Yossi Alpher, a well-known analyst of the Israeli-Arab conflict and, despite his left-wing orientation, someone who should know better, wrote this:
[R]enewal of the peace process between Israel and Syria deserves more and better attention from the US and the moderate Arab states. Unlike in the Palestinian arena, here the parameters of a process are clear, most of the negotiating has already been done and Syrian President Bashar Assad is able to deliver. Obviously, success in the Israeli-Syrian arena is not guaranteed. But if achieved it would reduce Iran’s regional influence and weaken Hamas, thereby improving the chances for fruitful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – when circumstances are more favorable than today.
Alpher correctly understands that while Hamas controls Gaza and while PA President Mahmoud Abbas is committed — by ideology and by fear of his constituency — to maximal demands on borders, refugees, Jerusalem, etc., there can be no secure peace agreement with the Palestinians. So, maybe for lack of anything else to do, he thinks Israel should pursue an agreement with Syria.
“if achieved it would reduce Iran’s regional influence and weaken Hamas”, he says. Well, if Bashar Assad would honestly make peace with Israel, then it might do these things. But that’s like saying that flying pigs would revolutionize air transport.
Here are some of the problems with the idea:
Syria today has a very close relationship with Iran, which provides weapons and economic benefits. It works closely with Iran’s proxy, Hizballah, in exploiting Lebanon. Recognition of the Jewish state would put Syria on the US/Israeli side of the struggle for control of the region, imperil all of this and make enemies out of Iran and Hizballah.
In addition, Syria uses the conflict with Israel for domestic political purposes. As Barry Rubin argued in his book “The Truth About Syria“, the continual state of war with Israel provides an excuse for the Syrian regime to suppress both reformist and Islamist opposition, as well as for the economic difficulties of the population.
But the Golan is extremely strategic, even in this day of missile warfare. If Israel had not controlled the Golan in 1973, there’s no doubt that Syrian tanks could have penetrated deeply into Israel’s heartland. And while the Assad regime would prefer not to make peace, it would very much want to get the Golan back. So the obvious danger is that there might be a peace agreement, one that Assad or a successor would renege on. Who would or could guarantee it? Israel’s experience with multinational or UN forces indicates that no one could.
As always, Israel is asked to make a concrete concession of a strategic asset in return for a promise. “Assad is able to deliver”, says Alpher. But would he really, and could he deliver a possibly Islamist successor in advance?