May 2, 2008

Peace between Syria and Israel?

Peace between Syria, Israel a distant hope
Opinion: Iran may threaten negotiations between the countries

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst
Israeli-occupied Golan Heights seen from al-Qunaytirah, Syria

Peace between Syria and Israel?
There are more than two players at this table

There have been recent reports that the Turks are brokering peace talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv, reports that have been confirmed by both sides. The timing of this is interesting, coming shortly after public disclosure of Syria’s attempts to develop fissile material with North Korean assistance at a facility in northwest Syria. The talks also come six months after Israeli aircraft destroyed that very facility.

While Israel and Syria are the two principals who would sign any agreement, they are not the only players at the table. Talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv of necessity involve Lebanon, the Palestinians and most importantly, Iran. Iran remains the principal supporter of Lebanese and Palestinian “resistance” groups – Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Iranian support to these groups is dependent on Syrian cooperation, or at least Syrian acquiescence. Iran’s ability to use Syrian airspace and the international airport at Damascus provides the mechanism to funnel money, weapons and training to the Palestinian groups and Hezbollah. Iranian transport aircraft land at Damascus, equipment is offloaded and put on trucks for the short drive to the Lebanese border and the Bekaa Valley. Hezbollah fighters are transported from Lebanon to Damascus for the short flight to training camps in Iran. It is this air bridge that was used to build up the Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 and again after the short war there in 2006. The support continues – Hezbollah claims that they not only have replenished the stockpiles of rockets used in 2006, but have acquired even more.

Israel’s first condition for any agreement with Damascus will be cessation of Iranian use of Syrian territory to support these terrorist groups.

Syria’s demands will include the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since they were seized by Israeli troops in the 1967 war. At that time, the heights were used by Syrian artillery units to shell Israeli cities in the valleys below. In the intervening 40 years, however, Syria has acquired missile systems that negate the military value of the heights. Thus, Israel has no military reason for retaining the heights at the expense of a peace agreement with Syria, although there are valuable intelligence collection facilities overlooking southern Syria. There is also some concern in Israel about Syrian control of the headwaters of the Jordan River – Israel will likely ask for Syrian water guarantees. Israel has expressed a willingness to return the territory in return for a peace agreement.

Would Syria break with its primary ally for the return of the Golan? Syria has major – probably overriding – national interests in Lebanon and must consider the impact of essentially cutting of Hezbollah from Iran. Without its leverage over Hezbollah, Syria may not have the ability to put pressure on present and future Lebanese governments to ensure it still has access to the powerhouse Lebanese economy.

Israel has far more to gain than Syria at this moment. The status quo benefits Damascus much more than Tel Aviv. It probably appears to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad that he has the upper hand – Israel is facing a series of threats that weakens its bargaining position. Hezbollah has rearmed and is a formidable force on Israel’s northern border. Hamas continues confront Israel in the Gaza Strip and Islamic Jihad fires rockets into southern Israel from Gaza almost daily. Iran not only funnels weapons to all three groups, it is also is a present conventional threat and is a potential nuclear threat. The Israelis have claimed that Iran represents an “existential” threat to the Jewish state.

For years, the Arabs adopted a unified strategy of a “just and comprehensive peace” in the region, trying to force Israel to deal with them as a bloc rather than one at a time. The Israelis successfully defeated that by first making a separate peace agreement with Egypt, then a short-lived agreement with Lebanon, then with Jordan, effectively isolating Syria as the lone holdout.

Syria is the lone holdout, but with quite a bit of leverage. I doubt there will be any headway anytime soon. Israel is not going to start a war with Syria, and Syria does not need peace with Israel.