Perspectives on Israel/Syria Progress

[Israeli soldiers overlooking the Golan Heights]

There’s been a spike in chatter about renewed Golan Heights negotiations on a level not heard since last summer, following Syrian expatriate affairs minister Buthaina Shaaban’s announcement on Al Jazeera television over a week ago that, “Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions; on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights in full to Syria.”

The usual debate spawned by renewed talks over the Golan Heights, a part of Syrian territory captured by Israel in the 1967 War, was sharpened today after Dr. Samir Taqi, an aide to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (who is also the high-level emissary handling Syrian government contacts) stated on Al-Manar television (Hizbullah’s media arm) that “It would be naive to think Syria will neglect or abandon its strategic alliances that do not stem from the Arab-Israeli conflict.” His statment only confirms what renowned Syria expert Patrick Seale already said last year about the limits of Syria’s likely concessions in any peace agreement with Israel — drawing the line at cutting historical regional alliances with Iran, Lebanon and the various Palestinian groups. This is what Seale had to say last June as Golan Heights talks were then beginning to heat up:

“Olmert has hinted that he is ready for a deal with Syria if it severs its links with Iran and Hizbullah and ends its support for Hamas and other Palestinian militants. These are wholly unrealistic preconditions — rather like asking Israel to sever its ties with the United States. Syria’s ties with Iran and with the Shi‘ite community of South Lebanon are decades old and will not be loosened until there are clear signs that Israel is ready for a withdrawal from occupied Syrian and Palestinian territory and a comprehensive peace.

So the question is this: If it’s unrealistic to expect that Syria will cut ties with its regional allies, and indeed Syria is not prepared to make these concessions to Israel, then why should Israel give up the Golan Heights? For what? It would be very easy for Syria to renege on any promises made to Israel, but for Israel there is no going back once it pulls out of the Golan, destroys its settlements there and makes way rapid Syrian settlement of the land. All the risk is lopsidedly with Israel, at least over the immediate issue.

There would be other risks for Syria however, such as further isolating itself in the Arab world and vis a vis its Iranian ally. In a Ynet op-ed (Israel’s largest circulation newspaper) Guy Bechor of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyah argues quite persuasively that such a move is indeed against Israel’s interest, and even against Syria’s interest.

Rather than a step towards lifting Israel’s regional pariah status, a peace treaty would only serve to bring Syria down with it, making it a pariah by association. This is what happened when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel. To this day there’s a major thoroughfare in Tehran named after Khalid Islambouli, the man who assassinated former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after he formally recognized Israel in the peace agreement. This may be a sign of what Syria can expect from Iran should it make peace with the enemy.

On the other hand Dr. Moshe Ma’oz, who is regarded as Israel’s foremost expert on Syria, also a personal friend of mine, believes it would be worthwhile for Israel to give up the Golan Heights. He argues that Bashar al-Assad is serious about peace with Israel, but doubts that Ehud Olmert is as serious on the Israeli side, predicting Olmert’s reluctance will last for at least the remainder of Bush’s presidential term in the United States.

Ma’oz holds no illusions that Syria will immediately cut ties with any of Israel’s regional enemies but believes, as he has stated in other forums, that Syria may reduce these ties following a peace agreement. Ma’oz’s view here is similar to Seale’s understanding that these ties can eventually be “loosened.” The hope is that any such reduction in relations will come in the realm of military assistance to Hamas, Hezbollah etc. Perhaps over-optimistically, perhaps not, Ma’oz believes that peace is the best security, even better than any security advantage offered by the strategic Golan Heights. Watch his interview with IBA television here


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