The creation of Israel in 1948 engendered enmity between Arabs and Jews still palpable today. Although Egypt and Jordan have negotiated peace agreements with Israel, Syria persists as one of Israel’s most intransigent enemies. A focal point of Israeli-Syrian relations is a section of former Syrian territory that Israel annexed in the 1967 Six Days War: the Golan Heights.
A strategic slice of land demarcating the border between Israel and Syria, this narrow plateau conjoins the headwaters of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. The Golan Heights has illustrated its importance as a main water supply for Israel, but its once strategic military significance is debatable in today’s environment, as advanced technologies may have rendered a several-mile wide buffer zone of questionable value. Before 1967, Syria used the Golan plateau as a command post from which to shell northern Israeli villages. Israel’s control of the Golan has since prevented this. But today, Syria possesses an arsenal of long-range rockets and scud missiles able to reach northern Israeli towns when fired from Syria proper, undermining the tactical utility of the Golan Heights as an agent of Israeli security. Likewise, Israel’s counter-battery weapons and helicopter gunships could swiftly destroy any artillery located on the Heights.1 Nevertheless, Israel will capitalize on the value of the Golan Heights as a bargaining chip to obtain specific provisos from Syria in its conventional ‘land for peace’ swap.
The land for peace policy was attempted when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, in 2005 and 2000 respectively. Both instances proved inauspicious and inimical to Israel’s security interests, as Hamas and Hezbollah entrenched themselves on the borderline to achieve a tactical position from which to launch short-range rockets at Israel. Such a buffer zone has therefore proved vital to Israel’s security. Since past land for peace swaps failed to set a good precedent, the Israeli public is not inclined to endorse an easy return of the Golan Heights to Syria. (I discuss the effects of domestic politics on international cooperation in a subsequent section.)
The return of the Golan Heights is a sine qua non of any peace agreement. Syria demands that Israel relinquish this territory whose acquisition they deem a violation of the UN Charter. Israel will only consider returning this piece of land contingent upon extracting certain concessions from Syria. The issue of the Golan Heights, however, is one component of a much larger, complex picture.
The terms of a peace agreement between Israel and Syria delve deep into Levantine politics. Israel and Syria’s military and economic interests converge on one issue: Lebanon. Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 severed its lifeline to the Mediterranean, and as a result halted the inflow of economic benefits. As a term of a prospective Israeli-Syrian agreement, Syria could reclaim its previous status in Lebanon if it agrees to reign in Hezbollah and its other militant proxies, in effect securing Israel’s northern border and precluding a repeat of Israel’s 2006 destructive face-off with Hezbollah. Creating a rift between Syria and Hezbollah—an Iranian proxy—will ultimately trigger discord between Syria and Iran. For, drawing Syria out of Iran’s orbit constitutes a primary incentive for Israel to pursue a peace treaty with Damascus. 2
Prior to Syria’s forced exit from Lebanon in 2005, a quid pro quo agreement between Israel and Syria dictated the political climate in Lebanon. From Israel’s withdrawal of Lebanon in 2000 until 2005, Israel approbated Syrian supremacy in Lebanon in return for Syria’s control of Hezbollah to secure Israel’s northern frontier. Much to Israel’s dismay, U.S. pressure in 2005 forced Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon—punishment for its collusion in the arming and funding of jihadists in Iraq. Absent Syrian containment, Hezbollah had carte blanche in Lebanon which precipitated the devastating 2006 military confrontation with Israel. Ergo, any prospective peace deal would seek to reinstate the status quo ante 2005. 3
The prospective peace deal between Syria and Israel involves various players and is closely intertwined with American regional politics, Israeli and Lebanese domestic politics, as well as other peace negotiations, namely the US-Iranian dialogue. In effect, myriad multilateral issues encompassing a bilateral agreement may complicate the process to the point of collapse.
Though in 2008, Israel and Syria engaged in serious peace talks under the auspices of Turkey and reached agreement on several key terms. Israel would return the Golan Heights to Syria and resume the pre-1967 borders contingent upon the creation of a demilitarized zone in which Syria would withdraw four miles to every one mile that Israel withdraws. In addition, Israel demanded a series of security measures to be implemented, preempting a surprise Syrian attack from the borderline. Since the negotiations were conducted covertly, the depth of the discussion concerning Lebanon is nebulous. An additional impasse might have concerned water rights: Israel wants to maintain full access to one of its key water sources, while Syria also claims access to the same source. These talks have since stalled, following a similar trajectory of all prior dialogue, such as the discourse following the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and the 1996 talks brokered by the United States. During the talks in 1996, eighty percent of a security agreement was consummated, but then foundered due to disparate interpretations of the already agreed upon terms. 4
The Propensity for Peace or War
Despite the stalled peace process, there were several auspicious indicators in 2008 signaling that talks can resume at some point in the future. On April 21, 2008 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert relayed his sentiments as follows: “Very clearly we want peace with the Syrians and are taking all manner of action to this end. President Bashar al-Assad knows precisely what our expectations are and we know his.” Similarly, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem expressed the Syrian attitude: “If Israel is serious and wants peace, nothing will stop the renewal of peace talks.”5 Not only are terms of an agreement apparent to both sides, but each player is clear as to what the other player will and will not accept. Granted, the stakes are high and the necessary concessions will not be painless for either side. Despite all previous attempts and efforts to consummate an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement, however, the prospect of war is never too distant in this disreputably volatile region.
Contested territory is a contentious topic over which states bargain—and also a matter cited as a primary cause of war. 6 As established above however, the Golan Heights is only one issue area among a multitude of sticking points to an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement. The outbreak of another war in the region is certainly not implausible given the track record. For, the next military altercation between Israel and Hezbollah can simultaneously spark a front with the Syrians. Syria is fully cognizant that its military capabilities pale in comparison vis-à-vis Israel. Nonetheless, the disparity of military might between players has not effectively prevented war in the past. A deterrent for war between Israel and Syria, however, is the preservation of the Assad regime, which serves the interests of both countries. Any confrontation with Israel could weaken the Assad regime, a minority Alawite Shiite sect ruling a majority Sunni state. From Israel’s perspective, any regime unseating the Assads—Sunni fundamentalists, for instance—would prove far more threatening to Israel’s northeastern frontier. 7
Despite such deterrents of war, bellicose rhetoric emanates from Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, inciting the possibility of a regional conflagration. Syria’s recent efforts to stockpile and upgrade military armaments have raised questions about Syrian intentions. Syria has dramatically increased its military spending to approximately $3 billion over a three-year period, a stark upsurge from almost $100 million in 2002. To date, the Syrian armed forces consists of 380,000 troops and 130,000 reservists with an arsenal of 3700 tanks and 510 fighter aircraft—rivaling Israel’s figures. Additionally, Syria seeks to obtain more advanced weaponry and has thus enlisted the help of Iran and North Korea to build liquid-fueled and 500-mile range Scud missiles. This military build-up certainly buttresses Syria’s preparedness in the event of a conflict with Israel. In recent years, Syria has mobilized troops and amassed thousands of rockets on the border with Israel, keeping the option of conflict on the table.8
Earlier this year for example, military drills in the north of Israel prompted Syria to mobilize troops to respond to a possible Israeli strike—or just flex its military muscle. An exchange between foreign ministers urging each to stand down followed. Avigdor Lieberman threatened that Syrian provocation would result in Assad’s “fall from power;” and likewise, Walid Muallem admonished Israel that “war at this time will reach your cities.”9 The likelihood of war intensifies as tensions escalate.
Domestic politics often play a significant role in international cooperation, facilitating or obfuscating negotiations. In the early 1990’s during Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership, negotiations with Syria sparked an outcry among the Israeli public. Such activism culminated into a nationwide campaign to protest the return of the Golan Heights, conveying the degree of skepticism harbored by the Israeli public regarding Syria’s credibility as a bargaining partner. As Israeli law dictates, any agreement must obtain approval by referendum, designating the sentiments of the Israeli public an integral part of any successful peace negotiation. Some Israelis insist that retaining the Golan Heights is imperative to Israel’s security. Others have established businesses and residency there. As a popular travel destination with a serene landscape and beautiful vistas, many Israelis consider the Golan Heights as part and parcel of Israel.12 Despite dissident voices, many in Israel believe the risk is warranted if a peace agreement can secure another frontier and dissolve a barrier to regional peace. Nonetheless, the Israeli public assumes an active role in any peace negotiation with Syria, either obstructing or facilitating its fruition.
The nature of international bargaining varies per type of governance. As an autocracy, the Syrian leadership is shielded from the demands of the populace, conveniently deflecting accountability. Referendums are nonexistent, but negotiations with Israel can still spark dissension among a restive segment of the population, potentially weakening the Assad regime. Conversely, peace with Israel may be well-received by the Syrian public, as the stabilization of relations may induce foreign investment in Syria to bolster the local economy. Surefire economic subsistence among the populace will aid to quell any tensions threatening Assad’s minority Alawite regime in a Sunni majority state.
Leaders in a democracy, however, are accountable to their constituencies and therefore have a greater incentive to comply with an agreement. Conversely, in autocracies, the leader does not have the same incentive to comply, as the same mechanism of accountability is not applicable. Herein lies the dichotomy between Israel and Syria, a democracy and autocracy respectively. Israel’s democratic features provide a built-in mechanism to enforce compliance; whereas in autocracies, this same mechanism is absent, removing incentives for compliance. In effect, Israel’s suspicion of Syria’s credibility as a bargaining partner is substantiated.
Since states often cannot discover mutually beneficial deals by a civil tête-à-tête, a dedicated mediator appointed to broker the talks between two parties has proved a more constructive method for successful negotiation. The dedication required by such a mediator was demonstrated by Jimmy Carter during the Begin-Sadat talks at Camp David, culminating in the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. The protracted, arduous talks nearly collapsed several times, but a dedicated negotiator was able to overcome such impediments. Additionally, the international community must play an active role in pressuring Israel and Syria to persevere and stay the course. Whether under U.S. or another country’s auspices, the peace negotiations should entail the assistance of the United Nations to help steer the talks via an independent commission. The implementation of the demilitarized zone in the Sinai Peninsula—which has demonstrated its efficacy—can be used as a template for the demilitarization of the Golan Heights. An early warning station or a third party capable of guaranteeing agreements can help to mitigate the negative effects of anarchy.
A peace treaty between Israel and Syria will eliminate a major impediment to achieving peaceful relations among Middle Eastern countries. Despite the complexity of issues and involvement of various players, the historical continuity between Israel and Syria can be supplanted with a new status quo more amenable to peace. The peace treaties Israel secured with Egypt and Jordan evince the momentous benefits arising from international cooperation. An Israeli-Syrian peace treaty can certainly follow suit despite stalled negotiations. The probability of a Syrian-Israeli peace deal relies not only upon each regime’s assessment of a cost-benefit analysis, but time is also of the essence. Even if an agreement clearly demonstrates more utility than war, war may nonetheless result from the failure to secure a deal in time.
1 Stratfor Global Intelligence Geopolitical Intelligence Report: The Shift Toward an Israeli-Syrian Agreement, 29 April 2008.
2 Stratfor Global Intelligence Geopolitical Diary: Syria and Iran Coordinate, 4 Aug 2008.
3 Stratfor Global Intelligence Geopolitical Intelligence Report: The Shift Toward an Israeli-Syrian Agreement, 29 April 2008.
4 Syrian Official: Israel-Syria talks hinge on Golan Heights withdrawal pledge. CNN’s Larry Register and Rula Amin. 14 Sept 1999.
5 Stratfor Global Intelligence Geopolitical Intelligence Report: The Shift Toward an Israeli-Syrian Agreement, 29 April 2008.
6 Fearon, James D. Rationalist Explanations for War. International Organization, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Summer, 1995), pg 408.
7 Israel-Syria Negotiations:The Issues, 3January 2000. 2001 Anti-Defamation League http://www.adl.org/backgrounders/Isreal_syria99_12_13.asp
8 Bard, Mitchell. Potential Threats To Israel: Syria. Jewish Virtual Library, updated 20 April 2010. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Threats_to_Israel/Syria.html
9 Salem, Paul. Threats of War and Whispers of Peace in the Israel-Syria-Lebanon Triangle. 18 February 2010. http://www.carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=31000&lang=en
10 Fearon, James D. Rationalist Explanations for War. International Organization, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Summer, 1995), pg 379.
11 Ibid. pg 400.
12 Repko, Elliot M. The Israeli-Syrian Conflict: Prospects for a Resolution. The Journal of International Policy Solutions. Spring 2007, Vol 7.
The Levant illustrating the Golan Heights
Source: 1992 Magellan Geographix, Santa Barbara, CA