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Can a Syrian-Israeli Peace Agreement Be Reached?

Interviewee: Joshua Landis, Co-director, Center for Middle East Studies University of Oklahoma
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 22, 2008

Joshua Landis, who writes the blog Syria Comment and is regarded as a leading Syria specialist, says a prospective Syria-Israel peace agreement is "very feasible" but is skeptical whether it can be achieved quickly. For there to be a deal, Landis says, Israel would have to return all of the Golan Heights, and Syria would have to rein in Hezbollah and stop aiding Hamas. Landis adds that it will be a "bitter pill" for Syria to stop supporting militant Palestinian groups.

It was announced simultaneously in Damascus, Jerusalem, and Ankara on May 21 that the Turks have been acting as mediators in negotiations between Syria and Israel aimed at a comprehensive peace agreement. How feasible is achieving such a peace agreement?

I think it's very feasible. But I'm skeptical that this can be achieved in the short term. I think that all sides need to realize, however, that if they are going to end this conflict and bring order to the northern border of Israel and the southern borders of Syria and Lebanon, some deal of this nature has to go forward.

The two sides were close to an agreement in 2000. The United States was mediating. Ehud Barak was the Israeli prime minister. President Hafez Assad of Syria actually met with President Clinton but the talks collapsed. Why?

It depends on which version you accept. The announcement of both Clinton and Barak was that Assad had left the bargaining table. What Assad said was that the talks were not serious because Dennis Ross, the chief U.S. Middle East negotiator, on behalf of Barak offered less than the 1967 borders. Israel wanted to retain about a 100-meter strip of land on the other side of the Jordan River and the Galilee.

This is the so-called 1923 border?

Yes, the 1923 border was hammered out by the French and British when the Palestinian and Syrian borders were created. That extra piece of land was captured by Syria in the 1948 war. You had a no-man's land created. In 1967 that was all reconquered by Israel when it took the Golan Heights. Syria wants to go back to the 1948 war line in a sense, and Israel wants to go back to what the British had gotten from the French in 1923. At the time the reason the British wanted that land was that it would protect the water supplies for the British, subsequently Israelis. It gives them water security. The big question in 2000 was if you sewed up peace with Syria and gave away the Golan could you ever get the Palestinian question resolved because the Golan issue was going to shake the Barak government. In a sense, Barak placed making a deal with Palestine as more important than making a deal with Syria. I think he shortchanged the Syrians a bit knowing that they would never accept the 1923 border. He did this to allow him time to try to clinch a deal with the Palestinians. Perhaps Clinton backed him up in this somewhat.

In his memoirs Clinton said that the Israelis got cold feet. Maybe the Syrians should have accepted the offer. We won't know until history judges. Whatever the case is, I think today the chances are much better that the Israelis will see their interests be concluding a peace deal with the Syrians before they conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians because today the Palestinian situation looks so hopeless. But the Syrian one is relatively easy.

The Syrians said today that the Israelis have agreed in principle to go back to the 1967 borders. The Israelis haven't confirmed that but it seems to make sense that they wouldn't get into this negotiation unless that was on the table.

Both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and [former Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon have said "we know what the price is of negotiating with Syria but we're not going to enter into this type of negotiation because we know what they are going to ask us. If we're going to enter into negotiations, we've got to be ready to give it up."

The Israelis are going to want the Syrians to take some major political decisions in return for the Golan, which I don't know if they can take. They would want the Syrians to reduce their ties to Hezbollah and to Iran. Is that at all possible?

Well, the Syrians had said that they are willing to stop supplying arms to Hezbollah. President Bashar Assad has said what is tantamount to that. It's not illogical for Syria to have this stance because you have to ask "what are Syria's security interests in Lebanon?" There are two. One is to have an armed resistance in order to kill Israelis and force Israel to give back the Golan. If Syria gets back the Golan it doesn't have to have armed resistance in Lebanon.

Syria has deep security interests in Lebanon and needs Lebanon to be part of its sphere of influence. …In a sense I don't think it's a mistake that we're seeing the advancement of Syria-Israeli talks in tandem with Hezbollah getting a larger position in Lebanese politics.

Syria has deep security interests in Lebanon and needs Lebanon to be part of its sphere of influence. It can get this from the Lebanon and the Shiites without having an armed resistance if they have a greater share of government power in Lebanon. In a sense I don't think it's a mistake that we're seeing the advancement of Syria-Israeli talks in tandem with Hezbollah getting a larger position in Lebanese politics [as part of the political compromise worked out in Doha].

Hezbollah is going to have a kind of veto power I guess in the new government that is going to be created. All sides have agreed to postpone discussions about Hezbollah's arms. I suppose this will all be intertwined now with the Syria-Israel negotiations.

Yes it certainly is because Syria's interests are two in Lebanon. Besides the armed resistance to get back the Golan, the Syrians want to keep Lebanon in their sphere of influence so it cannot be used as a battering ram to destabilize the Syrian regime as it has been used in the past few years by the United States, [pressing the UN Security Council to pass] resolutions such as disarming Hezbollah, Resolution 1559, the resolution to undertake the United Nations investigation into who killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which could in theory indict Syria. Now if the opposition loyal to Syria has a veto power within the cabinet they could have vetoed that UN investigation and the Lebanese government could have said "we don't want that. We want to have our own investigation."

Now this might have led nowhere, and it would have forestalled the United Nations from taking it because the United Nations needed to get the permission of the Lebanese government, which the Lebanese government happily gave to the United Nations, which created a weapon in the hands of the Americans to use as leverage against Syria. Today, with the opposition having a blocking third in the Lebanese cabinet, that sort of thing will not be able to happen and in a sense Syria will have protected themselves against this outside influence and having Lebanon used against them. So Hezbollah will be serving a very important purpose, which is to make sure that Lebanon is not used against Syria.

There is a lot of skepticism and opposition toward the Syrian negotiations in Israel. Many Israelis want to keep the Golan Heights. Besides the security ramifications, Israelis like it.

Sure, who wouldn't? There is wine, wonderful skiing.

Olmert is in such deep trouble politically right now. He's being investigated for taking money for personal uses. This might lead to his resignation but that doesn't mean that the Israeli government can't continue these talks. But it will be a tough sell since a number of Israelis just don't want to deal with the Syrians.

It is a tough sell. It will be a tough sell all the way around, I think. On the other hand, Syria will be in a sense a policeman protecting Israel, rather than an enemy trying to foment trouble by funding Hezbollah, by funding Hamas, by funding every Palestinian group that wants to kill Israelis. Instead, they will be trying to discourage such activity the way Egypt discourages it today.

Do you think Syria would go as far as to tell the militant Hamas leadership in Damascus that they have to go back to Gaza?

Syria could not do anything that would get Khaled Meshaal [the leader of Hamas] killed. They cannot turn him over to the Israelis and have him arrested.

They could send him to Iran I guess.

He could find another place to go, let's say Qatar or some place like that. He would say voluntarily that he's leaving; he's had a great time in Syria but he needs to take care of business elsewhere. But you're right. You're right in the extent that it would be a bitter pill for the Syrians to give up Palestinians. In a sense that's what Israel is going to be asking them to do.

To give up?

The Palestinian cause and to do what [former President Anwar] Sadat did [after the 1979 peace treaty with Israel], which is to cut their links and let the Palestinians sail off along.

How big a deal is it inside Syria to get back the Golan Heights? Would that do a lot for Bashar?

It would do a lot for him. This would be the real feather in his cap. He's already proved himself in the last seven or eight years because he's weathered a lot of storms. Everybody saw him as a bumbling eye doctor [he studied ophthalmology in Britain] who made one mistake after another and he was going to fail. Now he's survived.

What about Syrian-U.S. relations?

Well, I think that under George Bush, very little can really happen toward a rapprochement. On the other hand the Bush administration has been very quiet about this agreement. One or two weeks ago they would have rejected this out of hand. They were telling the Lebanese not to accept giving Hezbollah the blocking third and now they are accepting it because of Hezbollah's actions.

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