Out of cold peace

Abigail Fielding-Smith
12 September 2006

The border between Syria and its Israeli-occupied territories in the Golan Heights is an eerily quiet place. UN peacekeepers shuttle around in a desultory way. It is not a prestige posting. The front-line town of Quneitra, occupied by Israel when it was attacked by Syria in 1967, has been preserved as the Israelis left it in their partial withdrawal in 1974: razed to the ground. The burnt-out buildings evoke the state of neither-war-nor-peace which has characterised Israeli-Syrian relations since.

But 2006 has seen the region's political calculus shift decisively, since Hezbollah's unexpectedly strong show of force in the recent conflict in Lebanon. Although Syria seems to have played a less pivotal role in the fighting than its ally Iran, who supplied Hezbollah with state-of-the-art weaponry, Damascus's position at the logistical fulcrum of a formidable anti-Israel alliance (recently cemented by a military pact with Iran) has given a new urgency to its demands for the restitution of the Golan question. Syria's young president, Bashar al-Asad, wasted no time in pointing this out in a speech, claiming that Syria now has the strength to compel Israel to return its lands.

Abigail Fielding-Smith is Middle East Editor at IB Tauris Publishers, and a freelance writer on middle east issues.

Also by Abigail Fielding-Smith in openDemocracy:

"Between politics and war: Hizbollah in the spotlight"
(22 May 2006)

"The Shi'a crescent: myth or reality?"
(28 July 2006)

Mixed messages in Israel

If Israel's initial reaction to the war is anything to go by, it didn't disagree with his assessment. The influential left-wing daily Ha'aretz claimed the Golan would be a "bargain" price for removing Syria from Iran's orbit and gaining some breathing space on the Lebanese border. Defence Minister Amir Peretz and Security Minister Avi Dichter have both raised the idea of dialogue with Syria. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has appointed a team to look into the Syria channel, advised by heavyweights such as former ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich and former head of military intelligence Uri Saguy.

Seasoned Israel-watchers ascribe these moves to internal politics, and an attempt to deflect blame for the Lebanon debacle. Olmert himself has done everything to publicly quash suggestions of talks with Syria. His government, precarious as it is, cannot afford to do anything that looks like capitulation. Officially, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that stabilising Lebanon is the priority now. But no lasting ceasefire has ever been achieved in Lebanon without Syrian co-operation and Israel knows it.

A senior Israeli diplomatic source admits that, in policymaking circles, the option of opening talks with Syria has been "floated as a response to the war". So-called "track two" discussions are already taking place via intermediaries. In the words of one UN diplomat, "once the dust has settled on Lebanon, everything could be on the table". There is a growing sense among long-term strategists that talking to Syria now would be an opportunity to check the seemingly unstoppable momentum of forces hostile to Israel and its American ally. "The moment there are negotiations with Syria, then everything changes in the Middle East", says former Mossad chief Danny Yatom.

Syrian calculations

From the Syrian point of view, the potential gains of negotiating are obvious: the return of the Golan, and the prestige this would bring to Bashar al-Asad's beleaguered regime. The director of the London-based Syrian Media Centre, Ghayth Armanazi, hints that the effects of Syria's diplomatic isolation are starting to bite: "it would be good to direct our energies somewhere other than war". Unemployment is rising, the economy is stagnating, and Syria is set to become a net importer of oil in 2010. It cannot afford its splendid isolationism indefinitely.

Fulfilling Syria's side of the land for peace deal is not without cost. Israel would be likely to ask for the full normalisation of diplomatic relations which Bashar's father, Hafez al-Asad, offered during the Clinton-led negotiations in 2000. This could leave Bashar in a vulnerable domestic position - he has built his legitimacy around a defiant stance on Israel. Israel would want all support for Hamas cut off, and could well demand the expulsion of Hamas's military leadership from Damascus as a precondition of holding talks. While most commentators agree Asad would happily sell out Hamas's military leader, Khaled Mashaal, if he thought it would get him the Golan, in the absence of a Palestinian process Mashaal would be unlikely to play ball, and could make a lot of trouble both for Asad and for any agreement he might make.

Then there is Iran. In the middle east's political food chain, Asad is perceived to be to Tehran what Mashaal is to Asad: an asset to be manipulated. Iran has significant investments in Syria and has forged financial relationships with key figures in its military and intelligence services, figures who are not necessarily loyal to Asad. "The notion that the Asads can act independently of the Iranians at this stage is nothing less than absurd" says Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. "There will be hell to pay should they even try."

This then is the nub of the issue. Whilst the basic parameters of a Syria-Israel deal on the Golan have been fairly well established since the Clinton-led talks of 2000, for them to get there now requires the pacification of so many interested parties that only an actively engaged international community, led by the superpower, can do it. And the current US administration, far from supporting Israel-Syria talks, has been actively opposed to them.

The US equation

Non-engagement with hostile states like Syria is not only the preferred policy of the neo-conservatives, it is their ideological totem. And it is the neo-conservatives who still influence White House foreign policy. When Condoleezza Rice recently encouraged George Bush to open a Syria channel at the height of the Lebanon conflict, she was forcefully argued down by two of Dick Cheney's advisors, who won the day, the New York Times reported. Privately, Israeli officials grumble that Olmert is under as much pressure to resist Syria talks from Washington as from his own right flank.

But there is growing dissent to this policy, and not just from the usual quarters. Dennis Ross, Clinton's Middle East envoy, argues that the time has come for a new Syria policy - "one that gives the Syrians a reason to calculate their interests differently". "Americans for Peace Now", which describes itself as a Zionist organisation, wrote an open letter to George Bush asking him to publicly state that he did not oppose renewed Israel-Syria negotiations. Even Republicans such as Richard Armitage (who famously declared Hezbollah to be the "A-team" of international terrorism) have called for the Bush administration to start talking to Syria.

For now, it appears that the leadership necessary to bring about Syria-Israel talks will be absent until there is a change of administration. Israel, meanwhile, is stuck with the dilemma of what to do about the Tehran-Damascus "axis". Ha'aretz columnist Akiva Eldar observes that "Israeli assessment sources are recommending to the government that it immediately separate from the 'neither peace nor war' doctrine in the Syrian arena. They are presenting two options to the leaders. One is accelerated peace talks with Syria ... the second is an accelerated pre-emptive war ... before Tehran completes the transformation of the Syrian army into a modern army rich in new types of weaponry."

One thing is clear: the "cold peace" which has characterised relations since 1973 is an increasingly unviable option. On a trip to an Israeli military outpost in the Golan earlier this month, Defence Minister Amir Peretz looked out over the valley to Syria, and declared: "Our message to our enemies is that we extend our hand in peace, but that we will continue to be prepared for any scenario." The fertile slopes of the Golan do not seem so tranquil now.

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