Syrian President Bashar Assad’s recent call for renewed peace talks with Israel has raised the alluring possibility that these two longtime enemies could soon end up back at the negotiating table.
But U.S. policymakers would be well advised to avoid succumbing to the temptation of a “Syria-first” strategy. Not only is there much less possibility in the Syrians’ signal than meets the eye, but the allure of a peace-with-Syria-first strategy can only distract attention from the real strategic threat to the region: the bitter and bloody Palestinian-Israeli confrontation.
It is not hard to see why the idea of an Israeli-Syrian peace has long tempted American presidents and secretaries of State. On paper, the case for it is compelling: Syria is an established state and lacks much of the dysfunction of Palestinian national movement politics. The Israeli-Syrian border has been the quietest of Israel’s fronts; the issue of the Golan Heights -- unlike the West Bank or Jerusalem -- carries little of the ideological or religious resonance that has made the Palestinian conflict so torturously complex. And a deal with Syria would also presumably address the problem of southern Lebanon and Israeli-Lebanese peace.
But having participated in both Republican and Democratic administration efforts to create an Israeli-Syrian peace, I can personally attest that it proved much easier on paper than in practice.
The success of a “Syria-first” plan was constrained by two powerful forces that are still in place today and should make would-be mediators wary of engagement.
First is the involvement of a third party. Back in the late 1990s, Hafez Assad -- Bashar’s father -- was determined to trump the deals cut by Israel’s three previous Arab partners: Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan. That meant asking the Israelis to give up 100% of the disputed territory without meeting Israel’s needs on security or peace or engaging in a process that would increase the confidence of the other side. The elder Assad rejected the combination of public and secret diplomacy that his Arab brothers had used with Israel in favor of a U.S.-brokered effort that proved inadequate. In doing so, he became the Frank Sinatra of the peace process -- doing it his way. But his approach required the presence of a third party, guaranteeing a clinical, almost antiseptic, style of peacemaking devoid of personal exchange, warmth or emotion. It had zero chance of transforming attitudes on the other side.
The second constraint, as real today as it was in the 1990s, is that trying to negotiate simultaneously on two tracks -- Palestinian and Syrian -- poses an enormous challenge for Israel. The security implications of withdrawing from both the Golan Heights and the West Bank, combined with the complications of confronting two politically powerful constituencies of Jewish settlers simultaneously, make it nearly impossible to meet Syrian and Palestinian requirements and still satisfy Israel’s own.
These constraints created major problems for the Clinton administration. The pursuit of the Syria-first option during the last years of the Clinton administration -- what we then cynically dubbed “the other woman” -- wasted valuable time and energy that could have been directed toward Palestinian-Israeli talks.
In the critical six-month period leading up to the Camp David summit in July 2000, the primary focus on Syria virtually guaranteed the worst possible environment for Camp David negotiations. There was zero trust between Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on the eve of the summit, and there was inadequate time for preparation. And when Israel offered Assad virtually the entire Golan Heights, Barak essentially guaranteed that Arafat would not or could not accept less than 100% of the West Bank.
Could the younger Assad change Syria’s approach and fashion a peacemaking strategy that wouldn’t price Syria out of the market? In the wake of Iraq, the Libyan conversion on weapons of mass destruction and U.S. pressure, will he become more open to peacemaking?
The son is clearly not the father -- he is more open-minded, less rigid and has more international exposure.
But the political environment of Syria has not been transformed. Lacking the political authority and legitimacy of his father, the prospect of asking less from Israel or giving more and surviving is hard to imagine. Nor will a tough conservative Israeli government make it any easier, as Israel’s recent decision to expand settlements on the Golan Heights suggests.
It is the Israeli-Palestinian issue -- not Syria -- that has been the key to regional peace, and it remains so today. An unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict carries consequences: Israel will increasingly have to beat back the threat to a secure, democratic Jewish state; the Palestinian present -- characterized by hopelessness, economic deterioration and political dysfunction -- will become the Palestinian future; and U.S. interests will suffer as the conflict creates serious problems for our friends in the region and new opportunities for our adversaries.
Aaron David Miller is president of Seeds of Peace. He was an advisor to the last six secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations.