Aug 6th 2010

An Opportunity for a Syrian-Israeli Peace

by Alon Ben-Meir

 

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.

While the world reacts to the recent flair-up of violence along the Lebanon-Israel border, other developments in the area could present an opportunity to advance regional peace if pursued. The recent visit by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Assad of Syria to Lebanon has in effect restored Damascus' dominance over Lebanon, thereby impacting the internal political dynamic in this fractured country. While Syria is likely to maintain its bilateral relationship with Iran for its own strategic and tactical reasons, the new undeclared understanding between President Assad, King Abdullah and Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon was that Lebanon would remain outside of the Iranian orbit of influence. The message to Tehran was quite clear: Syria - with the backing of the Arab states - will resume its hegemony over Lebanon and both Iran and its proxy Hezbollah must accept this new political reality.

This new political configuration in Lebanon also suggests that for the right price Syria would align itself with the Arab world to blunt Iran's ambitions to become the regional hegemony. The implication is that Syria would be far less likely to come to Tehran's aid should either Israel or the United States decide to attack its nuclear facilities. Moreover, Syria, out of necessity to keep Lebanon out of such a potential conflict, would limit Hezbollah's political challenge to the Hariri government and prevent it from engaging Israel, should the scenario of potential hostilities between Israel (and/or the U.S.) with Iran unfold. In this regard, the United States and Israel welcome this new development in Lebanon, as it may change their calculations with regard to an attack on Iran. Even more, the Saudi-Syrian move offers Israel an opportunity to resume peace negotiations with Syria and thereby improve the political atmosphere throughout the region in a dramatic way. It is an opportunity Israel should not squander.

An Israeli-Syrian peace accord would have long-term, significant implications on Syria's ties with Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. Changing Damascus' strategic interests and the geopolitical condition in the Middle East will require bringing Syria within reach of regaining the Golan Heights and normalizing relations with the U.S. Doing so would have a direct impact on the behavior of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria has served as the linchpin between the three, and by removing or undermining Syria's logistical and political backing-which will be further cemented by an Israeli-Syrian peace-Hamas and Hezbollah will be critically weakened, and Hamas in particular may be forced rethink its strategy toward Israel. Peace with Syria would effectively change the center of gravity of Syrian politics in the region, which is shaped by Damascus' strategic interests.

Whereas Israel's concerns over Iran's nuclear program are not likely to be mitigated by an Israeli-Syrian peace, it will certainly force Tehran to rethink its strategy vis-a-vis Israel. The irony is that while Israel continues to hype up the Iranian nuclear threat, it has lost focus on how to change the regional geopolitical dynamic and weaken Iran's influence throughout the region. Under any violent scenario between Israel and Iran, with an Israel-Syria accord, Tehran would no longer be able to count on the retaliatory actions by Hamas and Hezbollah because the interests of these two groups would now be at odds with Syria's strategic interest.

The international opposition to Israel's continued occupation is growing as the occupation of Arab land and the building of Israeli settlements are seen as the single source of continued regional strife and instability. Linking the occupation of the Golan Heights to national security concerns is viewed as nothing more than a pretext to maintain Israel's hold of the territory-even Israel's allies, including the United States, no longer buy into the linkage between this territory and national security. The fact that the Israeli government is ideologically polarized offers no excuse for policies that cannot be sustained in the long-term and which in fact could lead to renewed violence. If Israel is truly focused on national security, then it must relinquish the Golan Heights. Only normal relations with Syria and effective security mechanisms in place can offer Israel ultimate security on its northern border.

The rift between Turkey and Israel over Israel's incursion into Gaza and the tragic flotilla incident has strained their bilateral relations. As such, Israel has refused that Turkey renew its role as a mediator between Israel and Syria. However, there have already been measures taken to soften the rhetoric and tension between Israel and Turkey. These steps should be expanded with the goal of renewing trust between these two historic allies. Turkish mediators proved that they were able to achieve progress in the last round of negotiations between Israel and Syria, which ultimately collapsed with the launching of Israel's Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. It is the interest of both Israel and Turkey that such trust - and progress on the Syrian track - be advanced. Turkey seeks Israeli-Syrian peace not merely for self-aggrandizement. For Turkey, a regional peace would have a tremendous effect on its own national security and economic development, just as it would for Israel's. The fact that Syria chose a negotiating venue through Turkey to regain the Golan should not be taken by Israel as a sign that it can indefinitely maintain the status quo without serious consequences. Although Syria may not be in a position to regain the Golan by force, it has shown tremendous capacity to deny Israel peace with Lebanon and the Palestinians, and can continue to do so for as long as Israel occupies the Golan.

President Bashar al-Assad, like his father, has indicated that advancing efforts to pursue peace with Israel is a strategic option. He has expressed a desire to conclude a deal in exchange for the Golan Heights and a healthy relationship with the U.S. In response, Israel must choose between territory and real security; as long as Syria has territorial claims against Israel, Israel will never be secure on its northern border. Israel cannot make the claim that it seeks peace but then fail to seize the opportunity when one is presented. If Syria offers peace, normalization of relations, meets Israel's legitimate security concerns and Israel still refuses, the Golan will continue to serve as a national liability and a source of instability and violence.

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