The end of the Assad government in Syria is near. Even if the precise date is unknown, the process is inevitable. Israel has refrained -- and rightly so -- from any involvement whatsoever in the Syrian civil war. But the time has come for Israel to spell out to the next rulers of Syria the kind of relations it expects to have with them.
Even though the identity and character of the new government is still undetermined, such an initiative on the part of Israel is an important one. In any case, the quiet and stability that have prevailed along the Syrian-Israeli border for the last 35 years can no longer be taken for granted. Practically speaking, agreements that were signed and committed to by Bashar's father, Hafez Al-Assad, are no longer binding. Consequently, Israel should formulate an alternative that will be acceptable to Syria while safeguarding its own interests at the same time.
Until the start of the civil war in Syria, many believed that an Israeli withdrawal and return of the Golan Heights to Syria was a legitimate price for peace. An Israeli-Syrian peace settlement was perceived as having certain strategic advantages, the most important one being a severing of relations between Syria and Iran. But realities have changed. Today, even staunch supporters of the "Golan in exchange for peace" approach would not endorse the concession of a significant strategic asset to a country that is racked by internal instability and whose future is so unclear. It would be irresponsible on Israel's part to return to the old formula in face of new developments, namely the presence of Salafi forces close to Israel's border on the Golan Heights.
What can Israel, therefore, offer to a post-Assad Syria?
The Israeli offer should be centered on Syria's basic needs, the first of which is rebuilding the country from ruin. Israel can offer a non-belligerence agreement which would be valid for a decade or even two. An agreement of this kind would free Syria from the necessity of building a large, modern army and spending billions of dollars to equip and maintain it. A specific Israeli promise to refrain from attacking would enable Syria to postpone unnecessary military expenditures, and inherently force Syria to drop its rhetoric of regaining the Golan by force. This last condition need not be made in writing, but Syria would have to commit, within the parameters of the new agreement, to upholding certain conditions which, if violated, would exempt Israel from its commitments too. They are:
- Prevention of any direct or indirect assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon
- Removal of non-regular forces (in effect, Salafi organizations and al-Qaeda supporters) away from Israel's border to a significant distance that would be agreed upon
- Maintaining the demilitarization agreements in the Golan Heights
- Keeping the UN forces in place on the Golan Heights and renewing their mandate
- Refraining from further acquisition or development of weapons of mass destruction
An offer of this nature will convey to the next government in Damascus a message of good will, and establish conditions of self-restraint. Israel can only benefit from initiating such a move.
Translated and re-posted from Ha'aretz, January 6, 2013
The writer served as Deputy Defense Minister in the Israeli government. Today he is contributing fellow at Israel Policy Forum and chairman of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at the Netanya Academic College.