Despite efforts to internationally isolate Syria, especially during the Bush
era, it has reasserted itself as a central player in the Middle East. Following
the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the US
withdrew its ambassador to Beirut, intensified sanctions against Damascus and
sought to deepen Syria’s isolation from the international community. The recent
array of high-level visitors to Damascus – including US officials – demonstrates
that President Bashar Assad has weathered the storm of isolation and has emerged
as an essential actor in resolving regional disputes, including the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel should now respond favorably to Syria’s
call for renewed peace talks, and in so doing utilize its influence to advance
peace, rather than thwart it.
The remarks at the UN General Assembly by
President Shimon Peres that the country is prepared to begin negotiations with
Syria “right away,” and those by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem that “Syria is
ready to resume negotiations,” are more than just political
They are signs that both sides recognize the benefits of
achieving a genuine peace accord. The meeting between US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton and Muallem in New York – the highest-level meeting between the
two countries since 2007 – indicates that the US recognizes Syria’s central
role. But for progress to be made, the government led by Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu must now make a choice: Does it want peace with security or territory?
Speaking with reporters in May 2009, Netanyahu said that he would never leave
the Golan Heights, stating, “Remaining on the Golan will ensure Israel has a
strategic advantage in cases of military conflict with Syria.”
is that the continued occupation of the Golan will sooner or later instigate
military conflict with Syria.
NETANYAHU MUST now realize that as Syria
emerges from its international isolation and peacemaking efforts languish,
Israel is becoming increasingly more isolated. The geopolitical benefits of a
durable Israel-Syria peace are numerous, and the opportunity at this moment is
ripe. Whether Netanyahu recognizes these benefits – and seizes the opportunity –
will be a significant test of his leadership. Whether Syria’s peace overture is
rhetorical or real, there is no better time to put Damascus to the
While some Israelis and Americans believe Syria should sever its
relations with Iran to qualify for a place at the negotiating table, the
opposite is actually true. Continued relations between Damascus and Teheran make
the need to engage Syria even more critical. The relationship is one of
geopolitical convenience, but it is not one that will easily be
The most glaring difference between the two countries is that
while Iran is calling for Israel’s destruction, Syria is calling for peace. But
its good relations with Iran could actually put it in a better position to help
loosen Iran’s grip on Hizbullah and maintain stability throughout the
Assad’s comments after the raid on the Gazabound flotilla this
summer – “If the relationship between Turkey and Israel is not renewed it will
be very difficult for Turkey to play a role in negotiations,” and that this
would “without a doubt affect the stability in the region” – indicate that he
recognizes the importance of strategic regional ties with Israel because its
reality is far more enduring than the current Iranian regime.
Assad’s greatest interest is a strategic relationship with the US, and by
beginning peace talks without preconditions, Syria’s strategic ties with Iran
could be utilized and stability in the region immeasurably
Syria’s renewed influence in Lebanon makes peace talks even
more critical. The visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Assad to Beirut in
late July, and the statements last month by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri
absolving Syria from responsibility for his father’s death underscore Syria’s
renewed control over Lebanon. But while it has strengthened its position there,
it has also become responsible for Hizbullah’s actions. Syria can no longer
disavow responsibility should Hizbullah provoke Israel or commit any act that
might undermine its national security interests. As such, Syria has a strategic
interest in maintaining calm in the region.
Restarting negotiations would
also provide Damascus with an incentive to be helpful with the Palestinian
track. Syria has become an indispensable player in helping to resolve the
dispute between Fatah and Hamas. The reconciliation talks held recently in
Damascus between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders
highlight the crucial role Syria can play.
While Egypt has traditionally
hosted Palestinian unity talks, Hamas deeply mistrusts Cairo and is greatly
dependent on Damascus.
Thus Syria has significant influence on
Most importantly it can keep Hamas from torpedoing peace efforts,
enabling negotiations to proceed with its tacit cooperation. In recognition of
this, King Abdullah II of Jordan recently traveled to Damascus and emerged with
a joint statement in support of the Arab Peace Initiative. Should peace talks
succeed in achieving a framework for a lasting agreement, Syria’s role could
also be critical in bringing Hamas into the process.
PEACE TALKS would
also benefit Israeli-Turkish relations. Since they became especially strained
following the flotilla episode, Israel has sought to strengthen its alliances
with Greece and others. But Turkey cannot be ignored. It remains a significant
power and asserts its influence in all directions. Reopening peace negotiations
with Syria could provide a useful context for Israel to reassess its position
The significant progress that was made through indirect
talks with Syria, mediated by Turkey, suggests that it not only gained the trust
of both sides, but also was deeply committed to achieving an end to the conflict
as a part of its larger regional strategic objectives.
For this reason,
Turkey remains eager to play a pivotal role in mediating between Damascus and
Jerusalem. Ankara knows, however, that it must first regain Israel’s trust,
starting, for example, by sending back its ambassador.
between the Netanyahu government and the White House would also improve with
movement toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Syria. The Obama
administration has made clear that it seeks to engage Damascus in an effort to
change its calculus in the region and improve relations. In February, the White
House nominated Robert Ford to serve as ambassador in Damascus, after a
five-year absence of representation.
However, Ford’s nomination is still
being blocked by a dozen senators opposed to sending an ambassador while Syria
maintains its support for Hizbullah and Hamas. Positive signals from Israel
could significantly advance the Obama administration’s engagement strategy and
undercut the rationale for the congressional opposition.
Those who oppose
negotiations with Syria argue that a withdrawal from the Golan would create a
security risk, and that engaging Syria only rewards it for its support of
terrorist groups and ties with Iran. This argument is no longer valid, not only
because of the changing nature of warfare today, but also because the two
countries have come incredibly close to reaching an agreement on a withdrawal in
It is clear that any agreement would consist of a
withdrawal from the Golan, demilitarization of the area and ironclad security
guarantees from the US and Syria. Moreover, Damascus knows that any violation of
the security terms would instigate retaliatory attack of such a magnitude that
such an option would be inconceivable. It should be noted that Damascus has not
violated the 1974 disengagement agreement.
Second, the effort to isolate
Syria has proved to be counterproductive. Rather than encourage Damascus to
moderate its behavior, the efforts to isolate it have pushed it further into the
arms of Teheran, and into an alliance with Hamas and Hizbullah.
stated its intention to make peace, its desire for strong ties with the West is
wellknown and its ability to eliminate threats to Israel’s security is
significant. Syria’s recent efforts to liberalize its economy cannot be
successful without expanding its global relations and creating a peaceful and
secure environment for major foreign capital investments. In short, a peace
accord is exactly what both Israel and Syria need.
The writer is
professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He
teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern Studies.