The Middle East peace process has obsessed and collapsed over the
Palestinian question for decades. Ehud Barak wants to redefine the
issue; instead of focusing on the Palestinian question, he wants to
focus on a peace treaty with Syria. He has good reason to believe
that Syria is ready for a peace settlement. The problem, in our
eyes, is not Syria but Turkey. Israel and Turkey are allied
against Syria. The United States is highly dependent on Turkey for
its regional strategy and is not eager to see the boat rocked. The
U.S. must be convinced that accords with Syria can be the
foundation for Syria's general integration into America's regional
system and not the preface for a geopolitical upheaval. On the
whole, from the American point of view, sticking with the
Palestinians is the safer course.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has taken office and arrived in
Washington for meetings with President Bill Clinton and his
national security staff. The Clinton administration, as always, is
eager to restart the peace negotiations between Israel and the
Arabs. Given the rhetoric of the campaign and the early actions of
Ehud Barak, the administration has reason to believe that there is
now some real possibility of a peace accord with Syria if not the
Palestinians. This shift to a focus on Syria by Barak must be
examined carefully, because it has broad geopolitical implications.
To begin with, it is important to understand that, rhetoric aside,
there has been a general Arab-Israeli peace in place for nearly a
quarter of a century. The last general war occurred in 1973. That
war set the stage for a general peace treaty between Egypt and
Israel. Israel and Jordan have been in close alignment for many
years. With two of the three frontline states neutralized, the
only military threat to Israel came from Syria and Syria alone did
not constitute a credible threat.
Neither the Lebanese situation nor the Palestinian situation
constituted a life- threatening situation for Israel. From a
purely military standpoint, they were fairly trivial and manageable
problems. At the same time, they drained military resources and
had a dramatic effect on morale, both military and civilian. Most
important, unlike the direct military threats faced in the past,
neither the Lebanese nor Palestinian issues could be settled with a
definitive, military solution. This was a reality difficult for
Israel's political culture to absorb, and Israel kept searching for
a military solution where there was none. The Israeli invasion of
Lebanon in 1982 was emblematic of the problem. The direct
occupation of Lebanon protected northern Israel from the occasional
rocket attack. The cost was a prolonged occupation by Israeli
forces, exposure to casualties, substantial financial expense all
without solving the problem. Indeed, Israeli exertions were
consistently out of proportion to the problems.
Because neither issue was life threatening, Israeli interest in
solving the problems was driven as much by domestic political
consideration as by strategic analysis. As a result, the peace
process in Israel was always hostage to the national mood. That
mood was always deeply divided and changeable. This meant that the
peace process was highly manipulable, not only by political
figures, but also by elements that wanted to see the peace process
fail. Terrorist actions on both sides could rapidly redefine the
dynamics of negotiations. Every peace talk was hostage to the next
Barak is extremely sensitive to this reality. His own government
can be easily fragmented. Barak has therefore chosen to shift his
focus from the Palestinian question or even the Lebanese question.
Instead, he has chosen to focus his attention on an agreement with
Syria. Barak has, we think, grasped something critical about
Israel's position. Israel cannot create a stable situation in
Lebanon or even among the Palestinians without first reaching an
agreement with Damascus. Israel will not be able to withdraw from
Lebanon until there is an entity prepared to control Hezbollah and
other anti-Israeli groups operating in the south. By itself, the
Lebanese Army is incapable of bringing the south under control.
Syria can bring order to the south, but Israel cannot permit Syrian
troops or even Syrian-controlled Lebanese troops into the south
without a firm and comprehensive settlement with Syria. Moreover,
such an understanding will serve to further isolate Palestinian
radicals like Hamas, hurting their morale and decreasing their
effectiveness. For Barak, the key is in Syria.
This would be a major shift for the U.S. The Americans have been
obsessed with the Palestinian question for decades, certainly since
the Camp David Accords mandated some sort of peace process
involving the Palestinians. Moreover, Washington is deeply
suspicious of Syria. This is not only a matter of concern over
Syrian support for terrorism, but also that Syria intersects two
issues of fundamental interest to the U.S. There is deep tension
between Syria and Turkey. Turkey is a key American ally. Any
settlement with Israel that opens the door for Syrian adventures in
Turkey is unacceptable. There is also the matter of Iraq. Hafez
al Assad and Saddam Hussein are mortal enemies. That does not mean
that they can't work together this is the Middle East, after all.
The U.S. is clearly beginning to increase the pressure on Iraq
again, as forces used in Kosovo are freed up. The U.S., concerned
that Russian arms availability increases Syrian unpredictability,
are concerned about releasing Israeli pressure on Syria.
Therefore, Barak's job this weekend has to been to persuade Clinton
and Albright that a settlement with Syria is the precursor to a
comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians and will not
destabilize the region.
To begin with, Barak had to explain why he expects Assad to be open
to a settlement now, when he has flirted with them in the past but
always avoided signing one. There are three reasons, we think, why
Assad is open to a settlement.
1: Assad is a member of the generation of Arab leaders who came
power in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They took their bearing
from Gamel Abdul Nasser. They were military men, committed to
modernization using the army as the prime vehicle. They had
overthrown both the British- created monarchies and the religious
authorities linked to them. They believed in the Arab nation,
socialism and modernism. They spawned a generation of Arab
radicalism that is now passing into history. Hamas and Hezbollah
are not modernist, not socialist and not Arabist. They are Islamic
to the core, and Assad sees them as a threat to his regime and his
life. His cooperation with the Iranians was never heartfelt. It
was only pragmatic. Assad has fought Muslim fundamentalists inside
Syria and crushed them. He fears Hezbollah and Hamas even as he
uses them. He is 69 and has heart disease. He would like to
secure his political heritage before he goes. In one of history's
ironies, a deal with Israel would help Assad do this.
2: The intensifying Israeli-Turkish alliance has unnerved him
tremendously. The Syrians despise both the Turks, who oppressed
them for centuries, and the Israelis. Assad also hates the Iraqis.
That leaves Assad only the Mediterranean to be friendly with.
Earlier this year, Turkish forces were actually threatening Syria
militarily for their support of Kurdish separatists. Assad knows
that Syria is now the isolated country, not Israel. Assad also
understands that Syria's dispute with Israel is less profound and
personal than his dispute with Turkey or Iraq. Indeed, they have
interests in common. Syria must break the anti-Syrian front posed
by Turkey and Israel. He has more room to maneuver with Israel.
3: Assad badly wants an agreement with Israel over Lebanon.
has always claimed that Lebanon was part of Syria. Even if that
claim is never enforced, Syria in general and Assad personally have
intimate ties and fundamental interests inside Lebanon. A stable,
prosperous Lebanon is essential for Syrian development. The same
forces that threaten Israel inevitably fragment and destabilize
Lebanon. This has little to do with religion. When Syria first
intervened in Lebanon in the 1970s, it was in support of the
Christians and in opposition to the PLO. Israel and Syria have a
shared interest in a stable Lebanon. Indeed, they have been
cooperating in various ways for years. Israel no longer has the
stomach for patrolling southern Lebanon. Syria holds the keys and
it is in Syria's interest, at this time, to use them.
If an agreement with Syria were reached, then all of Israel's
borders would be secured by treaties for the first time in history.
Now, treaties are only paper. But the military threat from Syria
would be not much greater with a treaty than without. Much is made
of the Golan Heights, but rarely by Israeli military professionals.
If Syria wanted to bombard Israeli settlements, they could do so
right now, without retaking the Heights. Moreover, fighting a
holding action with its back to an escarpment is not something the
Israeli Defense Forces want to try again. Israeli forces west of
the Jordan river would have a field day picking off Syrian armor
descending the Golan escarpment. They wouldn't have to be on the
Golan to seal them off.
The real threat would come from Syrian forces passing through
Lebanon and hitting Israel along its northern frontier. That,
however, has been a threat since the founding of Israel. It hasn't
happened because the logistical problems involved and the
opportunities for counterattack are too great. More important,
Syria has never and will never attack Israel alone. It is not
large enough or strong enough. It will attack only in concert with
Egypt. The threat of Lebanon or Golan is meaningful only in the
context of a fundamental reversal of the geopolitics of the region.
Were that to happen, these issues would pale into triviality
An agreement would include an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan,
retention of key facilities on Mount Hermon, a joint agreement on
Israel security interests in Lebanon to be guaranteed by Beirut,
and a Syrian guarantee of support for Beirut in these efforts. The
net result would be the liquidation of Hezbollah in southern
Lebanon and the complete isolation of the Palestinians in the Arab
world. This would not end anti-Israeli terrorism; there will
always be Palestinians prepared to strike at Israel. However, it
would weaken their access to weapons, intelligence and political
support. It would also strengthen the hands of Palestinians within
the Palestine National Authority that want to move on with
developing the Palestinian state. Indeed, statehood would turn from
a major issue into an administrative abstraction. In the long run,
what does it matter what Palestine is called, so long as it is
isolated and surrounded by suspicious former enemies like Israel
and the Hashemite Jordanians?
Barak is therefore proposing to redefine the driving issues in the
region. It is not clear that the Americans will be particularly
happy with this choice. American eyes are increasingly on areas
where a strong and secure Turkey could be essential. An agreement
with Israel strengthens Syria and inevitably threatens Turkey.
Negotiations with the Palestinians, win or lose, do not effect the
geopolitics in the region. Negotiations with Syria can and do.
Thus and this is the interesting part here one of the keys to
this strategy rests in Ankara. in order to head off Turkish
pressure on Washington, Israel must convince the Turks that an
agreement with Syria will not threaten them. Thus, Barak has
initiated a powerful strategic move, but like all things in the
Middle East, the unintended consequences are substantial. Syria
will have to make some promises to the Turks and that will be hard
Barak's initiative will force Washington to think through some of
the strategic principles that have governed U.S. policy in the
region. The U.S. has deepened its relationship with Turkey during
and since the Kosovo war. The U.S. is depending on Turkey to
influence events in the Caucasus. The U.S. is increasing pressure
on Iraq once again. The situation in Iran appears somewhat
unstable. There are fundamental strategic questions on the table
in the region, and Barak has just dumped another one on the
Administration's desk. Barak's Syrian initiative cannot be treated
in isolation, precisely because this time, an opening to Syria
might well work. The question now is whether the United States
wants it to work and if so, how should it be made to work?