As Pressure Mounts on Syria, Israel Weighs Risks and Benefits

As international pressure mounts on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, decision-makers in Jerusalem are considering what a Syrian accommodation with the West could mean for Israel. Assad has been under a cloud of suspicion since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February. Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan’s “suicide” last week, ahead of a U.N. report on the Hariri murder, further undermined Assad’s position.

Israeli intelligence maintains that to extricate themselves from their current predicament, the Syrians may feel a need to comply with American policy goals in the region. That could mean Assad buckling under or a new, more American-oriented regime emerging in Damascus.

In either case, it could lead to pressure on Israel to negotiate a land-for-peace deal with a supposedly reformed Syria.

Making peace with Syria once would have been a top Israeli foreign policy priority. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and most of the Israeli defense establishment are less enthusiastic.

They know peace with Syria would mean giving back most of the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. That’s a price they don’t believe is worth paying in the current circumstances.

The Israeli establishment believes Assad’s grip on power is weakening. If the U.N. investigation into the Hariri assassination incriminates Assad or members of his inner circle, the regime could fall.

“The Syrians feel the noose tightening around their necks,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has said. The report into the investigation “is closing in on direct Syrian involvement in Hariri’s murder.”

The assessment in Jerusalem is that a scathing report could lead to international sanctions on Syria, which the already-wobbly Assad regime wouldn’t survive.

Even more significantly, the Americans see in Assad’s discomfort a major strategic opportunity: Some deft behind-the-scenes diplomacy, coupled with an overt carrot-and-stick policy, may succeed in drawing Syria out of the “axis of evil.”

There are rumors that some top Syrian officials, including a former vice president and a former military chief of staff, have been in touch with Washington about helping to create a regime change. The U.S. administration also leaked reports of a scrapped plan to bomb bases in Syria used by insurgents to launch attacks on American forces in Iraq.

At the same time, there were reports that Washington had made the Assad regime an offer: The United States would stop pressuring Syria if it prevents anti-American insurgents crossing into Iraq, stops meddling in Lebanon, withdraws its support for Palestinian terrorists and stops arming Hezbollah in Lebanon.

All this has led to a debate among Israeli decision-makers over whether Assad’s transformation or ouster would be good or bad for Israel. Ha’aretz political analyst Aluf Benn quotes security officials as saying that the best scenario for Israel would be a weakened Assad succumbing to American pressure: There would be no Syrian presence in Lebanon, no Syrian support for Hezbollah or Palestinian terrorist groups and no need to negotiate over the Golan.

If Assad falls, however, the Israelis fear that a successor regime that is closer to Washington would insist on renewing peace talks and demanding Israeli territorial concessions, with wide international support.

Sharon argues that Assad wants negotiations with Israel, not to make peace but to ease U.S. pressure on Damascus. But Sharon has other, deeper reasons for avoiding talks with Syria: He does not want to put the Golan Heights on the market.

Unlike Gaza, also conquered in 1967 and from which Israel recently withdrew, the Golan has real strategic value for Israel and presents no demographic problem. Whereas Israeli strategists once saw Damascus as a powerful and menacing neighbor and considered peace with it a great prize, Assad’s Syria is perceived today as an isolated backwater that poses little military threat.

Even Syria’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, once used by Damascus to threaten northern Israel, is showing signs of becoming a domesticated part of Lebanese political life.

Ironically, the renewed debate over Syria coincides with the anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the Syrian and Egyptian armies caught Israel by surprise and threatened its very existence. It was that war that convinced Israelis of the need for peace with Egypt and Syria.

Since then, however, a series of events altered the balance of power to such an extent that Israel no longer feels threatened by its northern neighbor and sees no urgent need to change the status quo. First, in 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin took Egypt out of the equation by launching peace talks with Cairo.

Syria’s weakness when acting alone was confirmed during the 1982 war in Lebanon. Later, in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union halted arms supplies to Syria, and Syria lost political backing when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.

Despite Syria’s growing military, political and economic weakness, successive Israeli prime ministers continued to put a premium on peacemaking with Damascus throughout the 1990s. The turning point came with the death of Assad’s father, Hafez, in June 2000.

The younger Assad made a string of blunders that led to Syria’s international isolation and made a declining Damascus far less attractive to Israel as a peace partner. Mainly, the younger Assad failed to understand that after Sept. 11 the American administration would show zero tolerance toward regimes that harbored and supported terrorists.

In 2003, during the American invasion of Iraq, Assad further alienated Washington by allowing pro-Saddam forces to use Syria as a platform for attacks on American-led troops. Then, in 2005, unrest over the Hariri assassination — and Syria’s suspected involvement — forced Assad to pull Syrian forces from Lebanon.

For Sharon, who came to power in February 2001 in the midst of the Palestinian intifada, the new circumstances meant that the Palestinian track took precedence over the Syrian. That remains the case today.

Sharon sees a great deal of work ahead with the Palestinians, and no need for Israel to accommodate Syria. It will take an inordinate amount of American pressure — or a very different regime in Damascus — for Sharon to change his mind.

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