Syria's Hidden Peace Strategy

On March 26, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad met with President Clinton in Geneva in a failed summit on peace in the Middle East. The Syrian leader has no plans to hold such a meeting with Israeli premier Ehud Barak. This diplomatic picture speaks a thousand words of Syrian intentions.

Syria's on-again, off-again attempts at negotiations with Israel reflect Assad's begrudging acceptance that the road to Washington runs through Jerusalem. Assad learned this lesson from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, whose country now receives $1.8 billion of annual U.S. assistance after signing a peace agreement with Israel in 1979. Syria's crumbling economy sorely needs an injection of U.S. financial assistance that Assad believes comes part-and-parcel with a peace agreement. While Assad remembers Sadat's roadmap, his selective memory forgets the diplomatic strategy that must accompany it. No Sadat-like visits to the Israeli parliament by the Syrian leader are in store.

Quizzically, Assad has not only refrained from making peaceful overtures, but has indulged in vitriolic rhetoric that presses the Israeli public's most sensitive nerve. In recent weeks, the official Syrian press--the mouthpiece of the regime--compared the Jewish state to Nazi Germany and denied the Holocaust. To further alienate Israelis, Syria has stepped up support for the terrorist group Hezbollah. Barak has promised his people a referendum should he reach an agreement with his Syrian interlocutors, but these statements, coupled with Syrian-backed violence in Lebanon, harden the Israeli electorate against a peace treaty with Syria and make it increasingly difficult for Barak to sell a future peace to his own people. Syria's reckless statements that offend the Israeli electorate's most basic sensibilities reduce Assad's chances of regaining the Golan Heights.


Why would Assad deliberately endanger his opportunity to reclaim the Golan Heights? Some try to explain away Assad's behavior on the grounds that he is an aging autocrat who does not comprehend Barak's political needs as a democratic leader. Assad should be granted more credit. For the past thirty years, the shrewd Syrian leader has defined himself as the Middle East's cold calculator par excellence, and there is no exception here. Assad is well aware of the fact that his actions hinder Barak's ability to muster Israeli public support in a future referendum. The Sphinx of Damascus is up to something.

For one, Assad's avoidance of confidence-building measures has proven a winning bargaining tactic. The more Syrian provocations erode Barak's political capital with Israelis, the more pliable Barak's negotiating position seems to become. To hasten an agreement, in recent weeks Barak has made subtle but significant concessions. He hinted at acquiescing to Syria's incessant demand that Israel withdraw from the Golan Heights down to the June 4, 1967 borders by asserting that previous Israeli prime ministers have conceded the same. Now Barak ponders dropping the demand for a continued Israeli presence on the Mount Hermon early warning station, a flashpoint issue with the Syrians. Mount Hermon--the eyes and ears of Israeli intelligence gathering--was declared "just a mountain" by a senior Israeli intelligence official just three weeks ago. Assad observes that souring the average Israeli's opinion on peace motivates Barak to up the ante on concessions before he loses more domestic support for the peace agreement he wants so dearly.

Even so, Assad's intentions may yet be more Machiavellian. Perhaps Assad is engaging in behavior repugnant to Israelis precisely because it may sabotage a future referendum. For Assad, a scenario in which an Israeli plebiscite rejects a peace agreement signed by the Syrian and Israeli governments is ideal. In such a case, Syria reaps the benefits of peace and avoids the destabilizing effects of normalization with the Jewish state. On the one hand, Assad will claim he has crossed the Rubicon for peace and rightfully deserves full financial and international political support. That Israel chose not to accept his hand in peace is a shame--and not his concern.

On the other had, he will avoid placing his regime in peril. Conflict with Israel has propped up Assad's authoritarian rule; peace will undermine a pillar of the regime's legitimacy. Worse yet for the Assad regime, peace on the Israeli front and the security arrangements that come with it will invariably mean redeploying the Syrian army from the Golan Heights closer to Damascus. Coups occur when troops mill around the capital, not when they are stationed far off on the Golan. No one knows this brutal fact better than Assad, who himself seized power by coup d'etat in 1970 as an air force general. What a glorious moment for Assad should the Israeli public nix the agreement: his country financially compensated without having to pay a regime-threatening price, his historic enemy Israel humiliated on the world stage, and Syria's assertion of Israel's aggressive intentions seemingly vindicated.

If the Israeli and Syrian governments eventually reach an agreement, it would be folly for the Israeli public to scuttle it. Ultimately, for Israel the strongest defense against Syria is not the strategic buffer of the Golan Heights, but the destabilizing influence peace will have on Assad's authoritarian rule. The current regime in Damascus is a major bottleneck to peace; it occupies Lebanon with 30,000 troops, allows the radical Iranian-inspired Hezbollah to operate against Israel, and remains on the State Department's list of terrorist-sponsoring states. A Syrian-Israeli agreement under these circumstances will be more like an absence of war. For a tangible, long-term peace to take root, the Assad regime has to go. The day Israeli goods, embassies and vacationers flood Damascus is the day that the Assad regime, which has for so long based its legitimacy largely on creating an external Israeli threat, takes its first step towards disintegration.

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