Syria and Israel: Keep Them Talking

The indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel that began last May have gone as far as they can. Their purpose – to break the ice between the two states after eight years of not talking, and to test one another’s resolve over certain issues – has been achieved. Now, Syrian President Bashar Assad wants to move forward, as evidenced in his proposal to Israel for direct peace talks, which he introduced last week at a four-way summit in Damascus involving Syria, Turkey, France and Qatar.

But Assad knows there are still two big uncertainties surrounding the prospects of a historic peace deal with the Israelis: the position of the next U.S. administration and the results of a possible Israeli election. While Assad is grateful for the role Turkey has played so far in hosting four rounds of negotiations (a fifth is scheduled for September 18-19, according to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan), and for France’s pledge of help in any direct Syrian-Israeli talks, he is only interested in a peace agreement with Israel if it is mediated by the United States.

An agreement endorsed by Washington would not only guarantee the return of the Golan to Syria (in exchange for a long-term security deal with Israel), but also, and perhaps more significantly, end Syria’s isolation in the world. The most important lesson Bashar Assad learned from his father is that good relations with Washington, more than any other foreign capital, serve Syria’s strategic interests. But, until a new U.S. administration is in place, he knows there’s little point in proceeding with the direct negotiations he’s proposing.

Uncertainties besiege the Israeli home front, too, and Assad is waiting for the future of Israel’s government to be decided – something that is likely to be contingent on an election – for assurance that the next prime minister will be on the same track as Ehud Olmert.

So between now and the election of an American president in November, and the selection of a new Israeli prime minister some time in the next half year, it’s a delicate waiting game for Syria and Israel.

In the meantime, however, tensions between Syria and Israel remain high, even two years after the inconclusive conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Israel has remained deeply concerned about Syria’s role in rearming the Shi’ite militant group in anticipation of a second round.

Senior Israeli defense officials believe that with their current deployment, the Syrians would be able to airdrop commandos into the Golan and take over several hills there within hours. To prepare for this eventuality, Israel recently launched large-scale military exercises with live ammunition in the Heights. “There is reinforcement on the other side,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who closely observed the drills. “It’s not by chance that we are training intensively on a major scale.” In response to the drills, Syria immediately put its military on high alert.

From a military perspective, it is unlikely that Syria and Israel would embark on an all-out war in the short or medium term. Despite Syria’s recent upgrade of its air- and coastal-defense systems, its acquisition of the most advanced anti-tank hardware from Moscow, and its development of asymmetrical fighting capabilities, its military is still no match for the Israel Defense Forces. The Syrian leadership is fully aware that any direct military encounter between the two states would result in a clear Israeli victory.

While Israel may have no big concerns about a conventional military confrontation with Syria, it does worry about the latter’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) and its surface-to-surface missiles. Syria has been developing its CBW capability since the 1980s and has gained the capacity in recent years to launch large numbers of medium and long-range rockets. If tipped with chemical or biological warheards, these rockets could cause significant damage and terror in Israel.

Do these military considerations rule out any chance of war, then?

Not necessarily. Conflict between the two countries could still occur over a miscalculation or a misinterpretation. Not since the early 1980s has there been such danger of escalation should one side mistake the other’s intention.

To avert any dangerous miscalculations, Israel and Syria need to keep meeting and talking. As long as the situation on the ground remains volatile, the indirect negotiations still under way in Turkey are important, because they reduce the risks of misinterpretation and misunderstanding between the two states. This is the real value of the role Turkey has been playing to date.