The Key to Peace Lies in Damascus

It's now official: Israel and Syria are holding indirect peace talks. A peace agreement between the two countries could break Iran's dangerous influence in the region, says Avi Primor, former Israeli Ambassador to Germany


Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, left, and Syria's President Assad; a dove of peace in the middle (sources: AP, dpa; montage: DW)
Israel and Syria announced the launch of indirect negotiations brokered by Turkey, eight years after the last attempt at peacemaking broke down

​​US President George W. Bush's visit to the Middle East last week produced no results or even substance, particularly concerning the Palestinian problem. Would it not therefore be absolutely essential to turn to Syria again? In actual fact, there have been recent rumours of a possible movement between Israel and Syria. The Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan visited Damascus on 26 April.

Erdogan, a heavyweight for both Israel and Syria, hinted that he could mediate between the two parties. This visit came shortly after Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had given signs of vague interest in peace negotiations with Syria in a number of interviews.

Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otari greets his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan upon his arrival at Damascus airport, Syria on 26 April 2008 (photo: dpa)
Mediator for peace between the arch rivals Syria and Israel – Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan (right) during political talks in Damascus

​​Four Israeli prime ministers have negotiated with Syria in the past, three from Labour – Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak – but also Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 – 99. All four came very close to their goal: they accepted the principle of the return of the Golan Heights to Syria and received the guarantees of peace and security they wanted in return from Syria. It was only minor issues that ultimately torpedoed the negotiations, bearing in mind the major difficulties that were ironed out.

Tentative rapprochement

Following the American attack on Iraq in 2003, Damascus sent signals to Jerusalem indicating that Bashar al-Assad, the son and successor to the Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, was interested in peace negotiations with Israel. Perhaps this was due to Assad's fear of being the next on the American list of members of the "axis of evil" to be attacked, and he was looking for an insurance policy. This time, Israel gave no response.

View of the Golan Heights (photo: AP)
The main hurdle for all-encompassing peace with Israel from the Syrian perspective – the Golan Heights, occupied since the Six-Day War

​​In contrast to his predecessors, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not prepared to relinquish the Golan Heights, and thus saw no basis for negotiations with Syria. His successor Olmert might have been willing to put Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights up to question. Up to now, however, he has not felt in a strong enough position on the domestic front to make concessions to the Syrians, concentrating instead on the Palestinian problem.

So why the sudden Israeli interest in Syria? It is clear enough that Israel is interested in making peace with Syria. Should Israel succeed in doing so, a peace accord with Lebanon would be an almost automatic outcome. Yet peace with Damascus would also mean driving a wedge between Syria and Iran, and thus a division between Iran and Hezbollah.

Syria and Iran: a political marriage of necessity

Syria has a vested interest in this peace – not only because it wants its lost territory back, but above all to escape its current isolation. The Syrians are Arabs, not Iranians; Sunnis, not Shiites. Syria may be a dictatorship, but it is not a theocracy. Should the Iranian and south Lebanese Shiites gain the upper hand over the Islamic world, it would have devastating effects on the Syrian regime. Syria's current alliance with these forces is merely an alliance of necessity. However, Syria will not go back on this alliance if it is not offered an alternative.

Egypt's President Sadat, left, and Israel's Prime Minister Begin (photo: dpa)
Egypt's President Sadat (left) won the trust of many Israelis after the peace negotiations at Camp David in 1979

​​All this has been as clear as day for the past five years. Yet why has Olmert only now realised it? Like most politicians, he too thinks of his own political survival. He is leading an extremely unstable coalition and is well aware that he would have no chance of re-election on an early polling day. The Israeli electorate, however, the majority of whom are principally prepared to forgo occupied territories and settlements, will only view this as possible if they can assume that the relinquished territories would pose no threat to them. That was the case when Israel negotiated with Egypt and later Jordan.

Egypt's President Anwar el-Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein managed to win the population's trust on this issue – and rightly so, as it turned out. People generally trust in the good intentions of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but do not believe he has the means to enforce peace and security along the border between his future state and Israel. The examples of south Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, which have become an even greater threat to Israel since they were relinquished, are very much present.

If Olmert is unable to present the Israelis with plausible proof that concessions to the Palestinians such as the evacuation of occupied territory and settlements bring genuine security, he will not profit from their support.

Assad could provide proof for security

photo: AP
Is he prepared to put Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights to question? Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

​​However, were Olmert to present the Israeli population with a draft peace treaty with Syria, outlining the security measures for the Golan Heights after their return and south Lebanon in credible detail, he might manage to convince them. After all, Assad has just as much power in his country as Sadat had in Egypt and King Hussein had in Jordan, and could provide guarantees for security. And in actual fact, the Syrians have always respected treaties with Israel to the letter, despite their relentless hostility to the country.

Without Syria, there will be no war against Israel. So a draft peace treaty with Syria would be a trump card, with which Olmert or his successor could enter elections with a steady hand.

America's reservations

photo: AP
Avi Primor is the Director of the Trilateral Center for European Studies at the Israeli Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and former Israeli Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany

​​The greatest hurdle for such a scenario is, however, not in the Middle East, but in Washington. Washington is firmly against reconciliation with Syria, at least as long as the Lebanon problem has not been resolved – and perhaps even beyond that point. Even if Israel were to overcome America's reservations, it would not be able to sign a peace treaty with Syria without active US support. For Syria, meeting Israel's conditions – including relaxing its contacts with Iran and Hezbollah – only comes into question if the United States offers an alternative to its alliances of necessity.

Olmert's Syrian alternative may thus only be a realistic prospect after the change of government in Washington. Whether Olmert will still be leading the present coalition at that point or another will have taken his place, changes nothing in this equation.

Avi Primor

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Syria's Role in Mideast Peace
Negotiating with the Pariah
Syria is isolated in the international community. Volker Perthes argues that Damascus could play a constructive role in the Middle Eastern peace process as long as the country's legitimate and illegitimate interests are not confused

Interview with Patrick Müller
Golan Heights in Return for Peace
Syria has confirmed that peace talks are currently taking place between Damascus and Tel Aviv. In return for peace, Israel offered the Syrians the prospect of withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But what are the chances that the two sides will actually reach an agreement? Khaula Saleh asked Middle East expert Patrick Müller for his views

Israel Turns 60
A History of a Conflict
May 14 marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. While Arabs call the day "the catastrophe," many Israelis aren't in the mood to celebrate. A look back on six decades of dreams and nightmares. Peter Philipp reports