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THE CRISIS TODAY - An Insider's Briefing (Thursday, July 27, 2006)

Israeli Security Expert Yossi Alpher offers a daily briefing during the elevated crisis in Israel...

Today's Briefing - Thursday, July 27

"The Silent Player" by Yossi Alpher

Syria is the silent player in this war. It is not present on the battlefield, but Damascus is on everyone's mind.

A few days ago The New York Times reported that sources in the State Department were looking at the option of engaging Syria politically in order to ensure peace and quiet in Lebanon--a report (or trial balloon?) that was denied. Two days ago, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert was asked about an Israeli option of opening talks with Syria, and rejected it. The same day the IDF chief of Intelligence noted that Syria was on high alert, and warned of a possible escalation on the Syrian front.

Olmert has reportedly rejected a call to deploy reserve divisions on the Golan as a precaution lest this trigger a war with Syria. Similar concerns are cited as one of the reasons Israel has until now avoided a broader ground offensive in southern Lebanon.

In recent years, Syrian President Bashar Assad has repeatedly broached the possibility of a renewed peace process with Israel. He was rebuffed by Ariel Sharon (who did not want to give up the Golan and in any case didn't believe in negotiated peace agreements with Israel's Arab neighbors) and by the US, which preferred to quarantine Damascus in order to pressure it into compliance on issues like aid to terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. But American policy in the region has come to a dead end. It helped install militant Islamists in power in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine and enhance Iran's regional power, and Israel (among others) is now paying the price. It got Syrian troops out of Lebanon, yet that country's fragile democracy was still not able to establish its sovereignty and restrain Hezbollah.

Syria clearly has influence over Hezbollah; certainly it could close off the Iranian rocket supply link at will. And Syria, a Sunni-majority country, is the weak link in the Iran-Iraqi Shi'ite-Syria-Hezbollah axis. If Israel is so anxious to remove Hezbollah from its border and avoid a far broader regional conflagration, then perhaps Damascus could, or should, be engaged diplomatically.

What sort of sticks and carrots might be useful in this respect? Syrians want the Golan back, and most Israelis understand that eventually they will have to do a territories-for-peace deal with Damascus. Bashar Assad's weak regime might conceivably be persuaded to agree to better territorial arrangements than his father offered Israel between 1993 and 2000. Syria wants and needs economic benefits that the West will only provide if Damascus is seen to be abandoning support for terrorists and loosening its strategic alliance with Iran. Syria holds the key to one of the Lebanese government's requirements for removing Hezbollah from the South: sovereignty over the Shebaa Farms that Lebanon claims but Israel continues to occupy because the UN determined back in 2000 that this parcel of land is Syrian, not Lebanese. Finally, Syria will presumably agree to exercise a restraining influence on Hezbollah only if Damascus' economic and political interests in Lebanon get some respect.

Are there components for a political process here? To find out, the US would have to abandon its "new order" attitude toward the region and deal with Assad. It would find many influential Israelis interested in a Syria option--particularly as it becomes increasingly clear just how difficult it is for Israel to work its will on Lebanon, and in view of the difficulties of reviving a peace process with the Palestinians.

The price for Israel of a renewed political process with Syria is the readiness to give up both the Shebaa Farms, which have no particular military value, as part of a Lebanon ceasefire agreement, and the Golan--as part of a peace settlement that includes security provisions. The potential benefits are much enhanced security in the north, peace (almost certainly another cold peace) with both Syria and Lebanon, and a chance to further compartmentalize the Palestinian issue and neutralize support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And the political cost for Israel of trying and failing (once again) to reach agreement with Syria need not be high--as long as Israel maintains a strong deterrent profile in the north.

The Crisis Today-An Insider's Briefing is a new daily, internet publication of Americans for Peace Now. A new edition of The Crisis Today will be posted Tuesday through Friday morning by 9:00 a.m. for as long as the current crisis continues.

The Crisis Today is written by Yossi Alpher, whose views do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.

Link to APN's Crisis Resource Page

Links to previous Briefings:

July 26, 2006
July 25, 2006
July 24, 2006
July 21, 2006
July 20, 2006
July 19, 2006
July 18, 2006