To whatever extent the Israeli May 6 attack on Syria may have inflicted material damage on the regime’s war-making capability, it has allowed an untimely political victory for that brutal and besieged regime. Though Israel’s devastating bombing raid may have been focused on missiles or other military hardware bound for the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, the attack will just feed into President Bachar al-Assad’s narrative that his secular nationalist government is not fighting a popular rebellion but is instead the victim of an international conspiracy of conservative Arab monarchies, radical Islamists, Western powers and now Israel.
The exiled opposition Syrian National Coalition condemned the recent Israeli attack and blamed the regime for using its military to slaughter its own people rather than defend the country from foreign aggression. By contrast, President Obama – virtually alone in the international community – defended the raid.
Syrians across the political spectrum have bad feelings toward Israel, which has occupied much of the country’s Golan province in the southwest since it seized the territory in a military assault in the closing hours of the 1967 war, ethnically cleansing most of its residents. The Druze inhabitants of the five remaining villages have suffered under years of Israeli military occupation and remain loyal to Syria, if not the regime, and Israel has colonized the fertile highlands with Jewish settlers in violation of international law – which prohibits occupying powers from settling civilians onto territories seized by military force – as well as a series of UN Security Council resolutions.
Israel effectively annexed the Golan in 1981, resulting in UN Security Council resolution 497, adopted unanimously with the support of the United States, which reaffirmed the longstanding principle that “the acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, the principles of international law and relevant Security Council resolutions” and declared that “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect.” The United States blocked any effort to enforce this and related resolutions, however.
One of the problems with proposals for the United States to arm Syrian rebels or to get involved directly in the fighting is that having the primary backer of the Israeli occupation explicitly siding with the rebels would appear to reinforce the Syrian government narrative that the armed rebels are simply the tools of foreigners who don’t care about the Syrian people. Indeed, the United States itself bombed Syria as recently as 2008, killing eight civilians, and it imposed major sanctions on the country in 2003.
The United States has long sought the downfall of the Syrian government, with the Bush administration actively considering options for toppling the regime. This actually put the United States at odds with Israel, which – despite Assad’s vitriolic rhetoric and support for Hezbollah – has been more concerned with what might replace it, a concern that has only heightened as extremist Salafi elements have gained influence within the armed opposition. The Syrian regime has not violated the 1974 cease-fire agreement; the Golan Heights remains the quietest of Israel’s frontiers, and Assad has actively sought to make peace with Israel.
Preventing Israeli-Syrian Peace
Under the Bush administration, the United States successfully blocked progress toward Israeli-Syria peace out of concern that the return of the Golan could bolster Assad’s standing at home.
In 2003, Assad offered to resume peace talks with Israel where they had left off three years earlier, during which the two sides came very close to a permanent peace deal. Israel, backed by the Bush administration, refused. Assad eventually agreed to re-enter peace negotiations without preconditions, but even these overtures were rejected. Beginning in 2005, with the knowledge of their governments, private Israeli and Syrian negotiators began crafting a draft treaty to end the decades-long conflict between the two countries. The Bush administration, however, downplayed the talks’ significance.
In 2006, several prominent members of the Israeli cabinet – including Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avid Dichter – called on their government to resume negotiations with Syria. Although Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appointed a senior aide to prepare for possible talks, such initiatives did not get any support from Washington. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, it appeared that “Israel would be prepared to open a channel with Syria but does not want to upset the Bush administration.”
Indeed, when Israeli officials asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about pursuing exploratory talks with Syria, her answer, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was, “don’t even think about it.” Similarly, the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reports that Israeli government officials “understood from President Bush that the United States would not take kindly to reopening a dialogue between Israel and Syria.”
Such pressure appears to have worked. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly expressed concern that it would be inappropriate to counter President Bush at a time when his policies were being seriously challenged at home, because he has such a “clear position on this issue” and is “Israel’s most important ally.” Similarly, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres was quoted as saying, “The worse thing we could do is contradict the United States, which opposes negotiating with Syria.” Interior Minister Ronni Baron reportedly told a television reporter, “When the question on the agenda is the political legacy of Israel’s greatest friend, President Bush, do we really need now to enter into negotiations with Syria?”
Within Israel, there is a growing awareness that returning the Golan Heights to Syria would not jeopardize Israeli security. While maintaining the high ground may have constituted a strategic advantage 40 years ago, it is far less important in an era when the principal threats to Israel’s security come in the form of suicide bombers and long-range missiles. For example, Israeli Army Chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon observed that, from a strategic perspective, Israel could cede the Golan Heights in return for peace and successfully defend Israel’s internationally recognized border.
Many Israelis also recognize the broader implication of resuming dialogue with Damascus, in that it would likely reduce Iran’s regional influence, weaken the threat from Hezbollah, improve Israel’s relations with other Arab states and encourage more pragmatic Palestinian voices while weakening extremists. “The moment there are negotiations with Syria, then everything changes in the Middle East,” said Danny Yatom, former head of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, “and we can begin renewing ties with other Arab states.” Robert Malley, former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, noted how “the mere sight of Israeli and Syrian officials sitting side by side would carry dividends, producing ripple effects in a region where popular opinion is moving away from acceptance of the Jewish state’s right to exist and putting Syrian allies that oppose a negotiated settlement in an awkward position.”
As a result, the pressure from the Bush administration on Israel to reject Syria’s offer for negotiations led the normally hawkish Maariv columnist Ben-Dror Yemini to comment, “We’ve always said that our arms are extended in peace. That is, unless the Americans twist them.” The eminent Israeli novelist Amos Oz asked, “Why should Israel suspend one of its paramount national interests – peace with its neighbors – for the sake of the pleasantness or unpleasantness of its relations with a foreign government?” Debra DeLee, head of the liberal pro-Israel group Americans for Peace Now, said, “It takes a lot of chutzpah to tell Israel not to even talk about peace with its neighbor.” She went on to assert that it was “outrageous . . . for the President to pressure Israel not to negotiate.”
Ironically, the Syria Accountability Act, passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress in 2003, contained a provision for continued sanctions on Syria until the US president “determines that substantial progress has been made . . . in negotiations aimed at achieving a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.” Given the Bush administration’s repeated efforts to block such negotiations from occurring in the first place, it obviously made it difficult for Syria to comply.
The primary motivation may be more sinister, however.
The Jerusalem Post reported that during the 2006 war between Israeli and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, President Bush pushed Israel to expand the war beyond Lebanon, with Israeli military officials “receiving indications from the US that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria.” In the early days of the fighting, US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams reportedly met with a very senior Israeli official to underscore Washington’s support for extending the war to Syria, but Israeli officials described the idea as “nuts” and decided to limit their military operations to Lebanon. Haaretz noted that some in Washington were “disappointed by Israel’s decision not to attack Syria at the same time.” Meyrav Wurmser, head of the Center for Middle East Policy at the conservative Hudson Institute and wife of the principal Middle East adviser for Vice President Cheney, went further, declaring that there was “a lot of anger” in Washington that Israel did not attack Syria, which, she argued, would have served “US objectives.” US officials also hoped that an Israeli invasion of Lebanon might lead Syrian troops to re-enter Lebanon to defend the country from the Israeli invasion, which could then be used as an excuse to expand the war to Syria itself.
With the Syrian government distracted by its civil war and with Israel under a far right-wing government unwilling to end its occupation of the Golan even in return for strict security guarantees, the opportunity for Israeli-Syrian peace may have passed. For now, however, US and Israeli policies toward Syria have only allowed Assad to play his nationalist card, strengthen his otherwise dwindling domestic support and weaken democratic Syrian forces hoping to bring down their tyrannical regime.