Friday, August 29, 2008

The government of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad wants to sell the West on the notion that it may be ready to hold peace talks with Israel. Damascus tells visiting Western journalists that Syria has received private assurances from Turkish mediators that Israel will return the Golan Heights to Syria (the same region from which Syrian soldiers used for close to 19 years to shell Israeli farmers in the valley below) as part of an overall peace agreement. The Syrians and the French have yet to provide real substance on two very critical questions that could destroy any deal:

1) How will Israel protect its civilian population if such harassment resumes after the territory is returned to Syria?; and 2) How will Israel be protected from a Syrian attempt to carry out a surprise attack like one that began the 1973 Yom Kippur War - this time from locations much closer to Israeli population centers?

According to David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post who thinks the idea has merit, Syria is not interested in ending its ties with Iran. Instead, it seeks to “broaden” its foreign relationships and become less dependent on Tehran. Syrian officials tell him that Mr. Assad has an important card to play in negotiations: putting pressure on Hamas to “restrain” attacks in Gaza and the West Bank, which would address a major U.S. concern. That concern, of course, is Syrian support for Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. The Syrians haven’t explained what they mean by “restraint.” Does it mean that they should try to keep terrorist attacks below some particular threshold? Does that mean limiting the number of rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel in some quantifiable way? The Syrians provide little useful information on these questions.

What exactly will Syria do to “restrain” Hezbollah? This matter has become very important - particularly in view of the warning that the Israeli government just issued: Hezbollah wants to kidnap Israeli tourists. Damascus has been silent on this issue as well. But it has been open about its insistence that the United States not worry about Mr. Assad’s trip to Moscow last week to discuss arms sales and military cooperation. The visit was supposedly necessary, Damascus says, because Mr. Assad feels that Syria needs Russian “protection” in the event of a war between Iran and Israel.

Maybe there is a geopolitical sea change taking place in Damascus. If so, the Assad government has thus far hidden it very skillfully. In March 2000, President Clinton put the prestige of his office on the line in the hope that Mr. Assad’s father was ready to make a peace agreement with Israel. Hafez Assad showed by his actions that he was not, and then proceeded to sabotage Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s efforts to withdraw from southern Lebanon. We shouldn’t be deluded again.

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