A fool's errand

Syria wouldn't make peace when Israel was stronger - why would it now?

Assad nice 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Assad nice 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
By all accounts, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is likely to embark on serious negotiations with Syria. The reasons range from crass politics - such as the need to demonstrate his relevance despite 3% approval ratings - to serious diplomatic considerations. These include the belief that, since the Palestinians are plagued by a Hobbesian strife, Bashar Assad is the only potential peace partner available. Adding urgency, some view Israel and Syria as drifting toward a war which could be averted by entering negotiations. Further, the more optimistic official voices posit that, in exchange for the Golan Heights, Damascus would stop supporting Hizbullah and Hamas, and might even distance itself from Iran. Accompanying this m lange of strategic fears and wishes is a deep-seated conviction that even if negotiations do not bear fruit, no harm can come from the dance of diplomacy. UNFORTUNATELY, these hopes are vain. Talking to Assad is virtually certain to neither produce peace nor prompt any positive changes in Syria's statecraft. In fact it may well make military confrontation with Syria more likely and place additional strains on US-Israel relations. Diplomacy is not a cost-free exercise. Aphorisms aside, jaw-jaw may hasten, not avert war-war. The most serious obstacle to any fruitful dialogue with Damascus is the unfavorable strategic context. Following the last Lebanese war debacle Israel finds itself gravely weakened. In the world of Bashar Assad, bellum omnium contra omnes - the war of all against all - is a political and familial imperative. The weakness of Olmert's leadership amplifies this instinct, embedded deeply in the Syrian regime. After the events of last summer the signal institutions of the Israeli state, including the IDF, intelligence services, and the Foreign Ministry, have lost their luster. More recent developments, such as a failure to press seriously for Hizbullah compliance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, palpable reluctance to carry out ground operations in the Gaza Strip and a resulting inability to stop continued, deadly Hamas missile attacks on Israel proper, have continued to batter Israel's credibility. How can it be that Americans are walking the streets of Kufi but Gaza remains out of bounds for the IDF? THERE IS an emerging view in the Arab world that Israel is incapable of handling a determined jihadist insurgency. Israel's hard-won reputation for toughness, strength and superior statecraft, nurtured over the last several decades, has largely dissipated. In a region where many still view Israel as a temporary phenomenon - a "Crusader state" - this is a very dangerous development. "Israel won't make it," is a sentiment openly expressed among Americans who think it worthwhile to have an opinion on the Middle East. In the minds of many of these observers, Israel, withdrawn behind a security fence, has become a besieged city-state goading aggressive neighbors who, judging by their resources, numbers and disposition, should be mollified, not provoked. Unfortunately, restoring Israel's strategic credibility cannot be done by diplomatic propitiation. While Israel's past efforts to negotiate from the position of strength have not always borne fruit, negotiating from the position of weakness is guaranteed to fail. Even at an earlier time, when Israel was widely viewed as the region's dominant military power and large-scale jihadi violence was unheard of, Syria was not prepared to enter even into an Egyptian-style "cold peace" with Israel in exchange for the return of the Golan Heights. These days, given Bashar Assad's goals, the chances he will abandon his policies of supporting Hamas and Hizbullah are negligible. After all, these policies have proven enormously successful in enhancing his diplomatic and military leverage. Assad understands that he would lose in a conventional military engagement with Israel, and he needs Hamas and Hizbullah to present a credible threat of the three-front war against Israel, featuring strong unconventional warfare components. LOW-INTENSITY warfare in the media age is yielding results that were unimaginable in the decades before state-sponsored jihad held the promise of regional conflagration. Meanwhile, the notion that an alliance between the mullahs in Teheran and a secular Allawite regime in Damascus is inherently fragile is wishful thinking. Iran's current support for its erstwhile enemy, the Taliban, and for both Sunni and Shi'ite groups in Iraq, demonstrates that strategic imperatives take precedence over sectarian ones. Accordingly, any overture by Olmert to Assad is likely to lead to a low-key diplomatic discourse, focused on what Syria wants and what is easy to verify, namely, an Israeli withdrawal from Golan. All of the other issues, pertaining to Lebanon and the Palestinians, are certain to be slow-rolled by Damascus. Meanwhile, consistent with his hardline policies of continuing to reject Israel's legitimacy, Assad is unlikely to become directly involved in negotiations. Hence, the negotiating process itself would not benefit Israel. THESE DISCUSSIONS would also prove costly to Israel's relations with the United States. While the US has opened a limited dialogue with Syria on Iraq-related issues, and the bulk of congressional Democrats and even some Bush administration officials appear to favor broadening this dialogue, isolating Damascus remains a major White House and Defense Department priority. This goal has been sustained by what is probably the most successful US-French strategic cooperation in years, with both countries committed to restoring Lebanese independence and punishing Syrian officials, up to and including President Assad, for their complicity in the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A broader consensus underlies these joint efforts: that the use of assassination as a tool of statecraft is so aberrant a behavior that it cannot be tolerated. Accordingly, the parties involved in this conduct must be delegitimized and punished. The joint US-French undertaking is at a critical stage right now, as unrest paralyzes Lebanon and the UN is creating a tribunal to investigate and prosecute the Hariri assassins. Olmert and his advisers are making a fatal mistake if they think that, just because some American political leaders would welcome Israel's new diplomatic gambit with Damascus, this is a sufficient green light. Indeed, at this delicate time, a major Israeli diplomatic outreach to Damascus would be viewed with disfavor by precisely those elements of the American national security establishment that are most supportive of Israel's interests and long-term US-Israel cooperation. Given the fact that last year's disastrous performance of IDF leadership in Lebanon, coupled with Israel's intelligence and diplomatic failures before, during and after the war, have already stressed the fabric of US-Israeli relations, antagonizing Israel's supporters in Washington would not be a smart course of action. Ironically, the notion animating Olmert's planned opening to Damascus, namely that diplomacy is never a bad thing, betrays a profound lack of respect for its potency. Negotiating, whether with friend or foe, is a serious instrument of statecraft. Just like using force or imposing economic sanctions, conducting diplomacy has real consequences, sometimes good, but often otherwise. Engaging with Syria under the current conditions is a fool's errand. It would not lead to any positive breakthroughs, and would harm Israel's relations with Washington, while benefiting Assad and further eroding the regional perception of Israel as a superior player in a tough league. Moor is an Atlanta-based lawyer. Rivkin, a partner in the Washington, DC office of Baker & Hostetler LLP, served in the Justice Department and the White House during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations.