Paradoxical Peace in the Middle East

In a rough neighborhood like the Middle East, realpolitik is law. Countries do not pursue peace for the sake of peace alone. The current peace negotiations between Syria and Israel in Shepherdstown, W. Va., are no exception. In fact, reasons abound for both countries not to seek peace with one another. Confrontation with Israel has been the linchpin of Hafez el-Assad's authoritarian regime. Ending the state of war with Israel will deprive Assad of the very prop that legitimates his non-democratic rule. For Israel, peace with Syria means relinquishing the Golan Heights, a strategically vital buffer zone that saved the country during the 1973 War. As a former army chief-of-staff and as Israel's most decorated soldier, no one understands the value of the Golan more than Prime Minster Ehud Barak. Why then are Syria and Israel now so eager to cross the Rubicon?

Syria's motivations for returning to the peace table are first and foremost economic. Syria's state-controlled economy is in shambles. According to the International Monetary Fund, Syria is more in need of economic reform than any other country in the Mediterranean. Per capita income in Syria is $800, while its GNP is one-seventh the size of Israel's. The World Health Organization estimates that 28 percent of Syrian children suffer from stunted growth--largely a function of malnutrition. Syria needs to make peace because only the financial dividends that come with it can save its economy from collapse.

Less glaring but equally important is Assad's sense of his own mortality. Pushing 70 and in ill health, this past year Assad witnessed the passing of his colleagues King Hassan of Morocco and King Hussein of Jordan. The aged Syrian leader is anxious to make peace in order to consecrate his legacy while he still can. At the same time, before leaving Syria's political stage Assad would like to ensure a smooth succession for his relatively untested son Bashar. Reaching an agreement now will allow his son to organize his regime without the additional headache of contending with Israel.


The final nudge towards ending Syria's state of war with Israel arose from Barak's threat to unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon. For nearly two decades, Syrian-backed guerrillas have bled Israeli troops stationed in south Lebanon. The prospect of pacifying south Lebanon by curbing these guerrillas has been Syria's most effective means of compelling Israel to return the Golan Heights. Barak's repeated commitment to withdraw his troops by July 2000 threatened to deprive Syria of its most powerful point of leverage. Under pressure to act while he still possessed his Lebanon trump card, Assad has opted to cut a deal now.

Ever the general who views all matters through the lens of security, Barak sees peace with Syria as a calculated risk that will ultimately improve Israel's overall strength.

Peace with Syria in many ways amounts to the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. If Syria--the champion of anti-Zionism--makes peace with Israel, the rest of the Arab world will follow suit. Enlarging the circle of peace in the Middle East, Barak reasons, will enhance Israel's security by further isolating states opposed to the peace process like Iran and Iraq. Not long ago encircled by hostile neighbors, Israel will become the center of a ring of peace.

However, if this lofty and perhaps overly optimistic promise of an Israel-friendly Middle East stood as the only reason for Israel to concede the Golan, Barak would not be in Shepherdstown today. Rather, Barak has assessed that security arrangements on the Golan, which could include an early warning station, airborne surveillance and demilitarized zones, are a sufficient substitute for the Golan itself. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Israel calculates that it will become stronger without the Golan. The advanced weapons the U.S. will furnish Israel to "guarantee the peace"--Tomahawk missiles, Apache helicopters and missile defense systems--will endow it with a deterrent and second strike capability unparalleled in the Middle East.

What truly lies behind Israel's desire to seek peace now is nothing less than a revolution in its security thinking. Israel's real enemy is no longer on its border, but on its horizon. Today, the nuclear capability emanating from Iran constitutes the most serious threat to Israeli security. Countering the Iranian threat requires that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) transform its conventional military doctrine into one based on high-tech warfare. However, the IDF is constrained from doing so because its resources are spread thin coping with multiple threats. Currently, the IDF must plan contingencies for a conventional Syrian attack, a ballistic war with Iran and urban warfare in the West Bank, all the while fighting a counter-insurgency campaign in south Lebanon and a war on terrorism. Peace with Damascus would spell the end of combat in southern Lebanon and greatly reduce the risk of conventional war with Syria. The IDF would then have a free hand to focus on defending against Iranian missiles. An agreement with Damascus is therefore as much about preparing to fight a new foe as it is about making peace with an old enemy.

Barak has promised a referendum on any agreement he signs with Syria. Selling peace with Syria to the Israeli public will be an arduous task. In a recent poll taken by the prominent Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, 54 percent of Israelis said they would oppose a full withdrawal from the Golan--Syria's most basic demand. Although Israel holds no ideological claims to the land, Israelis of all political stripes have grown emotionally attached to the Golan Heights. The territory has been part of Israel since 1967 and more than 17,00 Israelis live there today. The best wine in Israel comes from the Golan and its snow-capped mountains are the country's only site for skiing. After touring the Golan Heights myself this past summer, I understood why its stunning bluffs have become so dear to the Israeli consciousness. For Barak, persuading his own people that peace is worth ceding the Golan may prove as difficult as negotiating the agreement itself.

The great paradox here is that Syria wants peace with Israel for reasons that have little to do with Israel, and that Israel wants peace with Syria for reasons that have little to do with Syria. Assad wants peace with Israel so it can improve ties with the U.S. and reap the benefits of Western investment. Israel seeks peace with Syria so that it can normalize relations with other Middle Eastern states and focus its military strategy on Iran. A peace treaty between Israel and Syria will therefore more likely resemble an expedient divorce from war rather than a marriage to peace in the spirit of reconciliation.

David P. Honig was a member of the Class of 1999 and is currently working at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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