Friday, October 10, 2008

Nothing could be more logical than a peace deal between Israel and Syria, yet the “illogical” logic often driving Middle East politics indicates that the most rational policy for both sides is to maintain the status quo.

The current state of no war-no peace has taxed both countries in terms of military spending and resources that could otherwise have been invested in the economy. It’s not as though the money could not be used elsewhere.

And now Russia, only too happy to get back at Israel and the United States for their support of Georgia in the recent imbroglio in the Caucasus over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is responding to Syria’s demand for Russian air-defense missiles.

After a meeting between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in August, Russia has agreed to sell Syria Pantsir surface-to-air missiles and Buk-M12 surface-to-surface missiles. An earlier request by Syria for S-300 air-defense systems and short-range Iskander missiles was scrapped after Washington applied pressure on the Russians. But that was B.C. - Before the Caucasus.

This continued existence in political limbo has dragged on now for the good part of 35 years, ever since Henry Kissinger, as secretary of state, brokered a cease-fire between Damascus and Jerusalem after the Yom Kippur War in October 1973.

Despite overtures from Damascus, peace between Israel and Syria - the only front-line Arab state still in a state of war with Israel - remains a distant prospect. This time, it is Israel that does not look at peace with Syria as being advantageous to its national interests. At least not for now.

The Israel-Syria dispute, said Israeli Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, former director of Israel’s national security council, is much less complicated than the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The latter involves finalizing borders between the two countries; agreeing over the status of Jerusalem, a city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, and claimed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians as their capital; and the “sticky wicket” of ongoing Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948 and 1967.

“The Israeli-Syrian dispute is simpler,” Gen. Eiland told a conference in Europe two weeks ago.

He noted that in the Palestinian issue, border demarcation remains hazy with each side arguing over the exact trajectory of the future border and is further complicated by the fact that it’s a dispute between a state (Israel) and at least two organizations (Fatah, a secular entity ruling over much of the West Bank, and Hamas, a strictly Islamist organization calling for the destruction of Israel).

The retired Israeli army general pointed out that the dispute with Syria is unambiguous. “It’s a territorial dispute between two countries.”

In this case, the borders between Syria and Israel are pre-established and recognized. Any peace deal will demand that Israel return to Syria the Golan Heights, an area occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.

This is a generally recognized fact that Israel has come to accept as the price of peace with Syria.

Still, there remain divergences between the two sides, of course. The big difference, said Gen. Eiland jokingly, is that “we call it the Golan and the Syrians call it the Jolan.”

Then there is the problem of water rights, one that Gen. Eiland finds within the realm of “achievable” problems. There is even a Syrian peace proposal on the table, with Turkey playing the middleman between Jerusalem and Damascus.

Is peace between Syria and Israel achievable? “Yes,” replies the former army general. However, Gen. Eiland gives a number of reasons why peace between Israel and Syria remains unlikely to become a reality anytime soon, and why the Israeli government is not terribly excited about the prospect of peace with Syria.

From the Israeli perspective, peace with Syria will not help the Israeli-Palestinian issue, nor will it help other regional disputes, such as a confrontational nuclear Iran and the presence of militant Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In addition, peace with Syria would involve relinquishing control of the Golan Heights, which could create an increased security risk and thus an increased risk of war for Israel. Such a possibility makes the status quo more appealing.

Also, Mr. Assad is unlikely to undertake a peace mission to Jerusalem like the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did in 1977.

In an extension of the recent Russian weapons sale, Syrian tensions with the U.S. put pressure on Israel to side with its Western ally.

Finally, there is a lack of urgency. Since the end of hostilities on the Golan in 1973, not a single bullet was fired across the demarcation line policed by 1,046 troops, 57 military observers and 43 civilians from UNDOF - the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force. So if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Suddenly the logic of the illogic begins to make sense; so far as anything that illogical can enter into the realm of logic.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

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