Don't Run to Assad

A true peace agreement with Syria can only be discussed after Syria undergoes a profound and fundamental change.

Gabriel Siboni
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Gabriel Siboni

The latest appeal by Syrian President Bashar Assad to renew negotiations with Israel, and statements on his people's readiness for peace, have once again brought peace talks with Damascus to the forefront.

The eager response by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who expressed their willingness to enter negotiations without preconditions as soon as possible, amply demonstrates how Assad is getting to eat the cake and have it too.

Syria has been brought back from the political cold only after indirect talks with Israel via Turkey were revealed. These talks gave the Syrian regime legitimacy, even though Syria continued on as a loyal member of the radical bloc. The talks boosted the ostracized regime, and the full extent of the strategic damage they have caused to Israel has yet to be fully understood. Syria was and is a disturber of regional balance, as American forces coping with its attempts to destabilize Iraq can testify.

Assad has several personal achievements of this kind to his credit: Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is well-known; Syria is developing chemical weapons of mass-destruction, and has tried to set up a nuclear reactor to achieve military nuclear capability.

Terrorist organizations over the years have found Syria to be a convenient and helpful host. Syria's deep involvement in Lebanon and its part in delivering advanced weapon systems to Hezbollah increase Lebanese instability, while providing backing for increased Iranian involvement. All these demonstrate how deeply Assad is implicated in the radical axis.

Some say that pulling Syria out of the Axis of Evil will improve Israel's overall strategic balance. But closer heed must be paid to the Syrian president's words. To him, peace with Israel means Israeli retreat from the Golan, while he maintains his strategic connection to Iran and other rogue states. Past experience shows that rapprochement attempts by Israel and parts of the international community don't make him moderate his positions, but rather convince him to believe he can have everything both ways.

Israeli decision-makers need to fundamentally review Israel's real interest in regard to Syria, while neutralizing the kind of strategic discourse that was relevant 30 years ago but is now hopelessly outdated.

The enemy, having realized it cannot conquer Israel, has chosen the path of resistance and attrition, with the aim of exhausting Israelis in the long run. This change proves the irrelevance of giving away assets in exchange for security arrangements and guarantees, demilitarization and the like.

A true peace agreement with Syria can only be discussed after Syria undergoes a profound and fundamental change. The desire to please the Damascus regime and go into talks will not help bring about such change.

Assad, whose supreme interest is preserving the Alawi reign, has a lot to lose. Israel must reach a strategic agreement with the American administration on the fundamental conditions for talks with Syria.

The first among them should be separation from the radical axis and from radical ideology. Syria, deep in the throes of an economic crisis and located in a problematic geo-strategic position, must choose a new path before peace talks can begin. Right now, Assad's haughty attitude is like he is living in a glass house and throwing stones in every direction.

The author chairs the military research program at the Institute for National Security Studies.

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