The Peace Process between Israel and Syria

By Zunes, Stephen | Foreign Policy in Focus, May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Peace Process between Israel and Syria


Zunes, Stephen, Foreign Policy in Focus


Key Points

* The U.S. role as a superpower with strong strategic and economic interests in the region often conflicts with its role as mediator in the Israeli-Syrian peace process.

* Syria has moderated its once-belligerent posture toward the Israelis and is now closer to accepting the existence of Israel and living in peace, particularly if the Palestinians are allowed a viable state alongside Israel.

* The United States has maintained its strong support for Israel's negotiating position, even though Israel now takes a more hard-line posture than its autocratic neighbor.

The U.S. has long considered Syria the most intractable of Israel's front-line neighbors due to its autocratic government, links to terrorists, and virulent anti-Israel posture. However, a variety of factors--both international and domestic--have led this one-time rejectionist government to pursue a peace agreement with its long-time enemy. Syria's less belligerent stance toward Israel is not as much a result of greater American influence in this former Soviet client-state as it is a reflection of the more pragmatic drift of Arab parties that has been evolving since the mid-1970s. The Syrians supported, albeit not uncritically, the U.S. government in its war against Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in 1991 and have also backed the current campaign against the al Qaeda terrorist network.

In the Syrian case, this process has been hastened by the end of large-scale Soviet military support combined with U.S. determination to provide Israel with a qualitative military advantage. The death of long-time dictator Hafez Assad in 2000 and his replacement by his more pragmatic son has not led to the radical reforms once hoped for, but he does appear to be more moderate than his father.

The dramatic political and economic shifts in the Arab world resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of left-leaning Arab nationalist movements, and the U.S.-dominated post-Gulf War system, have created a situation where Syria cannot reap as much political capital in provoking conflict with Israel as it had previously. However, the Israelis seem far less willing to take the necessary steps to make a negotiated settlement possible, and the U.S. likewise appears unwilling to push its ally to compromise. The recent escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence has also tempted Syria to resume support for radical secular Palestinian groups that feel vindicated as a result of the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In 1976, with quiet U.S. support, Syria invaded Lebanon to prevent a victory by left-wing nationalist forces backed by Palestinian exiles. The Syrians played a balance-of-power role between the contending factions until the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990. …

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