When Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi hangs up his uniform next
month and vacates his office in the Kirya military headquarters, the main
proponent for peace talks with Syria within the IDF will also be
While the public wouldn’t know it due to Ashkenazi’s steadfast
refusal to grant media interviews throughout his four years in office (talking
to Army Radio once a year during a military fund-raiser is not a real
interview), he is a strong believer in peace with Syria or, more importantly,
the effect it could have on the region.
Ashkenazi is mostly concerned
with the danger that lies in the rapidly changing face of the Middle East. The
most important changes he points to are in the two countries which are taking
more dominant roles – Iran and Turkey. These two non-Arab states are replacing
the traditional main players, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as the regional
The Shi’ite crescent formed by Lebanon, Syria and Iran and
the continued radicalization in Ankara are creating challenges Israel will not
be able to independently confront, particularly if Iran succeeds in developing a
Ashkenazi has claimed that the one way to stop this is
not by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities or making peace with the Palestinians
but by taking Syria out of the equation. This can be done, Ashkenazi believes,
by a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But not only that.
Syria embroiled in a growing economic crisis, there is another way to break the
axis, but for this Israel would need the US and Europe to provide billions of
dollars in economic benefits for Damascus.
FOR THIS reason, there was a
strange silence in Jerusalem last week after the announcement that US President
Barack Obama had decided to sidestep Congress and appoint a new ambassador to
Damascus despite Syria’s continued support of Hizbullah and Iran, mainly because
Israel hopes that the US engagement with Syria will help moderate it.
recent visit to Syria by Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was officially
not on behalf of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but there is no hiding the
interest among some members of the government in renewing the Syrian
Ashkenazi’s thinking, shared by Maj.- Gen. Amos Yadlin, who
retired as head of Military Intelligence a month ago, is that peace with Syria
could break its alliance with Iran, thus increasing Teheran’s isolation and
cutting off the main arms conduit to Hizbullah. This, of course, will only work
if peace is sincere, something that can only be gauged by holding talks or more
likely by seeing what happens after a treaty is signed.
Intelligence assessment under Yadlin was that if President Bashar Assad was
forced to choose between peace with Israel and Iran and his “negative assets” –
Hamas and Hizbullah – he would choose peace.
Ashkenazi and Yadlin are
also of the opinion that Israel needs to force Assad to put his money where his
mouth is. Just two weeks ago, he said in an interview that Syria is interested
in peace and even knows the formula for reaching a deal. “But we need a partner
and we don’t have one so far,” he said.
“We need to test him and what he
says,” Yadlin and Ashkenazi have both said on several occasions.
not a new opinion. In 2000, as OC Northern Command during the unilateral
withdrawal from Lebanon, Ashkenazi was reportedly critical of the prime minister
Ehud Barak’s decision not to coordinate the move with Syria.
He was also
a member of the delegation to peace talks with Syria in Shepherdstown, Virginia
Ashkenazi believes that the gravity of the economic crisis in
Syria – 25 percent unemployment, dwindling oil reserves and a sharp drop in
profits from agriculture sales – should not be underestimated.
decision by Assad to reject a pact with the European Union which would have
increased foreign investment has contributed to the crisis. That is why he
thinks economic benefits from the US can help.
AT THE same time, there is
no hiding the concern over Syria’s involvement in Lebanon. Since the Second
Lebanon War in 2006, it has been the main facilitator for weapons transfers to
Hizbullah – from its own stockpiles and from Iran. Recent reports about the
transfer of Scud D missiles highlights the close relationship Assad has with
Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who is believed to have a standing invitation
to visit him whenever he wants.
Syria is also rearming at an
unprecedented rate. In 2006, it had around 300 missiles capable of hitting Tel
Aviv; now it has more than 2,000. Its investment in air defense systems has also
grown, as has its interest in trying to renew its aging air force. Assad’s
decision to build a covert nuclear reactor – which was destroyed by the IAF in
2007 – also had to do with creating a new level of deterrence.
does not mean that peace with Syria is impossible. One interesting cable
published recently by WikiLeaks summed up a visit to Syria in December 2009 by
Iranian National Security Adviser Saeed Jalili, Vice President Mahammed-Javad
Mahamadzideh and Defense Minister Ahmad Ali Vahidi.
According to the
cable, Syria resisted Iranian entreaties to commit to joining in if fighting
broke out between Iran, Hizbullah and Israel. “We told them Iran is strong
enough on its own to develop a nuclear program and to fight Israel,” a Syrian
official was quoted as saying.
“We’re too weak.”
There could also
be a major diplomatic gain from resuming peace talks with Syria. With PA
President Mahmoud Abbas continuing to give Netanyahu the cold shoulder and amid
reports that Obama has decided to take a step back from his direct involvement
in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, talks with Syria could help Netanyahu
establish the intimate relationship with Obama he clearly
ASHKENAZI’S TERM can best be summed up by splitting it into two
halves – before the so-called Galant Document Affair (also known as the Harpaz
Affair) broke and after.
Had he not been so badly burned by his
involvement in the affair, he would have gone down in history as the man who
took a failing army after the 2006 war and stood it back on its feet. The Galant
Document now overshadows everything, particularly since the depth of Ashkenazi’s
involvement has yet to be fully disclosed.
One highlight of his term was
Operation Cast Lead, which created a new reality for residents of the South but
also brought unprecedented criticism from the international community.
chief of General Staff, Ashkenazi put training at the focus of the IDF’s agenda,
with an emphasis on conventional war with Syria from which, he believes, the
skills required for anti-guerrilla operations in Lebanon or the Gaza Strip can
The main idea was to demonstrate a strong military that is
prepared for future conflicts on any front even though, according to most
estimates within the defense establishment, war with Syria has the lowest chance