help Israel and Syria reach an agreement. It is not enough to be a mediator or an honest broker, the United States must become a partner in the peace process, the implementation of the peace agreement, and its maintenance. Without such direct American involvement it is doubtful that we can reach an agreement."

In earlier mediating efforts in the Middle East American involvement included major financial assistance. The U.S. must continue to recognize that economic security is the pillar on which national security of Israel and its Arab neighbors and therefore their stability rests. Egypt and Israel annually receive $2 and $3 billion respectively in economic and military assistance, the Palestinians have received several hundreds million dollars from the U.S. over the past 5 years and we forgave Jordan $700 million in loans in addition to our providing outright assistance. In the Israeli-Syrian scenario, the United States should first encourage investments and the transfer of capital especially to Syria so that ordinary people can reap the dividends of peace. In addition, it is about time the State Department remove Syria's name from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism. This is particularly important because of the message such an act will send; for example, it will open the door for America and Europe to invest and make loans to Syria, and to conduct commerce. As for Israel it can be expected to ask for billions of dollars in outright assistance or, at a minimum, in loan guarantees to defray the cost, projected at upward of $ 5 billion, for relocating 17,000 settlers from the Golan.

Yes, America's price tag for an Israeli-Syrian peace will be hefty, in terms of security and financial commitments. It is unlikely, however, that Israel and Syria will come to terms on their own without U.S. prodding and direct involvement. But we can ill afford to do less in a region where the stakes are so high and our short-and long-term strategic interests so vital.