As Syria continues to be ravaged with no signs that the end of its crisis will produce a unified and stable (let alone pro-Western) Arab state, I wonder from time to time what would have happened had U.S. efforts succeeded in negotiating an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement in the 1990s.
For me, this is more than a remote thought experiment. For almost two decades, under Republican and Democratic administrations, I was part of a U.S. negotiating team that tried to reach such a deal. But had we succeeded, the results might have been catastrophic for Israel and for the U.S.
Interest in an Israeli-Syrian peace deal was bipartisan: U.S. presidents including Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush expressed varying degrees of interest. So did Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Benjamin Netanyahu. Several U.S. presidents and Israeli leaders were fascinated with longtime Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and considered him a strategic thinker with whom one might do business. The collapse of the Soviet Union generated some interest from Mr. Assad in looking to the U.S. as a possible partner.
Rarely did we hear from Israeli leaders or focus ourselves on the prospect that an Israeli-Syrian accord might be at risk if instability in Syria led to a change in regime. This concern was prevalent generally as Israelis did peace deals with other Arab leaders. But fear of instability in the Arab world didn’t stop Menachem Begin from returning Sinai to Egypt; it didn’t stop Mr. Rabin from concluding a peace deal with Jordan’s King Hussein; nor did it prevent the Oslo accords with the Palestinians. And with Hafez Assad there was an assumption–warranted at the time–that his brutality in suppressing dissent and his track record–governing longer than all of Syria’s previous leaders combined since independence in 1946–would somehow guarantee stability. Rarely has a political judgment been more wrongheaded.
What we failed to realize was that of all of Israel’s peace efforts, with the possible exception of the Palestinian accords, any deal to return the Golan Heights occupied by the Israelis in 1967 was likely to be the most fraught precisely because Mr. Assad was so cruel in his policies and that his regime consisted of an Alawite minority governing a Sunni majority. Without real reform–something neither Hafez Assad nor his son and successor, Bashar, was ever really serious about–perhaps it would have been only a matter of time before Syria experienced real instability. There is no way to know whether an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty would have changed the regime’s policies and created more openness and international investment, possibly preempting today’s devastation and tragedy. But let’s not kid ourselves: Authoritarian regimes, particularly family enterprises, rarely give up control easily, if at all.
What can be said with certainty is that had Israel given up the Golan, the situation today would have been much more complex. In response to the Syrian civil war and the rise of Islamic State, Israel would have faced a hot front confronting Hezbollah, Iran, and a range of Islamist jihadis. Given the Golan’s strategic importance, Israel would have had to reoccupy it and would have found itself in the middle of Syria’s civil war. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Israel’s actions would have been a unifying factor and might have actually bucked up the Assad regime as it tried to rally Syrians against the “Zionist enemy.”
Right now, it looks as though the Golan Heights will remain in Israeli hands for a very long time. Israeli development plans reportedly would increase the Israeli population there–now about 20,000–fivefold. What this means for the 22,000 Druze there is hard to say. But in the face of the Middle East’s volatility and unpredictability, caution and prudence are always a good bet. Withdrawal from Gaza produced Hamas. Leaving the Golan could have produced worse. It’s a cautionary tale for well-intentioned U.S. and Israeli peacemakers alike. It also bodes ill for further peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians, Lebanese, and, of course, Syrians. The Middle East is likely to remain a broken, angry, and volatile region for years to come. If would-be Israeli peacemakers–and the U.S. allies–weren’t focused on the future shape and stability of Arab polities before, they had better pay more attention to them now. It’s increasingly clear that it is not sufficient merely to reach agreements: You’d better be as certain as you can that your partners will be around to carry them out too.
Aaron David Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and most recently the author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” He is on Twitter: @AaronDMiller2.