Map of Syria  (CIA Factbook)
Map of Syria (CIA Factbook)

Pursuing a "Syrian Strategy" for Arab-Israeli Peace

Apr 26, 2010

The Israeli-Arab conflict has inflamed the Middle East for half a century, and negotiations aimed towards the creation of a Palestinian state have stalled. While we should encourage Israel and the Palestinian National Authority to fulfill their obligations stipulated at the Annapolis Conference, current political and security conditions within both Israel and the Palestinian Territories are not conducive to reaching a final settlement.

This is partly due to domestic politics within both territories. In Israel, powerful far-right pro-settler parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government will seek to stymie any two-state solution, and Netanyahu's own commitment to a two-state solution appears tenuous. Furthermore, security fears about Iran's burgeoning regional power are widespread, causing Israel to reorient its foreign policy away from solving the Palestinian question and towards containing Iran.

Unfortunately, the political reality in the Palestinian Territories is also greatly discouraging. Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who lacks the stature of Yasser Arafat, is unpopular and politically weak even in his Fatah Party's strongholds in the West Bank. Abbas and the Palestinian National Authority have no control over the Gaza Strip, which has been controlled by Hamas since 2007. Hamas does not officially recognize Israel's "right to exist," and Israel will refuse to enter into any final agreement regarding the Palestinian Territories unless Hamas renounces all its irredentist claims to historical Palestine.

While domestic politics in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories are crucially important in brokering a final peace settlement, regional politics play an important, and potentially dispositive, role in the conflict. The United States should work to shift regional politics, helping provide an environment more conducive to a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In doing so, the U.S. may be able to alter domestic politics in both territories from the outside.

To that end, I recommend that the U.S. pursue a strategy of cautious engagement with Syria on both a bilateral and multilateral basis. The U.S. could tie its bilateral talks with Syria to a wider Syrian-Israeli peace deal, which would require direct Israeli involvement (and perhaps the continued mediation of Turkey, which has been active recently in helping to attempt to broker a deal). The U.S. and Israel have a strategic interest in such an engagement, even though both states currently have poor relations with the Syrian regime.

Israel and Syria have long-standing animosities going back at least to Syria's role as a belligerent in the Six-Day War of 1967. The war resulted in the Israeli capture of the Golan Heights region of Syria; Israel maintains control of most of the Golan today, with a UN force patrolling a buffer zone between the two states. Syria claims all of the Golan as an integral part of the Syrian state, and while some Israeli officials—current Prime Minister Netanyahu included—have been publicly unwilling to consider ceding all or part of the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty, an implicit understanding exists among Israeli officials that an Israeli-Syrian treaty will be predicated on Israel renouncing most, if not all, of the Golan Heights. In return, Israel will expect that Syria renounce all its ties with terrorist groups, especially Hezbollah and Hamas.

The U.S. and Syria have also experienced worsening relations, especially after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which Syria was widely considered responsible. In response to the killing, the U.S. passed the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, forbidding all American businesses investment in Syria; banning all U.S. exports to Syria other than food and medicine; and restricting the movement of Syrian diplomats in the U.S. The U.S. also recalled its Ambassador to Syria. For the U.S., enticing Syria to enter the orbit of Western-allied Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, could have an overriding benefit: cleaving Syria from Iran's sphere of influence. Therefore, in pursuing its goal of an Israeli-Syria peace treaty, the U.S. should implicitly seek to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. Since Iran also supports Hezbollah and Hamas (often via Syria), this will simultaneously weaken these terrorists groups and Iran.

Syria currently finds itself in a simultaneous position of regional strength and weakness. It has the ability to greatly influence Lebanese politics via its sponsorship of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon; much of Hamas' leadership resides in Damascus, thus giving Syria potential influence over events in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip; and it serves as a source of, and transit point for, weapons destined for both organizations, some of which originate in Iran. Fundamentally, such an arrangement allows Syria to engage in armed conflict with Israel via its proxies. This destabilizes Israel on both its northern and western borders, leading to the continued militarization of the region.

However, while Syria possesses some strategic leverage vis-à-vis Israel, Syria's regime is also increasingly isolated and under stress, especially after Saddam Hussein's fellow Ba'athist government in Iraq was overthrown in 2003. Since that time, Syria has absorbed an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, disturbing its demographic balance. Syrian ruling authorities are perpetually concerned about sectarian tensions, since they mostly hail from the Alawite sect of Shia Islam, while Syria is a Sunni-majority state. Finally, Syria's alliance with Iran has strained its relations with major Sunni Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are suspicious of Iran's designs for regional hegemony.

The U.S. is in a unique position to assuage Syrian security concerns. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was reportedly worried about a U.S. attack on Syria following America's 2003 invasion of Iraq, and geostrategic—not ideological—concerns dominate Syrian foreign policy. Syria is also concerned about armed incursions by Israel, especially after Israeli air strikes in Syria in 2003 and 2007.

The U.S. should seek to prove that, upon the fulfillment of certain conditions incumbent on the Syrian regime (renouncing support for terrorist groups and promising to respect Lebanon's sovereignty, for instance), the U.S. would provide Syria a security guarantee, promising to respect Syria's internal sovereignty. Part of this guarantee would include implicit pressure on Israel to discontinue its strikes.

As a show of good faith, the U.S. should dangle a series of "carrots" to the Syrian regime, including the eventual normalization of relations between the two states. However, the U.S. would have to make clear that any backtracking on Syria's obligations would result in serious consequences, including a heightened sanctions regime.

A series of confidence-building measures could be implemented immediately, including the public announcement of the appointment of a new U.S. Ambassador to Syria, a position that has been vacant since 2005. Accompanied by the secretary of state, the new ambassador could visit President Assad in Damascus, which would signal the seriousness of America's intentions. The U.S. could also unilaterally lift the restrictions imposed on Syrian diplomats in the U.S. via presidential waiver. Economic sanctions could be lifted contingent upon sustained proof that Syria had renounced its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

Multilateral negotiations between the U.S., Israel, and Syria should occur simultaneously. These talks should seek to determine the final status of the Golan Heights and the terms for a comprehensive Israeli-Syrian peace treaty. The U.S. should make clear to Israel that its continued financial and military support depends on its flexibility in ceding most of the Golan; likewise, it should signal to Syria that normalization of trade, and potential financial assistance, depends on its ending support for its terrorist proxy groups both within and outside of Syria proper, and entering into a peace treaty with Israel. In exerting pressure on both states, the U.S. could help ensure compliance on both sides, mitigating Israeli and Syrian concerns about the other parties' intention to act in good faith. If negotiations advance, President Obama could become personally involved to help usher in an agreement, using the 1978 Camp David Accords as a template.

A Syrian-Israeli peace treaty could have tremendously positive effects for the region. Without the support of Syria, Hezbollah could be greatly weakened, which would lower Israeli security concerns over its northern border. In addition, with a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty, and a weakened Hezbollah, Israel might be able to begin reducing tensions with Lebanon. Syrian pressure on Hamas' leadership in Damascus could disorient the group, allowing Fatah to take advantage of the resulting political vacuum in the Gaza Strip and consolidate its power in the West Bank. In addition, Israel would be greatly pleased with a weakened Hamas, and lowered security concerns could allow Israel to further devolve security responsibilities in the West Bank and Gaza-Egypt border to the Fatah-controlled Palestinian National Authority.

Peace with Syria could thus create the conditions for the kind of confidence-building measures between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority necessary for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. With peace treaties between Israel and Egypt and Jordan already completed, a comprehensive agreement between Israel and Syria would be an integral, and perhaps necessary, component for a lasting Arab-Israeli peace.

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