What is the price of engaging Syria in the Middle East peace process? An Israeli perspective

by Avraham Sela

Jerusalem, January 23, 2008, Transatlantic Issues No 25


During his recent visit to Cairo, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France would suspend all diplomatic contacts with Syria, due to Syria’s role in the current Lebanese presidential crisis.

This announcement followed months of French efforts to persuade Syrian President, Bashar el Assad, to change course in the region in exchange for Western engagement. It also coincided with the visit to Damascus by two US officials – Republican Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Congressman, Patrick Kennedy – who reportedly conveyed to Assad a message from Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, sounding out Damascus for possible talks. Indeed, Syria’s low-level attendance at the Annapolis conference fueled speculations about the prospect of resurrecting the Syrian-Israeli track.

This coincidence underscores the policy dilemma facing the West vis-à-vis Damascus. Israel shares this dilemma. Its policy and defense communities are divided on whether engaging Damascus, even though for Israel, the basic questions underscoring this dilemma are different: Is a peace agreement with Syria possible? If so, what are the stakes for Israel and the Middle East as a whole?

Arguments for engagement

In Western and Israeli policy circles, many consider Syria as key to Middle East peace. They argue that the right incentive package will drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. Separating Syria from Iran in turn would isolate Iran and weaken its quest for regional hegemony, first and foremost in Lebanon where Western engagement and Syria-Israel peace would encourage Damascus to play a constructive role in disarming Hezbollah and thus enable Israeli-Lebanese detente. Similarly, peace between Israel and Syria would end Syrian patronage and military support for militant Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which in turn would facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and effectively lead to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. For the West engagement means better diplomatic relations, trade and investment, and a face-saving deal on the international tribunal over the assassination of late Lebanese Prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. In Israeli terms, it means the Golan Heights.

Such an agreement is expected to be easily reached and scrupulously implemented. Indeed, in view of the complex and long-deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Syria offers better opportunities because the parameters of the quid pro quo have been ostensibly agreed upon – or at least acknowledged – by the partners. Finally, a Syria-Israel deal, an agreement between state-actors, does not involve the pitfalls of statecraft and nation building that a deal with the Palestinians necessarily requires.

Israeli concessions on the Golan Heights would therefore be a key component of the strategy of engagement with Damascus and would produce benefits both for Israel and the West, with ripple effects beyond the immediate neighborhood.

All the above are of course core Israeli interests. But is it in Israel’s interest – not to mention its Arab neighbors’ – to return the Golan Heights to Syria? There is no doubt that Damascus covets them. The question is whether Israel under current conditions, can obtain the above from Damascus in exchange for the Golan. A look at Syrian track record in foreign policy suggests that these results are far from a foregone conclusion.

Syria’s historical record

Contrary to widespread assumptions, Syria’s main foreign policy interest is not the return of the Golan Heights under its sovereignty but a quest for regional hegemony in the Levant. Thus, restoring Syrian sovereignty over the Golan cannot come at the price of sacrificing that ambition. Even before the 1967 war, Syria’s Ba’ath regime played a leading role entangling Egypt and other Arab states in war with Israel by armed provocations across the Syria-Israel ceasefire lines and support for Palestinian guerrilla groups throughout the 1960’s, which eventually escalated into full-fledged war in 1967. Syria’s loss of the Golan Heights in 1967 was a self-inflicted wound stemming from domestic struggles for power; regardless, the ongoing quest for hegemony in the Levant kept precedence over the Golan Heights.

The combination of radicalism and defeat led Syria to reject Israel’s peace overtures of June 19, 1967 and boycott the three ‘nays’ of Arab summit in Khartoum convened three months later as not militant enough. Unlike Egypt and Jordan, who accepted UNSCR 242 almost immediately after its approval in November 1967, Syria waited until 1971, and even then failed to embrace it unreservedly. After 1973, it tried to impose its militant approach on Egypt and the Arab world as a whole, resorting to all means – including subversion and terror against Jordan, Lebanon and the PLO, and threatening the Gulf monarchies for financial blackmailing.

Syria’s approach to peace negotiations with Israel since the 1991 Madrid Conference shows continuity with its radical pan-Arab calling. Since the early phases of bilateral talks, Damascus insisted on total Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines, including the right for access to the Sea of Galilee, in deliberate contrast to the ‘capitulationist’ nature of all other Arab-Israeli peace treaties – Israel’s agreements with Egypt and Jordan were based on the international boundaries set by European powers in the region. Hence, Syria rejected the Anglo-French 1923 border demarcation (according to which, Israel’s sovereign territory includes a narrow strip of land east of and all along the northern Jordan river and the Sea of Galilee) as ‘imperialist’. It further rejected the 1949 Israel-Syria armistice line, insisting instead for the return to the status quo ante, which would put Syrian sovereignty west of both lines and, most crucially, would give Syria riparian state rights over both water sources.

All Israeli governments since the early 1990s rejected this rigid territorial claim. Moreover, while Syria’s military presence in Lebanon until 2005 lured Israeli governments to seek peace negotiations with Syria and Lebanon as a package deal, this incentive no longer exists and Syria’s bargaining position is weaker. Nonetheless, nothing suggests that under the present circumstances Syria would soften its stance.

Israel’s position is not only grounded in the linguistic ambiguity of UNSCR 242, but also in a hard-nosed realism often overlooked by those advocating Israel’s ‘full withdrawal’ from the Golan in exchange for ‘full peace’. Israel’s acceptance of full withdrawal from Sinai to the 1906 Anglo-Ottoman border was justified by the immense benefit of ending conflict with the militarilyy strongest and largest Arab country. The 1979 treaty practically put an end to any effective Arab war coalition which would threaten Israel’s very existence. 15 years later, the Israel-Jordan peace treaty was similarly based on international boundaries originally set by Great Britain in 1922. Yet, it also represented a decade-long record of mutual security interests and tacit cooperation, as well as recognition of the changes in the status of the West Bank (part of Jordan, until 1967) shaped by the first Palestinian uprising and the Oslo accords. Thus, while excluding the West Bank, the agreement included practical arrangements concerning land and water which, among others, enabled Israeli hamlets to remain in place and cultivate officially recognized Jordanian land along the Arava Valley. It is this pragmatic point of departure and changing strategic realities in the region that should guide Israeli policies concerning future negotiations with Syria. Hence, a peace treaty with Syria, especially given the strategic importance of the Golan for Israel, such strategic realities, offers much less than its two precedents with Egypt and Jordan did.

Syria’s modus operandi

Representing a small ethnic minority, the ‘Alawi ruling elite in Syria has constantly suffered from poor political legitimacy and a strong Sunni opposition, which underscores the regime’s very narrow margins of tolerance for dissent and calls for political liberalization. The most glaring example of this has been the bloody repression of the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising in Hama, in February 1982, when the regime sent its armored divisions to massacre an estimated 20,000 civilians. Indeed, because of its shaky legitimacy as a heterodox Shi’a sect in a Sunni country, Syria’s Alawi rulers have chosen two instruments to ensure their survival, which bode ill for advocates of engagement: one is the embrace of radical causes as a source of legitimacy; the second is a strategic alliance with revolutionary Shi’a Iran. Thanks to these two pillars of Syrian policy, Syria’s regime managed to survive in the last two decades despite its loss of Soviet patronage, crumbling economy and growing isolation in the Arab world. Its closed nature and mafia-like methods of affecting authority and employing power have only made it more impervious to foreign investment and interaction with the Western world.

Syria’s regional policies under the Assad dynasty constantly aspired for hegemony in the Levant despite the country’s limited strategic capabilities, a policy which accounted for constant conflicts with Syria’s neighbors and drained the country of already scarce resources. To bridge the gap between its own aspirations for grandeur and the reality of its weakness, since the 1960s the Syrian regime strove to maximize its regional weight by employing non-state proxies against its neighbors – Palestinian guerrilla and terror groups, both secular and Islamists, Shi’a militias, Turkish and Kurdish rebels, and most recently, Jihadi volunteers en route to Iraq. Syria’s typical strategy of coping with Israel – and occasionally with Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and the PLO during periods of political tension – has thus been waging low-intensity wars by proxy, harboring terrorism and encouraging opposition groups to subvert Syria’s neighbors as a substitute for diplomacy.

Nothing has epitomized Syria’s gang-like strategies more graphically than its conduct in Lebanon, especially since the Hariri assassination in February 2005 and the subsequent ‘Cedar Revolution’ which, thanks also to international pressure, led to Syria’s full military withdrawal from Lebanon two months later. The withdrawal did by no means indicate that Syria was willing to loosen its grip over Lebanon. Despite international pressures and Arab critique, Lebanon was hit by a wave of assassinations of Lebanese politicians and journalists, all of which carry the imprint of Syria’s hands.

This murderous campaign was reinforced by Hezbollah’s massive street demonstrations and violence in late 2006 in an attempt – still ongoing – to attain veto power over all government decisions, including the authorization of the International Tribunal to try and indict Hariri’s murderers. Syria’s continued interference in Lebanon’s political deadlock is the latest in Syria’s resolve to maintain its control over Lebanon in tandem with Iran to pursue their joint agendas locally and vis-à-vis Israel.


Though the Golan Heights remains ostensibly an open wound for Syria, its leaders have done considerably little since the mid-1970s to convince Israel and the international community that retrieving this territory is indeed a national priority. This is especially the case when viewed against the huge amount of energies Syria invested in other regional issues, especially in Lebanon, since its 1976 military intervention. Moreover, Syria provided no indication of its willingness to depart from its embedded strategy of harboring terrorism in close alliance with the fanatic and revolutionary regime of Iran. In view of the immense economic and military benefits Syria reaps from its alliance with Iran and influence in Lebanon, it is not even remotely likely that Syria would change once the Golan Heights is retrieved.

Another serious impediment in this context is Syria’s rigid pan-Arab ideology and self-image as the spearhead of the struggle against Israel. These images, deeply rooted in the military and ruling party, are keystones of the domestic legitimacy and survival of Assad’s autocratic regime, which also shape a very different vision of future relations with Israel even in comparison to the ‘cold’ model of peace maintained by Egypt and Jordan. Syria envisions peace with Israel as strictly a new strategy in the historical combat against the Jewish state. “The establishment of peace means turning this conflict into political, ideological and economic conflict,” as stated by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara’ in a closed session of the Arab Association of Writers in February 2000.

Syria’s domestic security concerns and regional strategic priorities in the past forty years bears little, or no indication that a ‘land for peace’ deal with Israel would result in a significant change in Syria’s regional policies, particularly concerning Lebanon and Iran. For Israel’s policymakers, then, the cost-benefit balance of peace with Syria at the cost of full withdrawal from the Golan Heights holds no promise or attraction now more than anytime in the past. This is further stressed by the steadily decisive opposition of the Israeli public to exchange the Golan Heights for the poor benefits Syria can offer Israel in terms of bilateral or regional security or the advancement of a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.

Finally, while peace negotiations with Syria are a desirable venture, those advocating a peace settlement with Syria on the basis of (all the) ‘land for peace,’ similarly to the peace treaty with Egypt, are in fact suggesting to reward this bully regime for its violence. If international law is supposed to instill norms of peaceful behavior among states, the international community should not overlook Syria’s tradition of conducting deadly games in the region, especially in terms of employing non-state actors for subverting, sabotaging and terrorizing its neighboring rivals.

About the author: Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Avraham Sela is the co-author (with Shaul Mishal) of The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence and Coexistence.

Reprinted with kindly permission of The Transatlantic Institute.


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