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The Israel-Syria Connection: What Next?

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Up until recently, one of the attractive areas to visit in Israel has been the Golan Heights. Israel captured this elevated plateau, located on the Israeli-Syrian border during the Six Day War in 1967. Since the Golan was considered an important strategic buffer between the two hostile states, Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, making it legally part of Israel (although not accepted by the international community).

Starting in the 1990s, successive Israeli governments -- from Rabin to Netanyahu -- have engaged the Syrian regime in unsuccessful peace negotiations. Although the exact details of the talks conducted between Rabin and later Barak with Hafez al-Assad are not known, the general outlines are pretty clear. Evidently in 2000, the sides were inching towards a peace accord. From the Israeli perspective, a peace agreement with Syria was a package deal that included Lebanon.

At the time (1999-2000), Syria controlled Lebanon politically and Israel had been ensconced in the south of the country in a so-called security zone for 18 years. Hezbollah, a Syrian ally and an Iranian proxy was causing annual Israeli casualties. By 1999, there was a grass-roots movement in Israel calling for a withdrawal from Lebanon. Prime Minister Ehud Barak was interested in securing a peace settlement with Syria that would include a secure border with Lebanon. In that scenario, Israel's hand would be strengthened vis a vis the Palestinians, with whom Barak would also have to negotiate. Israel it, seems, was willing to give up the entire Golan Heights under the condition that the area would be completely demilitarized reaching as far as the outskirts of Damascus. Israel would be allowed to maintain a surveillance station on the Hermon Mountain for several years as an early warning system. Syria, whose economy was in dire straits, would receive an attractive financial aid package from the U.S. and would distance itself from terror organizations such as Hezbollah. And, as mentioned, quiet with Lebanon would be part of the agreement.

Evidently, the entire deal fell apart due to a dispute over ten meters of territory. Israel was willing to withdraw to the international border that had been delineated in 1923 and was reiterated in the Armistice accords signed between the two sides in Rhodes in 1949. Syria demanded a complete Israeli withdrawal from the entire Golan Heights up to the positions they (the Syrians) had held on June 5, 1967. The Syrians had managed to creep to the shore's edge of the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee before 1967. In principle, this would have given the Syrians water rights on the fresh water lake. The Sea of Galilee at the time (1999) constituted one third of Israel's water sources and was considered a strategic reserve for a water poor country. The negotiations fell apart on that small sliver of real estate.
Following the failure of the talks between Barak and Assad, the Israeli government redeployed from Southern Lebanon in the summer of 2000, withdrawing to the international border as marked by the UN. The move was taken unilaterally, without any agreement with Lebanon. Over the course of the following 6 years, Hezbollah launched several attacks across the Lebanese border into Israel. That and the Hezbollah assault on Israeli troops in the summer of 2006 was one of the causes of the Second Lebanon War.
In 2007-8, negotiations were renewed between Israel and Syria, under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Bashir al-Assad through the mediation of Turkey http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/22/world/middleeast/22mideast.html?_r=0 . From the Israeli perspective the conditions had changed. The Sea of Galilee no longer had the strategic importance of the past as Israel had begun to massively desalinate. Similarly, the situation in Lebanon had changed. Syria had lost it grip on the Lebanese regime. On the other hand, Syria and Iran had become close allies. Israel now viewed the Iranian drive to achieve nuclear weapons as an existential threat. Anything that could undermine the Iranian strategic position in the neighborhood was extremely desirable from Israel's perspective. The conditions for a peace treaty between Syria and Israel had subtly changed. Now, Israel would be willing to pull back to the line the Syrians had demanded in 2000. Syria would have to disengage from Iran and desist from aiding and abetting the transfer of Iranian weapons, know-how and advisors to Hezbollah through its territory.

We don't really know how close the sides were to closing the deal, but according to foreign reports, which Israel denied, in 2007 Israel bombed a nuclear facility in Syria that was moving towards being operational. Eventually, the talks between Olmert and Assad broke down in 2008.
Surprisingly, there were recent reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu had been secretly negotiating with Assad when the Arab Spring hit Syria in 2011. And one can safely assume that there will be no resumption of talks between Israel and Syria until the end of the present civil war.

Where do things stand today? Israel has several concerns regarding Syria. Given the destabilization of the Assad regime, there are fears that terrorists will begin to launch attacks against Israel from the Syrian Golan. There is a recent precedent. While Egypt was in the throes of its "spring," terrorists crossed over from the Sinai Peninsula into Israel and killed eight Israelis. Since some of the forces fighting Assad are not Syrian -- they are al Qaeda or Salafist militants from abroad -- there is a definite possibility that we will see the beginning of cross-border attacks from Syria into Israel.

Another major Israeli concern is the transfer of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah. Syria has one of the largest concentrations of chemical weapons in the world. Sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles or the aforementioned chemical weapons in the hands of Hezbollah could change the balance of power with Israel. This, of course is an unacceptable situation from Israel's perspective. A few weeks ago, there were multiple air raids against convoys heading from Syria to Lebanon http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57566733/israel-launches-air-strike-inside-syria/ . Israel has not officially taken responsibility.

A basic assumption is that once the regime falls, there might be a massive retaliation against the Allawite minority that has ruled Syria since the late 1960s. This could cause a flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees, some of whom might seek refuge in Israel. How Israel should and could react to such a situation is something that both the Israeli military and government must decide upon.

Finally, a post-Assad Syria, even if it maintains its territorial and ethnic integrity, might be a more hostile neighbor, especially if a pro-Iranian or alternatively a Moslem Brotherhood regime were to emerge.

The clock is ticking.