BICOM Analysis: Israel and Syria launch indirect talks – background and prospects


The announcement by Israeli, Turkish and Syrian officials on Wednesday that indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria are set to begin has resounded throughout the Middle East and throughout the world.  This is indeed a significant and encouraging development, indicating the interest of both sides in openly testing the possibility of a deal. Openly declared negotiations between Israeli and Syrian officials have not taken place since talks broke down in 2000. Yet despite the initial fanfare, the announcement represents the making public of existing contacts, and it does not yet indicate a dramatic, substantive breakthrough suggesting an imminent Israeli-Syrian agreement.

The talks are set to be conducted under Turkish auspices. A Turkish official told reporters that the talks would take place in Istanbul, in rounds lasting several days, and that one or two rounds would take place per month.[i] Israeli officials stressed that the announcement represented the commencement of a process, and that considerable time could elapse even before direct talks begin.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, interviewed in Bahrain, said that the talks would be based on Israeli willingness to withdraw to the ‘June 4’ (i.e. pre-1967) lines on the Golan, and that Syria had received an Israeli statement confirming willingness in this regard. Israel has since denied that any such guarantee was given. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made his position clear on a number of occasions: namely, that Israel is willing to concede the Golan Heights to Syria in return for Damascus ending its strategic alliance with Iran, and severing ties with Hezbollah, Hamas and other terror organisations engaged in violence against Israel.[ii]

What are the Israeli and Syrian interests in reviving the negotiations at this time? What is the US response to the resumption of talks? What are the potential pitfalls, and how likely is it that a renewed negotiating process between Syria and Israel will bear fruit? This paper will seek to address these issues.

The Israeli debate over reviving negotiations with Syria

There is a long-standing debate within the Israeli policymaking community regarding the advisability and likelihood of success in negotiations with Damascus.

The central question has been whether or not Syria would be willing to sever its ties with Iran, and its associated links with terror groups.  Those who believe that Syria would be willing to conclude an agreement in which it would receive the Golan Heights in return for abandoning its place in the Iran-led regional alliance stress the following arguments:

Syria is not an ideological member of the pro-Iran axis. As such it is the ‘weakest link’ in the Iran-led alliance. Hence the quickest and easiest way to deliver a very substantial blow to this alliance would be the removal of Syria from it by concluding a peace deal which conditions the deal on Syria’s ending its ties with Iran.[iii]

A treaty with Syria would in effect complete the peacemaking process between Israel and its neighbours which commenced with Israeli-Egyptian contacts in 1978. Concluding such an agreement would improve Israel’s relations with the Arab world as a whole. Such a treaty would also improve Israel’s situation vis-à-vis Lebanon, by cutting off the vital Syrian conduit between Israel and Hezbollah (and if an additional result of the treaty were the resumption of Syrian influence in Lebanon, this would at least give Israel an authoritative ‘address’ to whom to refer with claims regarding Lebanon – a situation which does not currently exist.) 

A treaty with Syria might help on the Palestinian channel, with the Palestinians feeling the need for greater flexibility – given the risk that failure to reach an agreement will leave them isolated as the sole major Arab element still in conflict with Israel. [iv]

Those more skeptical regarding the possibility of a successful negotiation with Syria have argued the following:

The Syrian alliance with Iran is long-standing and dates back to the early 1980s. Syria’s regional power derives from its ability to act as a ‘spoiler,’ supporting disruptive elements and then needing to be bought off. The Iranian link makes this possible. Abandoning it would mean abandoning this central tenet, which has enabled Syria to ‘punch above its weight’ in regional affairs. Thus, Syria is unlikely to be willing to pay the price required by Israel for the territorial concessions it desires.[v]

The alliance with Iran is currently paying dividends for Syria. For example, on the same day that the indirect negotiations with Israel were announced, negotiations between the Lebanese opposition and government in Doha concluded with complete victory for the opposition.[vi] Pro-Iranian Hamas is consolidating itself among the Palestinians. Iranian influence in Iraq is on the rise. Syria would be unlikely to leave what currently looks like the rising alignment in regional politics.   

The Assad regime has a narrow base of support, and is dominated by members of the minority Alawi sect. The regime may fear the economic and social opening up which might result from its accepting of western economic aid. Also, the regime has ruled on the basis of its carefully cultivated image of defiant Arab nationalism. Peace with Israel would mean giving this up.[vii]

It is important to note that within the Israeli policy community, even individuals who are skeptical regarding the likely success of the process – such as Mossad head Meir Dagan – are not opposed to beginning talks with the Syrians at the current time to examine this issue.[viii]

In addition to this debate regarding the goals of the Syrian regime – and therefore the likely success or failure of negotiations, there are two other substantive areas of dispute which the announcement of the commencement of negotiations has opened in Israel:

The first relates to the strategic question of whether Israel ought to cede the Golan Heights, regardless of the Syrian regime’s intentions. There are Israeli strategists who believe that possession of the Golan is vital for Israel’s defence. Regardless of likely arrangements for the area’s demilitarisation in the context of an agreement, they argue that given the brittleness of the Syrian regime, it is in Israel’s interests to stay on the Heights, rather than risk giving them to Assad, who might then cede the area to a new, radical, probably Islamist regime. 

This argument is accompanied by a Jewish nationalist argument relating to the ancient Jewish connection to the area, and the lives spent in conquering it. These arguments have widespread support among the Israeli public and in the Knesset. They raise the possibility that the Olmert government does not possess sufficient domestic strength to successfully conclude a diplomatic process with Syria. Of course, public opinion can be fluid with regard to negotiating processes – and it is worth remembering that a clear majority were opposed to ceding the Sinai at the commencement of the negotiations between Israel and Egypt. Similarly, the picture in the Knesset is not clear. One right-wing MK is currently at work on a bill which would require an 80% Knesset majority for concessions on the Golan. 57 MKs are said to have expressed support for the bill. A number of Kadima MKs are also known to be opposed to concessions. Of course, whilst the Olmert government might potentially be able to persuade the Knesset and public to support an agreement, there is also the possibility that the government could fall before successfully piloting an agreement through the system. 

A number of Israeli commentators, and political figures from both the left and right, have argued that the prime minister chose to raise the issue of negotiations with Syria as part of a calculated step designed to divert public attention from the corruption scandal in which he is currently embroiled. It is of course impossible to gauge the prime minister’s motivation for choosing to announce the talks. But the widespread belief – across political lines – that he may have been motivated by considerations other than purely diplomatic ones is likely to strengthen the hand of domestic opponents to concessions. The coalition’s survival depends on the ultra-orthodox Shas party. This party is opposed to the ceding of the Golan, although it is unlikely to leave the coalition at the present time.  In common with much of the rest of the political spectrum, it regards the announcement of the talks as not representing as dramatic a diplomatic breakthrough as perhaps it initially appeared.

In this regard it should be noted that while the Prime Minister may benefit from the timing of this announcement by deflecting attention from his own personal woes, this should not be allowed to distract attention from the seriousness of the negotiations themselves – and the fact that they may already be at a relatively advanced stage. Some quarters of the Israeli media which are often very hostile to the Prime Minister have expressed support for the development, regardless of whether they believe Olmert is using the situation to improve his own position.[ix]

The Syrian interest

The key policy objectives of the Syrian regime have been aptly characterised as: regime survival, return to influence in Lebanon, and the Golan Heights – in that order. Thus, Syria will enter a diplomatic process focusing on the Golan only if it can be seen to actively benefit the first two objectives. On the second (Lebanon), Syria’s interest over the last three years has been above all to prevent the launching of the international tribunal into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Hezbollah’s recent victory in obtaining a blocking third in the Lebanese Cabinet may be sufficient to achieve this. But it is likely that Syria seeks a broader return to influence in Lebanon beyond the issue of the tribunal. Part of Syria’s price for the successful conclusion of negotiations with Israel is likely to be an arrangement whereby the overt wielding of Syrian influence in Lebanon will no longer be opposed by the West.

The Syrian economy is in poor shape, and a second interest in coming to the table will be for a massive injection of US aid to Damascus. However, this issue is also complex. Since regime survival is the number one goal of the Syrian regime, it is also possible that the Assad regime in fact does not seek to open up the Syrian economy and make Syria part of the globalised world system. To do this, inevitably, would be to also open up Syria to the free flow of ideas and information, and to risk the creation of a wealthy, economically powerful middle class which might seek to organize for openness and political rights. Such an outcome could place the regime in danger [x]

Both these areas make clear the extent to which the Syrian interest in commencing negotiation with Israel is related largely not to direct benefits which will accrue to Syria from Israel. Rather, the Syrian hope in entering negotiations, if indeed it entered the process with a sincere desire to conclude it, would be in order to re-build its relationship with the United States. Syria is currently the subject of US sanctions, and seeks to see this reversed.[xi]

These more substantive issues aside, there is also a shorter-term set of interests on the basis of which Syria could wish to revive direct contacts with Israel at the present time. Congressional hearings are due to take place tomorrow in which US officials are set to testify that North Korea was helping Syria to construct a nuclear facility at the site bombed by Israel on 6 September 2007.  At such a moment, there is an obvious benefit to be gained from the sudden appearance of a Syrian-Israeli negotiating track.

This last point relates to a broader Syrian interest: namely, the desire to last out the remaining months of the Bush Administration at minimum cost. Syria has found itself a target of the Bush Administration’s anger because of its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, its alliance with Iran and its support for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. The opening of a negotiating channel to Israel, Syria perhaps hopes, might serve to lessen the Administration’s focus on Syrian mischief-making.

The US stance

For a long period, it was considered that the US was actively opposed to Israel’s commencing talks with Syria, because it sought to follow a policy of isolating Damascus and placing pressure on it due to its radical alignments and behaviour. At the present juncture, however, it appears that the US is content to witness the beginning of talks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her support for the Turkish-brokered talks during her recent visit to Israel. The US is understood to have no great hopes for the talks, but is willing to take a ‘wait and see’ approach – doing nothing to obstruct the parties as they begin discussions relating to the substantive issues of a possible future deal on the Golan. These include such matters as tourism, the precise demarcation of the future border, the amount of time before the dismantling of Jewish settlements on the Golan, water issues and so on.[xii]

In this regard, it is worth remembering that the contacts between Israel and Syria have been continuing for some time, and the sides are already in the middle stage of finalizing procedures and determining an agenda, according to Israeli media reports.[xiii] 

Thus, the present Administration will not attempt to hinder the talks. And if the Democrats win the upcoming Presidential elections, then the next Administration is likely to take a far more pro-active and favourable view toward the negotiations.

Assessment – considerable obstacles remain

Despite the great excitement with which the announcement of the revival of talks has been greeted, there remain very serious obstacles in the way of a successful conclusion to the current talks on the basis of Israel’s ceding the Golan Heights.

There are three aspects to this:

The first relates to a substantive aspect of the negotiations. The Syrians claim that Israel has now agreed to retreat to the ‘June 4’ borders – which were unilaterally set by Syria in the pre-1967 period and which would bring Syria to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Israel denies this. The issue of the precise demarcation of the border, and whether it allows the Syrians direct access to the lake, which is a vital water source for Israel, caused the failure of negotiations in 2000.

The second reason is the domestic political situation in Israel. As noted above, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in a weak position politically. A large part of the Israeli public and the Israeli political system remain at the current time opposed to concessions on the Golan, largely because of security concerns. There is in addition widespread suspicion of the prime minister’s motivation for announcing the commencement of the talks at this t

The possibility thus exists that the government might fall and elections become necessary, were the negotiations to reach a conclusive stage.

The third reason relates to Syrian intentions. As explained above, a case can be made that the Syrian regime has certain cardinal interests which its alliance with Iran can satisfy in a way which rapprochement with the west could not. These are: the desire to return to a dominant role in Lebanon, the desire to exert region wide influence on a level not normally available to a poor country with a population of 17 million, and the desire to make use of conflict and ideology as tools for building regime legitimacy. Samir Taki, who has handled the contacts with Israel until now, reiterated yesterday that negotiations with Israel will have no bearing on Syria’s other alliances and connections, including with Iran.[xiv]

If Syria were to break with Iran, it will hope in return to receive greater freedom for its dealings in Lebanon. Certainly under the present US Administration, there seems little chance of the US proving willing to concede Syrian demands in this area, and to reward these with financial aid to Damascus. On the contrary, the US Administration has been trying to develop a region wide policy to isolate Syria and Iran. Some supporters of this approach see Israel’s overtures to Syria as placing this policy in jeopardy.

However, it is possible that a new US Administration might revise this approach. In such an eventuality, if the previous three obstacles were also positively resolved (border demarcation differences, the Syrian-Iranian alliance, and domestic Israeli skepticism), the process might then have a chance of reaching a successful conclusion.

[i] Jeffrey Heller and Alisdair Macdonald, “Israel and Syria reveal peace talks with Turkey,” Reuters, 21 May 2008. www.reuters.com

[ii] Zvi Bar’el, “Olmert: Both Syria and Israel know what’s needed for peace,” Haaretz, 22 May 2008. www.haaretz.com

[iii] See Shmuel Even, “Israel’s policy options,” INSS Policy Brief no. 12, 19 May 2008. www.inss.org.il

[iv] Ibid.   

[v] Barry Rubin, “Why Syria matters,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol 10, no. 4, December 2006.

[vi] Andrew Mills, “Deal Boosts Hezbollah’s Fortunes,” Globe and Mail, 22 May 2008. www.theglobeandmail.com. See also Hussein Dakroub, “Hezbollah gets a real victory this time,” Associated Press, 231 May 2008. www.vgchartz.com

[vii] See Barry Rubin, The Truth about Syria, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007, for an in-depth analysis of the way that the Syrian regime perceives its interests. 

[viii] Israel Channel 2 News, 21 May 2008. 

[ix]  Alex Fishman, Yediot Ahronot, 22 May 2008, Shimon Shiffer, Yediot Ahronot, 22 May 2008. 

[x] See Barry Rubin, The Truth About Syria

[xi] Fact Sheet: Implementing the Syria Accountability Act and the Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, 2003, White House, 11 May 2004. www.whitehouse.gov

[xii] “Israel, Syria confirm peace talks in Turkey,” Reuters, 21 May 2008. www.alarabiya.net

[xiii] Alex Fishman, Yediot Ahronot, 22 May 2008.

[xiv] Israel Channel 2 News, 21 May 2008.

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