Peace sells… but who’s buying?

Peace talks between Syria and Israel make perfect sense. If you’re Bashar Assad, that is.

Forget for a moment the glaringly obvious issue of political expediency that clouds these precedings. Assad is under pressure from the United States over his role in the destablization of Iraq, and he is under pressure from the United Nations for his regime’s apparent role in the assassinations of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri and a dozen other anti-Syrian Lebanese officials. Ehud Olmert is under pressure domestically for botching the Second Lebanon War as well as the latest in a series of corruption scandals. The context for these negotiations is clear. What of the substance?

Were the idea to talk about peace for peace, these talks would be a good thing. But what Syria is asking for is a full return of the Golan Heights, and what it is offering in exchange is the mere promise to consider “normalization” of ties with Israel. (Note that this is not a full-blown peace that would include, for example, the opening of embassies in each other’s capitals.) That Olmert is reported to have accepted this – not merely as a possibility, but as a prerequisite for even starting negotiations with Assad – is stunning.

The Golan provides Israel with vital water resources, a tourism goldmine, and militarily strategic high ground. It is enormously popular with Israelis – far more so than the Gaza Strip, which the country gave up in 2005 with no small amount of heartache. Yet Syria wants it back.

What is it, exactly, that supposedly makes the Golan Heights, home to numerous remains of the ancient Israelites, a Syrian territory? Israel has already ruled the Golan for twice as long as Syria. (Syria gained its independence from France in 1944, so it only held the Golan for 23 years. Before the French mandate, the Ottoman Turks controlled the territory for 400 hundred years. Before them, the Mamluks had it for two and a half centuries.) And while Syria was in charge, it did little with the territory other than use it as a launching ground for mortar fire on Israeli kibbutzim and for Palestinian fedayeen to carry out cross-border raids into the Jewish state.

No one can argue, then, that controlling the Heights has harmed Israel’s security. What some have (foolishly) argued instead is that continuing to hold onto the Golan will only serve to antagonize Damascus and force it to demand the territory through war. To clarify that point, Syrian officials have said that the armed forces were preparing for war with the Zionists; major military exercises in recent months have led to high alerts in the IDF.

Is war with Syria a threat we should take seriously? Let us first ask why Syria has not tried a direct assault on Israel in nearly four decades. Is it because it thought that a diplomatic breakthrough was right around the corner, or because it feared a confrontation with the IDF?

The fact is, Israel has enjoyed a pretty cushy state of war with Syria ever since 1973. Since then, the qualitative gap between Israel’s military and Syria’s has been proven time and again, and it is not about to be bridged any time soon.

Rather than see this as an argument against the need to pacify Syria, however, some actually see it as an encouragement to do so. The nature of war is changing, they note; strategic depth is not as vital as it once was. So, while all agree that holding the Golan Heights has been good for Israel, there is sufficient disagreement amongst various military experts about whether it is necessary for Israel, to allow consideration of what benefit might come from parting with the valuable territory.

The pot of gold that is being presented now is the notion that, by relinquishing the Golan Heights, Israel will manage to wrench Syria way from three problems much thornier to Israel than Syria itself: the Damascus regime’s strong ties to and support of Iran, Hizbullah and Palestinian terrorist groups.

This would represent a much more significant boon to Israel than a simple land-for-peace deal like the ones Israel made with Egypt and Jordan. It is also, unfortunately, utter fantasy.

“Damascus rejects all preconditions concerning its relations with other countries and peoples,” the government daily Tishrin said on Saturday, referring to Iran, after an Israeli call for Syria to distance itself from Tehran.“Damascus will make no compromise on these relations,” an editorial said.
Similar statements from Iranian officials have been repeated several times in the past few months.

But let’s pretend that Assad were to swear off Iran. What next? With whom does he then ally himself?

The United States? No.

Israel? No.

Lebanon? No.

Turkey? No.

Jordan? No.

Iraq? No.

Egypt? No.

Saudi Arabia? No.

Who is left? No one, really.

So here we get to the painful truth: At this stage, an alliance with Iran is Syria’s only realistic play. Any deal that Assad strikes – even if it includes the pretense of peace – will ultimately only serve that alliance.

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