Peace with Syria could be a hedge against Iranian influence


Israel’s peace offensive of recent days may have been motivated in part by personal or domestic politics, but the driving force behind its willingness to negotiate is part and parcel of a much larger plan. As the dynamics in the Middle East shift in response to Iraq war backlash and Iran’s increasingly vigorous nuclear program, Israel has finally conceded that peace with Syria holds the key to rapprochement with the rest of the Arab world, including the Palestinians. At this time it is clear that waiting any longer will only increase Iran’s threats to Israel’s survival. If a comprehensive peace with Syria can be agreed upon, Israel will have a much better chance at successful negotiations with Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority and be better equipped to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas — all of which will become extremely important as Israel gears up to face Iran.

The decision to engage Syria in peace talks was in the making for more than a year. I have been privy to some of the indirect talks between the two sides and I know first-hand that had it not been for the objections of the Bush Administration, Israel would have commenced these talks much earlier. Israel and Syria fully understand the requirements for a peace agreement, which is the return of the entire Golan Heights in exchange for comprehensive peace with normal relations. Without establishing these requirements in advance it is doubtful that the two nations would have entered into any negotiations directly or indirectly.

The importance of engaging Syria from the Israeli perspective cannot be overestimated. Without peace between Israel and Syria, most Israelis believe that Israel will always remain insecure on its northern front. Peace with Syria can also pave the way to an Israeli-Lebanese normalcy, specifically because Syria is imbedded in Lebanon’s social, economic, and political makeup and it continues to exert tremendous influence over Hezbollah. Moreover, Syria can wield significant influence on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating front because more than any other Arab state it provides a sanctuary for Palestinian radical leaders and an influence over the political and financial support of Palestinian extremist groups. Syrian influence transcends the Arab-Israeli conflict because as a predominantly Sunni state, Syria can shift the dynamic of the Shiite-Sunni conflict away from a dangerous escalation with the potential to engulf the entire region. More importantly, in any effort to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, substantially reduce its influence in Lebanon and dramatically weaken Hezbollah and Hamas, Syria matters because luring it out of the Iranian grip would isolate Tehran, especially should it become necessary as a last resort for Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Although some Israeli officials argue about Syria’s role in the search for Middle East solutions, Prime Minister Olmert, his Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were in full agreement that the Bush Administration should invite Syria to the Annapolis Middle East peace conference knowing full well that the Syrian delegation would raise the issue of occupation of the Golan Heights. They reasoned then, and they believe today, that the constructive engagement of Damascus that could lead to peace also has the potential to dramatically realign the forces behind much of what troubles the region which could help avoid a potential war with Iran. Reports from Ankara about the Turkish peace mediation between Israel and Syria suggest that the two nations have made considerable progress and that the two sides will soon meet face-to-face to accelerate the negotiating process. Syria’s President Bashar Assad’s recent statement expressing optimism about the outcome of these negotiations clearly indicates how far the two sides have gone.

Seeing it in this light explains Israel’s various peace overtures towards Lebanon, as well as its willingness to negotiate a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah and accept a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.

The negotiations between Hezbollah and Israel in connection with the exchange of prisoners and Israel’s willingness to relinquish Shebaa Farms to the UN or to Lebanon were mutually pursued for different reasons. Hezbollah’s leaders fully understand that the closer the understanding between Israel and Syria is, the less leverage Hezbollah will have in any future negotiations. Striking a deal with Israel now will allow them to take credit for recovering Lebanese territory and hail their resistance of Israel as the key to their success. On the Israeli side, removing the reasons behind Hezbollah’s resistance will give Syria an even greater leverage over Hezbollah to bring about its disarmament in due course. In making peace with Syria, Israel is basically accepting the inevitable by returning the Golan. But making a move at this time will, in particular, blunt any prospect of needing to deal with another hostile front should an attack on Iran become inevitable.

Accepting a ceasefire with Hamas has also its own calculus: Without peace with Syria, Israel would have most certainly opted for a major operation against Hamas’ forces in Gaza to put an end to the reign of terror. But since the negotiations with Syria are going well, a massive incursion into Gaza which would have claimed huge number of casualties on both sides has — for the time being-become unnecessary. Israel fully expects that Iran’s support of Hamas through Syria will eventually come to an end. Meanwhile, a period of calm will also allow the peace negotiations between Israel the Palestinian Authority to advance more rapidly, thereby strengthening the hands of the Palestinian moderate forces led by Mahmoud Abbas. Moreover, this will give Israel an opportunity to reduce some of the stringent security measures including the removal of many road blocks, release more Palestinian prisoners and allow greater number of Palestinian workers to seek employment in Israel. While this will certainly not solve the complex dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, it will show a concrete effort on Israel’s behalf to start making concessions in the name of peace. Israel will then be in a better position to assist Mr. Abbas directly and indirectly in building his security forces without being accused of pitting one Palestinian faction against another.

Peace making between Israel and Lebanon, depends largely on the kind of understanding Israel and Syria reach concerning the future of Lebanon. Whereas on the surface Syria will accept Lebanese sovereignty, it has and will continue to seek recognition of its special relations with Lebanon. Indeed, you can remove Syrian forces from Lebanon, but you cannot take Syria’s historic and cultural relations as well as it’s political, economic and security interests out of Lebanon. Although Israel’s overture towards Lebanon is significant, as it demonstrates the comprehensiveness of the Israeli approach, the Israeli government should have no illusions about a real prospect of making peace with Lebanon before peace with Syria becomes imminent.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.