Recently several reports heralded Syrian plans to renew negotiations with Israel; most prominent and most specific among them was the account by the United Nations Middle East envoy, Terje Larsen, of his conversation with Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Simultaneously, in early August tensions arose along the Lebanese-Israeli border, as Hezbollah attacked an outpost on the Israeli side of the border and intensified its anti-aircraft fire in a fashion designed to cause harm to towns and settlements in northern Israel.
This pattern is hardly surprising. For many years now rhetoric of peace and an exacerbation of violence have come together, intermingled, in the tortuous history of Israeli-Syrian diplomacy and fighting by proxy along the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Let us begin with an examination of the prospects for an effort to renew Israeli-Syrian negotiations. There are three parties to any such new endeavor--Israel, Syria and the United States. Of the three, two are not interested at present. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, unlike his four predecessors, does not hold a preference for a "Syria first" policy. Prime ministers Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak all held the view that it was preferable for Israel to first conclude an agreement with Syria so that they could then negotiate with the Palestinians with a stronger hand. They all saw the Israeli-Syrian conflict as easier to resolve, and regarded President Hafez al Assad as a better partner than Yasir Arafat.
But in the meantime Hafez al Assad died, and his son and successor is perceived as weak and immature, certainly not the challenging but promising partner that his father was. Furthermore, Ariel Sharon is not interested in a deal with Syria and in the price tag that it is bound to exact--a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights. He is fully focused on his conflict with the Palestinians and, in his view, the crowning achievement of his tenure would be an interim agreement with the Palestinians that would put an end to the current crisis. Additional negotiations with Syria would impose another heavy load on his agenda and would entail concessions that he is not willing to make.
A similar change has taken place in Washington. For eight years, the Clinton administration's policy towards the Arab-Israel conflict rested on the assumption that an Israeli-Syrian agreement was the best premise for a larger Israel-Arab agreement. The Bush administration began its term of office with a reluctance to engage in Arab-Israel diplomacy. It was dragged into a high profile involvement in Arab-Israel affairs, but would like to limit it to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Its view of Bashar al Assad and his regime is critical and hostile. From the Bush administration's perspective, Damascus lies perilously close to the "axis of evil": it is a potential target for Washington's wrath and certainly not a candidate for diplomatic munificence.
This state of affairs is precisely one of Syria's motivations for seeking to renew negotiations with Israel, or at least to create the background noises of such diplomacy. It wants to improve its relationship with Washington and wants to be perceived as a serious candidate for peace coalitions and not for the axis of evil.
On a deeper level, Syria cannot afford to remain outside the Middle East diplomatic game. By now all other participants in the 1967 Arab defeat have either regained territory or are engaged in a process that should accomplish that aim--Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians. Even Lebanon, Syria's protégé, can now boast of Israel's withdrawal to the international boundary. For the past 35 years, the Baath regime could always explain to its constituency that it was either fighting to regain land or negotiating for it. But since the war in Iraq, Syria has been threatened by Washington and told to cease its support for Hezbollah, its proxy in South Lebanon in the armed conflict against Israel. It is thus neither fighting nor talking.
The recent surge of increased violence in South Lebanon may very well be a Syrian attempt to open a safety valve in order to release some of the pressure, as well as an attempt to signal to Washington that in the absence of any diplomatic progress, Damascus will have no choice but to use Hezbollah in order to generate new tensions along the Israeli-Lebanese border. At the same time, Syria has not taken any real measures to put an end to the activities of the rejectionist Palestinian organizations in Damascus and, together with its ally, Iran, is responsible for the activities of such organizations as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that threaten the fragile truce between Israel and the Palestinians.
This state of affairs presents both Jerusalem and Washington with new challenges. Israel needs to find a way of attaining peace and quiet in northern Israel without being dragged into a new cycle of violence along its border with Lebanon. Washington, assuming it does not want to provide Damascus with a diplomatic outlet, needs to reestablish its deterrence and to keep Bashar al Assad and his regime at bay.-Published 21/8/2003©bitterlemons-international.org