Despite efforts to internationally isolate Syria, especially during the Bush era, Syria has reasserted itself as a central player in the Middle East. Following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the United States withdrew its ambassador to Beirut, intensified sanctions against Damascus and sought to deepen Syria’s isolation from the international community. The recent array of high-level visitors to Damascus-including United States officials-demonstrates that President Bashar al-Assad has weathered the storm of isolation and has emerged as an essential actor in resolving regional disputes, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel should now respond favorably to Damascus’ call for renewed peace talks, and in so doing utilize Syria’s influence to advance peace, rather than thwart it.
Time for a Leadership Choice
The remarks at the United Nations General Assembly by President Shimon Peres that Israel is prepared to begin negotiations with Syria “right away,” and those by Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem that “Syria is ready to resume negotiations,” are more than just political posturing. They are signs that both sides recognize the benefits of achieving a genuine peace accord. The meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Muallem in New York – the highest-level meeting between the two countries since 2007- indicates that the United States recognizes Syria’s central role. But for progress to be made, the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must now make a choice: does it want peace with security or territory?
Speaking with reporters in May 2009, Netanyahu said that he would never leave the Golan Heights, stating, “Remaining on the Golan will ensure Israel has a strategic advantage in cases of military conflict with Syria.” The truth is that the continued occupation of the Golan will sooner or later instigate military conflict with Syria. Mr. Netanyahu must now realize that as Syria emerges from its international isolation and peacemaking efforts languish, Israel is becoming increasingly more isolated. The geopolitical benefits of a durable Israel-Syria peace are numerous, and the opportunity at this moment is ripe. Whether Netanyahu recognizes these benefits – and seizes the opportunity to advance peace – will be a significant test of his leadership. Whether Syria’s peace overture is rhetorical or real, there is no better time to put Damascus to the test.
Relationship with Iran: Detrimental or Advantageous?
While some Israelis and Americans believe Syria should sever its relations with Iran to qualify sitting at the negotiating table, the opposite is actually true. Continued relations between Damascus and Tehran make the need to engage Syria even more critical. Syria’s relationship with Iran is currently one of geopolitical convenience, but it is not one that will easily be discarded. The most glaring difference between the two countries is that while Iran is calling for Israel’s destruction, Syria is calling for peace. But Syria’s good relations with Iran could actually put it in a better position to help loosen Iran’s grip on Hezbollah in Lebanon and maintain stability throughout the region. Syrian President Basher Assad’s comments after Israel’s raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla this summer, “If the relationship between Turkey and Israel is not renewed it will be very difficult for Turkey to play a role in negotiations,” and that this would “without a doubt affect the stability in the region,” indicate that Assad recognizes the importance of strategic regional ties with Israel because Israel’s reality is far more enduring than the current Iranian regime. Indeed, Assad’s greatest interest is a strategic relationship with the United States, and by beginning peace talks without pre-conditions, Syria’s strategic ties with Iran could be utilized and stability in the region immeasurably enhanced.
Syria’s renewed influence in Lebanon makes Israel-Syria peace talks even more critical and especially opportune at this time. The visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with President Assad to Beirut in late July, and the statements last month by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri absolving Syria from responsibility for his father’s death, underscore Syria’s renewed control over Lebanon. But while Syria has strengthened its position in Lebanon, it has also become responsible for Hezbollah’s actions in the south of the country. Syria can no longer disavow responsibility should Hezbollah provoke Israel or commit any act that might undermine Israel’s national security interests. As such, Syria has a strategic interest in maintaining calm in the region, which would be conducive to renewed dialogue with Israel.
Syria’s Role in Other Relationships
Restarting Israel-Syria negotiations would also provide Damascus with an incentive to be helpful with the Israeli-Palestinian track. Syria has become an indispensable player in helping to resolve the intra-Palestinian dispute between Fatah and Hamas, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reconciliation talks held recently in Damascus between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders highlight the crucial role Syria can play in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and in relations to Hamas in particular. While Egypt has traditionally hosted Palestinian unity talks, Hamas deeply mistrusts Cairo and is greatly dependent on Damascus. As such, Syria has significant influence on Hamas. Most importantly it can keep Hamas from torpedoing Palestinian peace efforts, enabling negotiations to proceed with its tacit cooperation. In recognition of this influence, King Abdullah II of Jordan recently traveled to Damascus and emerged from his meetings with a joint Jordanian-Syrian statement in support of the Arab Peace Initiative. Should Israeli-Palestinian peace talks succeed in achieving a framework for a lasting agreement, Syria’s role could also be critical in bringing Hamas into the process in order to accept and implement an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
Israel-Syria peace talks would also benefit Israeli-Turkish relations. Since Israel-Turkey talks became especially strained following the flotilla episode, Israel has sought to strengthen its alliances with Greece and others. But Turkey cannot be ignored. It remains a significant power in the Middle East and it asserts its influence in all directions. Reopening peace negotiations with Syria could provide a useful context for Israel to reassess its position towards Turkey. The significant progress that was made through indirect talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, suggests that Turkey, at that juncture, not only gained the trust of both sides, but was also deeply committed to achieving an end to the conflict as a part of its larger regional strategic objectives. For this reason, despite recent tension with Israel, Turkey remains eager to play a pivotal role in mediating between Damascus and Jerusalem. Once Israel signals its desire to resume peace talks with Syria, it would doubtlessly lead to ameliorating the Turkish-Israeli rift as well, because Turkey places its overall strategic interest certainly above the “Cast Lead” operation and the flotilla incident. Ankara knows, however, that it must first regain Israel’s trust, starting, for example, by sending back its ambassador to Israel.
A Dozen U.S. Senators Block Diplomatic Relations
Finally, relations between the Netanyahu government and the White House would also improve with movement toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Syria. The Obama administration has made clear that it seeks to engage Damascus in an effort to change its calculus in the region and improve U.S.-Syria relations. Toward this end, in February, the White House nominated Robert Ford to serve as U.S. ambassador in Damascus, after a five-year absence of U.S. representation. However, Ford’s nomination is still being blocked by a dozen U.S. Senators opposed to sending an ambassador to Damascus while Syria maintains its support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Positive signals from Israel regarding a resumption of dialogue with Syria could significantly advance the Obama administration’s engagement strategy and undercut the rationale for Congressional opposition to Ford’s nomination.
Those who oppose negotiations with Syria argue that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan would create a security risk, and that engaging Syria only rewards them for their support of terrorist groups and ties with Iran. First, this security argument is no longer valid, not only because of the changing nature of warfare today, but also because Israel and Syria have come incredibly close to reaching an agreement on a withdrawal from the Golan in previous negotiations while Israel’s security concerns were taken into full consideration. It is clear that any agreement would consist of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, demilitarization of the area and ironclad security guarantees for Israel from the United States and Syria. Moreover, Damascus knows only too well that any violation of the security terms of the peace agreement would instigate retaliatory attack by Israel of such a magnitude that such an option would be inconceivable for Damascus to contemplate. It should be noted that Damascus has not once violated the 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel. In fact, as Israel’s international isolation intensifies, the Golan has become more of a liability than an asset.
Second, the effort to isolate Syria has proved to be counterproductive. Rather than encourage Damascus to moderate its behavior, the efforts to isolate Syria pushed it further into the arms of Teheran, and into an alliance with Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria has stated its intention to make peace, its desire for strong ties with the West is well-known, and its ability to eliminate threats to Israel’s security is significant. Syria’s recent efforts to liberalize its economy cannot be successful without expanding its global relations and creating a peaceful and secure environment for new business and major foreign capital investments. In short, an Israeli-Syrian peace accord is exactly what both Israel and Syria need.
An Israeli-Syrian peace accord is clearly in the interest of Israel, Syria, the United States and the international community. The contours of a lasting agreement with Syria are known, and Damascus has clearly reasserted its centrality to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. It is up to Israel to put Syria’s renewed call for peace talks to the real test. Φ
Alon Ben-Meir <firstname.lastname@example.org> is a professor of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at The New School and at New York University. His dedication to writing about, analyzing, and offering practical solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict is the result of his many years of direct participation and personal experience in the Middle East. He is regularly involved in two-track diplomacy. A version of this article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post.