Several myths lie at the core of the arguments in favor of resuming the Syrian-Israeli peace process. The first is that the two parties were close to completing a peace deal in 2000, but diplomacy faltered over final borders—and that it would be relatively simple to solve this territorial dispute. The second is that the return of the Golan Heights is a priority for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is not only capable of making peace with Israel, but could deliver the warm relations that Jerusalem seeks in return. Lastly, there is the myth that if the West sufficiently sweetened a Syrian-Israeli peace deal, Damascus could undergo a strategic shift and even reorient itself toward the West.
Land For What?
In the post-mortem of the failed Syrian-Israel peace process in 2000, most analysts pointed to the issue of borders—the inability of the parties to resolve the conflict over a few hundred yards along the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee—as the principal spoiler.
The border issue was unquestionably contentious. When Israel began negotiations with Syria shortly after the 1991 Madrid Conference, the assumption was that full withdrawal from the Golan Heights meant an Israeli withdrawal to the 1923 international border. However, throughout the 1990s, Syria’s territorial demands expanded inexorably. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s demands for a “full withdrawal” from the Golan Heights included the caveat that the pullout should be “to the June 4, 1967 line,” and the requirement of Syrian “access to the Sea of Galilee.” Finally, Assad insisted upon “shared sovereignty over the lake.”
The problem with Assad’s formulation was that the so-called “1967 line” is not actually a border; it exists on no official map. Rather, it is a reflection of where Syrian and Israeli troops were positioned on the eve of the Six-Day War. It was also set substantially further back in Israeli territory. By demanding this border, Syria was effectively asking for Israel’s full withdrawal, plus an additional 41 square miles.
The message was unmistakable: Syria sought peace in exchange for more than it was entitled to under international law, and at Israel’s expense.
Since 1993, Syria’s precondition for participating in peace talks has been for Israel to first satisfy all of Damascus’ territorial demands before discussing normalization and security. Accordingly, much of the diplomatic efforts to this point have been spent on bridging the gap between Syria’s notion of the June 4, 1967 line as a precondition to negotiate, and Israel’s refusal to directly offer what it viewed as a possible result of negotiations.
By his March 2000 meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton, Hafez had effectively priced himself out of the market. The Syrian leader’s intransigence led a majority of Israelis to conclude that returning the Golan Heights to Syria wasn’t worth vague promises of nonbelligerency. Since then, Hafez’s son Bashar, in both word and deed, has proven to be less flexible, further confirming Israeli skepticism.
The Process, Not Peace
The border issue, however, is eclipsed by an even larger problem. Syria is far more interested in the peace process than it is in the ultimate result of negotiations.
Syria is currently under immense international pressure. It faces a United Nations tribunal over its complicity in the murder of Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese politician killed in February 2005 in Beirut. Several members of Assad’s inner circle are likely to be indicted, posing a threat to the stability of the regime. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), meanwhile, is investigating Syria’s undeclared nuclear program, which was brought to light by Israel’s bombing raid in September 2007. By agreeing to a slow-motion peace process with Israel, Syria hopes to coax the West away from these initiatives, thereby freeing itself of regional isolation. Damascus requires a tactical diversion, and the peace process fits the bill.
There are those who would argue that Syria may, in fact, be serious and that its renewed interest in peace talks may be genuine. Such claims are undercut by Bashar’s consistent praise of Hezbollah and Hamas, and his vocal support for “resistance” against Israel. During a January 2009 interview with Hezbollah’s al-Manar television, for example, Assad contended that, “Israel only understands the language of force,” and praised “Hamas’ achievements” during the recent Gaza crisis.
Damascus has also been unwilling to engage in the confidence-building measures that are prerequisites for durable peacemaking. For example, at the summit of the heads of Mediterranean states in Paris in July 2008, Bashar openly shunned Israeli premier Ehud Olmert, refusing to look at him, let alone shake his hand. And as recently as February 2009, Syrian Education Minister Dr. Ali Sa’d announced that the concept of the “terrorist Zionist entity,” presented by Assad in his speech at the Doha summit a month earlier, would be officially incorporated into Syria’s school curriculum as a way to “constitute immeasurable support for resistance in the [battle]field.”
In fact, Assad can’t even bring himself to use the customary Arabic terms for “normal relations” (‘alaqat tabi’iyya) or “normalization” (tatbi’ al-‘alaqat) with Israel. He discussed his reasoning in a July 2008 interview with al-Jazeera:
From our point of view, the word ‘normalization’ does not exist. We have talked about normal relations from the start of the peace process. You [the interviewer] can call them natural relations, or use the term ‘normalization’ [tatbi’]. It really doesn’t matter. It is of no substance. We are talking about normal relations. What is meant by normal relations? This means relations like those that exist between two countries. There are embassies, there are relations, there are agreements. Relations can deteriorate and alternatively they can improve. They can be warm or cold. This relates to the sovereignty of every country. Thus we call these relations normal relations.
In other words, despite the renewal of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria in 2008, Syria has not changed its core positions or posture of hostility toward the Jewish state.
The international conception of peace between Syria and Israel has morphed over the years from a “land-for-peace” formula to one of “land-for-strategic realignment.” To grasp this, it is instructive to contrast Syria’s current diplomatic flirtation with the decisions of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in November 1977.
Four years after the 1973 October War, Sadat flew to Jerusalem and addressed the Israeli Knesset. His peace initiative was part of a comprehensive change in Egyptian policy. Sadat sought to prompt sweeping changes for his country and his countrymen. In a bold and calculated move, he closed the door on the Soviet Union and plunged his country into peacemaking. Indeed, Sadat made it nearly impossible to return to Egypt’s bellicose past.
By mobilizing the Israeli public to seek peace with Egypt and convincing the most unlikely Israeli prime minister (Likud’s Menachem Began) to sign a peace agreement, Sadat provided an effective example of strategic reorientation prior to an agreement—a confidence-building measure par excellence. The international community continues to reward Egypt for Sadat’s decision.
Syria, by contrast, shows no intention of undergoing a similar strategic reorientation. The day after Syria’s secret talks with Israel were made public in 2008, Bashar dispatched his minister of defense to sign another memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose president has threatened to “wipe Israel from the map.”
The MOU was more than symbolic. In a May 2008 interview with an Italian newspaper, when asked about peace with Israel, and whether Syria would distance itself from the Mullahs of Tehran, Assad responded:
It would be an absurd question, and [if asked] we would not be able to make peace. How would Israel react if we demanded that it rupture its relations with the United States?… In [so] far as Iran goes, the answer is still more dismissive. [Iran] is our old ally; there is no reason for turning our shoulders away from them.
This throws cold water on the increasingly popular notion in Washington and Jerusalem that it is possible to effectively “flip” Syria, if the diplomatic carrots were sufficiently large and enticing.
Bashar needs Iran. His highest priority is regaining and retaining domination over Lebanon. But Bashar is unable to control Lebanon without Hezbollah, and he cannot control Hezbollah without Tehran. Therefore, trading alliances is not in Assad’s interest.
Understanding Syria’s Overtures
Syria’s willingness to talk peace with Israel, in other words, does not indicate a willingness to change policy. Rather, the aim of the Syrian regime—both under Hafez al-Assad and now his son—is to maintain the Syrian status quo, control Lebanon, and ensure continued Baath Party and Alawite rule under the leadership of the Assad family. To the extent that a peace process with Israel runs counter to those goals, real change in Damascus is unlikely.
This is not to say that America should remain on the sidelines. Working with Europe, Washington should take all the necessary steps to ensure that the Hariri tribunal, scheduled to begin in March, should continue. If members of Assad’s inner circle are indicted, the U.S. would have additional leverage with Damascus. The West can apply more pressure still by pressing the IAEA to issue a more incriminating report on the Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in 2007.
In the face of international pressure, Syria might be persuaded to loosen its grip on Lebanon and even grant certain freedoms in Syria, itself. Peace with Israel can then be presented as a reward for reform, rather than an enticement to it.
However, rushing into another peace process—without a fundamental transformation in Syrian behavior first—is a surefire way to destroy the leverage currently at Washington’s disposal.
Matthew RJ Brodsky is a Legacy Heritage Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C., where he specializes in Syrian and Lebanese affairs, Arab politics, and political Islam.