Recent reports indicating that Israel and Syria are indirectly engaged in Turkish brokered peace talks suggest a major (albeit overdue) development in the Mid-East peace-making process. Since the collapse of the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations in May 2000, I have consistently been advocating the need for Israeli-Syrian reconciliation specifically because there is not a single dispute in the region that is not affected in one form or another by this conflict. Should Israel and Syria successfully achieve a working peace agreement, the positions of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran would be substantially weakened. Any assuagement of these three actors, who regularly threaten Israel's existence, should give the Israelis all the more reason to corroborate in any Syrian peace efforts.
Both Israel and Syria know the high risks and returns such a peace treaty can bring about. On top of the Syrian agenda is regaining the Golan Heights, as well as normalizing relations with the US (which peace with Israel could secure) and recognition of Damascus' special interest in Lebanon. While the Bush administration has denounced Syria's heavy hand in Lebanese affairs, this must be a loss taken for the greater good. Syria's military, economic, and historical ties with Lebanon are far too intertwined at this point to be realistically separated for the sake of wider regional peace. Against these gains Damascus must recognize its role in weakening logistical and political support to Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as limiting influence from Tehran.
Returning the Golan will no doubt be quite difficult for the Israelis, but what a peace agreement ensures is a potentially secure border with Syria and Lebanon. In dealing with Iranian and radical Palestinian threats, this will allow Israel a strategic leverage of paramount importance. By removing Syria from Iran's grips, Israel could weaken Iran's meddling and influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories and thereby erode the position of Israel's most implacable threat, Iran. The goal in this situation is not only to make an Israeli-Syrian agreement, but to inherently shift the power structure away from an Iran-centric hegemony.
After years of direct and indirect involvement, I can attest that this turn of events has not come about without considerable posturing between Israel and Syria over the past 24 months. For years, Israel has insisted that it could handle only one track at a time--the Palestinians--but worsening security conditions and mounting difficulties in Palestinian negotiations has given a new priority to talks with Syria. Israel sought to commence tacit negotiations with Syria, but was rebuffed as a leak could be detrimental for relations with Syria's Muslim allies. This is where Turkey's good offices and relations with both Israel and Syria came to play. Syria sought public peace talks as long as each party knew where the other stood and there was a general understanding about both sides' expectations from these peace negotiations.
In an October 2007 conversation with Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Al Mualem, I was told that once the peace talks with Israel become public, Damascus' relations with its friends will be irreparably strained, which is why Syria wants to ensure a successful outcome. Syria, he said, has long since made peace with Israel a strategic option, and its friends in the region know that only too well. In retrospect, he was referring to Iran and Hezbollah's growing influence over Syria, knowing that Israeli-Syrian peace talks would have to be worth the risk of upsetting both of these powerful forces. For 12 years--from the time he was Syria's ambassador to the US--Al Mualem has been adamant about his country's desires and the conditions it requires for peace, which suggests that Damascus now is quite committed to the success of these peace talks.
As expected, there remain several difficult issues that could stymie an agreement such as final borders, security, water, and the nature of the relationship between the two nations. Syria will undoubtedly continue to insist on the final borders to be the June 4, 1967 ceasefire line which will give Damascus "a leg in the water," that is, a commanding position over the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee. Israel will still insist on pushing the Syrians eastward to the 1923 international border. Although the difference in land mass is not significant (less than seven square miles), for the Syrians returning back to the June 4 line represents a source of considerable national pride. It should be noted that the Israeli-Syrian negotiation in 2000 broke down over this border dispute. I suspect that the territorial discord will be resolved by Israel agreeing that while officially the border will be the June 4 ceasefire line, Syria will be forbidden from advancing beyond the 1923 international border. This will no doubt be an outcome of constructive ambiguity, though for the snake-like plot of land that at times is no more than 10-feet wide, any complete ownership will only be of symbolic importance.
With regard to national security, Israel will continue to demand that the Golan is demilitarized and only internal Syrian security personnel with light arms will be allowed--as was the condition for returning Sinai in the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty. There is a security issue that could complicate the negotiations, which relates to the nature of combat ready military units and installations Syria may station outside the Golan within striking distance from Israel. Israel will also insist that Syria stops the flow of weapons to Hezbollah and commits itself to help in disarming the organization. Other issues of great concern to Israel, including water supplies and normalization of relations, may prove to be easier to resolve because the Syrians appear to be determined not to allow these issues to prevent them from reaching an agreement. Ideally, both sides will be committed to finding solutions to mutually alleviate the security concern of each other, as this goes hand-in-hand with the risk of open negotiations. As was put to me by another Syrian official who asked to remain anonymous, "Once Israel concedes on the border dispute, we will surprise the Israelis with how flexible we can be on all other issues."
One last complication that may drag the negotiations out is the number of phases it will take to complete the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Ultimately, Damascus will want a binding and secure agreement to be reached under one Israeli government, to prevent any backtracking that could potentially occur under a new government. Moreover, the Syrians see the withdrawal from a logistical perspective and feel that Israel could pull out from the Golan within a few months. For the Israelis, the withdrawal of nearly 30,000 settlers and all that will entail to resettle them is somewhat of a national nightmare, not to speak of the intense opposition by the settlers' movement. I believe that the two sides will eventually agree to a phased withdrawal over a period of about three years, which will progress at a rate dependent on regional security. In return, Israel will insist that Syria undertake measures to demonstrate its commitment to normal relations, such as promoting trade and academic delegates as well as officials to travel between states. As each phase progresses, until the very last settler is prepared to leave, both sides must show a commitment to peace between peoples and not just governments.
Unlike previous Israeli-Syrian peace talks, the chances of success in this round of negotiations are far greater than at any other time. Both Israel and Syria fully understand the gravity of the deteriorating security situation throughout the Middle East and how high the stakes are for both nations if radical forces are not contained. Israel also understands the inevitability of returning the Golan if it wishes to live in peace and security, and Syria is fully cognizant that its relations with Iran have inherent limitations. Syria's future economic prosperity and ultimate security depends on peace with Israel and normal relations with the United States.
These are the factors on the ground that drive Israel and Syria towards peace. The American involvement in these negotiations will become critical sooner than later. Tragically, the Bush administration failed to see the need for an Israeli-Syrian peace and how far the ripple effect could have been on the entire region. Instead, it has made a bad situation worse by refusing to engage Syria and preventing Israel from pursuing the only logical course of action. It is incumbent upon the Presidential candidates to voice their unequivocal support of the Israeli-Syrian talks, and whoever is elected president should lend substantial support to bring these historic peace talks to a successful conclusion.
Prof. Alon Ben-Meir is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiations and Middle Eastern studies. firstname.lastname@example.org www.alonben-meir.com