[Fredric C. Hof, a] top aide to George Mitchell, US President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy, held talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem on Thursday in Damascus, in what could potentially be a bid to revive stalled peace talks between Syria and Israel…
Hof arrived in the region Sunday, and has met a host of senior military and defense officials in Israel, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, and National Security Adviser Uzi Arad. He is also expected to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad later in his trip.
Syria has insisted that the promise of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights be a precursor to any renewed peace negotiations between the two countries. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has vehemently rejected the notion of a withdrawal.
More US ‘engagement’.
Do not think for a moment that this is in any way something that Israel wants or needs. Syria, today a satellite of Iran, served as the conduit for arms to Hezbollah before, during and after the 2006 war. With Iranian help, it has accumulated several tens of thousands of missiles, some with chemical warheads, which are pointed at Israel. In 2008, Syria even tried to build a nuclear reactor from North Korean components to produce weapons-grade plutonium, which Israel bombed. Syria is a major sponsor of Hezbollah an of Iraqi insurgents who are fighting US troops in that country.
Syria has a huge investment in war. If Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad or his late father had wanted the Golan back and had been prepared to make a peace agreement with Israel, they could have had it numerous times in the last two or three decades. Peace is not what they are looking for.
The Golan is highly strategic. Before 1967 Israeli towns and kibbutzim in the upper Jordan Valley were often bombarded from the heights. I personally saw a thick, pockmarked concrete wall in front of a kindergarten at Kibbutz Tel Katzir. Before it was built, the children were the targets of Syrian snipers on the Golan.
Control of the heights is absolutely vital for the defense of the area, and the key to any counterattack against Syria. If Israel had not held the heights in 1973, it’s likely that the Syrian army would have captured numerous Israeli population centers. To give an idea of what this would mean, in 1973 the bodies of captured Israeli soldiers were returned with their severed genitals stuffed in their mouths.
The return of the Golan to Syrian control under American pressure would be seen by the Arab world and Iran as another victory of the strategy of violent ‘resistance’. In this case the card that is undoubtedly being played is that of Syrian support to Iraqi insurgents, forcing the US to deliver Israel. ‘Success’ here would not lead to peace — the opposite would be true.
In any event, as Barry Rubin has argued, Syria’s eternal state of war with Israel meets important domestic needs for Assad — it helps him maintain repressive control of Islamist and reformist domestic opponents, as well as to keep control of the Syrian economy tightly inside the circle of his associates and relatives.
Part of the US conception is to offer Syria inducements — like the Golan — in return for Syria distancing herself from Iran, ending support for terrorism, etc. But again, these relationships meet important needs for Assad, such as providing influence in Lebanon and keeping the arms flowing — and these are things that the US is not in a position to provide.
Thus the danger is that Syria will get the Golan, seriously damaging Israel’s security, without actually changing its pro-Iranian orientation, ending support for terrorism in Lebanon and Iraq, or actually moving toward peace with Israel.
If I were Fred Hof, I would suggest that a first step for Mr. Assad would be to get rid of the missiles aimed at every part of Israel.
Then we could think about talking.
Wreckage of Syrian tank on Golan heights. The settlement below it is Kibbutz Tel Katzir, mentioned in the text.