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Syria and the Peace: A Good Chance Missed

Authored by Dr. Helena Cobban. | July 1997

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In late October 1991, Syrian and Israeli leaders sat down at the Middle East peace conference in Madrid and committed themselves to holding face-to-face talks to conclude a final resolution of the 43-year conflict between them. The promised bilateral negotiation opened that December: It was the first negotiation to be conducted directly between representatives of the two states. 1

In the 50 months of discussions that ensued, the Israelis and Syrians surmounted some quite extraordinary difficulties. They were able to overcome (indeed, they drew vital strength from) a change of government in Israel in June 1992. They survived the November 1995 assassination of Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin, numerous setbacks in the overall climate of Israeli-Arab peace-making,2 and several changes in the format of the talks themselves. In addition, while much of value was accomplished in the face-to-face negotiations in Washington, a parallel high-level track was kept constantly in operation, undertaken by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who made over a dozen visits to the Middle East during the first Clinton administration, and also through summit meetings and frequent letters and phone calls to the two leaders from the White House. According to several authoritative accounts, among the contentious issues that the negotiators were able to resolve were the depth of the projected Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and the nature of the envisaged peace. The talks also resulted in agreement on the text of the all important "Aims and Principles" document (full title "the Aims and Principles of the Security Arrangement"). After Shimon Peres? favored negotiator, Uri Savir, had completed his first round in the negotiations with Syria in early 1996, officials from Israel, the United States, and Syria all expressed confidence that 1996 would see agreement on the final text of the Israel-Syria agreement.

But in early March 1996, after the Israeli population suffered 79 losses from bombs set off by Palestinian extremists, the Peres government suspended its participation in the talks with Syria. Immediately thereafter, the Israeli-Syrian relationship plunged into a rapid downward spiral of mutual recriminations and hostility which neither Israel, nor Syria--nor the United States--appeared to do anything to brake. The rhetoric of the MiddleEasterners shifted quickly from expressions of optimism regarding the peace talks to increasingly gloomy prognostications. With dread inevitability, this descent into political and rhetorical confrontation between the two states became transformed (as had occurred so often in the past) into an actual confrontation in Lebanon. On the night of April 10-11, 1996, the Peres government launched a much-expanded version of an earlier (July 1993) bombing campaign against its neighbor, which this time included intensive attacks from air, ground, and sea on facilities throughout the south of the country and up to, and including, Beirut.

Also unlike 1993, the Syrian leadership seemed in no hurry to use its influence to rein in Hizballah. And when the continuing, massive Israeli bombardment of Lebanon targetted large numbers of civilians--as any bombardment so massive, conducted in an area so heavily populated, almost inevitably must do--it rapidly became clear that with this campaign Peres had over-reached himself.

The ultimate outcome of Peres? deadly adventure in Lebanon was, from the point of view of many Israelis, very disappointing. It took the Israeli leader and Secretary of State Christopher until April 26 to persuade the Syrians and Lebanese to conclude a new cease-fire. They were able to achieve only a new (though now written) version of the status quo ante in Lebanon: under this agreement, the Lebanese resistancefighters retain their right to strike at Israeli military targets inside Lebanon; any disputes concerning this confrontation will henceforth be judged by a committee that will include Syria and France along with Israel, Lebanon, and the United States. Meanwhile if (as was widely supposed throughout Israel) Peres had also sought electoral advantage through the bombing of Lebanon, his results on this score were disappointing: Shimon Peres and Labor lost the elections of May 1996.

The Likud Bloc (under whose auspices the negotiations with Syria had been totally stalemated prior to June 1992) returned to power, this time under the youthful but no more flexible leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu. The Syrian regime of President Hafez al-Asad, which just months earlier may have felt itself tantalizingly close to final conclusion of its negotiation with Israel, now faced a 180-degree turnabout in the position of its former negotiating partner. Starting from a position where he reiterated campaign promises to undertake no withdrawal at all from the Golan, Netanyahu shifted only far enough to say that he would negotiate "without preconditions" on the Golan. When pressed to spell out what this meant, he declared that he would not be bound by any of the verbal commitments undertaken by his predecessors. Meanwhile, he and his ministers announced new plans to house additional Jewish-Israeli settlers in the occupied Golan Heights.3

The experience of the years 1991-96 provides considerable new material for those interested in the ill-starred interactions between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon. How can we explain the fact that the initially so-successful Israeli-Syrian negotiation resulted, in the end, in failure? What can we learn about what a "concludable" Syrian-Israeli peace agreement may eventually look like? Can the incremental-style of negotiation pursued throughout these talks be efficacious in later negotiations-- assuming meaningful talks are ever resumed? What can we learn about the effectiveness of the styles ofintervention adopted by the two U.S. administrations involved? Can we learn anything significant about the possibility of disaggregating the Israeli-Lebanese negotiation from that between Israel and Syria?

But first, the main developments within the 50- month negotiation will be recapitulated.


This survey of the 5 years of Syrian-Israeli interaction that followed the late-1991 convening of the Madrid peace conference indicates clearly that by the end of 1996, the Israeli-Palestinian track was by no means the only portion of the negotiations that was in serious trouble. The Syrian-Israeli negotiation had likewise, during 1996, spun completely off a course which, up to mid-1995--and even as late as February 1996--appeared to its participants to be on its way to a successful conclusion.

For those concerned with the long-term stability of the Middle East, the successive downturns that occurred in the Syrian-Israeli relationship during late 1995 and 1996 were particularly frustrating both because of the importance of this element of the peace process, and because the hard negotiating work done between August 1992 and June 1995 had brought the two parties so tantalizingly close to reaching the outlines of a final-status peace agreement. This agreement had been based fair and square on the principles for peacemaking supported by the international community-- but notably not by Israel's Likud party--since 1967: that is, on the principles of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force and the consequent need for an exchange of land for peace between the parties.

What lessons does the experience of 1991-96 have for planners trying to strategize for future rounds of a Syrian-Israeli negotiation? A first and important lesson is that President Asad's regime showed in this period, as in earlier years, that it was not willing to settle for anything less than the complete return of all Syrian lands occupied by Israel in 1967, and similarly, that it had no interest at all in concludinga second interim agreement, to be added to the disengagement-of-forces agreement concluded with Israel in 1974. In both these respects, Asad's negotiating stance differed considerably from that of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Evidently, President Asad considered his position vis-à-vis Israel to be considerably stronger than Arafat's. And by the end of 1996, nothing had occurred that disproved this judgment.

As an important corollary to the above, it should be noted, however, that once assured by the Israeli leaders that they would consider a full withdrawal from Syrian lands, Asad then declared that he would consider acceding to a broad range of Israeli counter-demands, in both the political and the important security spheres. By June 1995, it seemed that the outline of a do-able deal had been found by the negotiators: a total Israel withdrawal in return for full political relations and a security regime which would be to some degree, yet to be determined, asymmetrical in Israel's favor. In other words, a deal that would look like the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in many important respects.

A student of history may ask why it took the parties this long--28 years after the passage of Security Council resolution 242 in 1967--to reach this point. The laggard-liness of the parties prior to 1991 need not concern us here. But what did seem to emerge only in 1991 was the readiness in that year of the Syrian leadership and of a broad consensus within the Israeli political leadership to at least explore whether a 242-based deal was possible--as well as, equally importantly, a new commitment from the ruling forces in the international community (that is, by that point, the U.S. leadership) to nail down this crucial plank of the Israeli-Arab confrontation into a formal peace agreement.

Over the years that followed 1991, some of these factors changed. The Israeli leadership's readiness to engage in the tough diplomacy needed for a deal with Damascus increased with the 1992 election of Labor, but was dented when Premier Rabin's calculations shifted towards focussing on the Palestinians. When he put the Syrian negotiations on a back burner in June/July 1995, he may have thought he could revive them later on, before his next election campaign. But history proved that hope false. Shimon Peres' stewardship of the Syrian question during his ill-fated premiership then proved sloppy and disastrous, and his act of withdrawing from the talks paved the way both for a serious deterioration in the security situation in the region and for his (Likud) successor's abstention from any participation in the bilateral talks. And one of the biggest mistakes of both Rabin and Peres was their failure to try to actively and publicly re-frame the whole issue of Israel's security vis-à-vis its neighbors as being a question of security interdependence rather than zero-sum-gaming and constant threat.

The ever-crucial factor of American commitment to the talks' successful conclusion also changed during the period under study. True, Secretary Christopher made 20 or more shuttle trips between Syria and Israel during his tenure, and President Clinton relatively frequently became personally engaged in jollying along this track. But there was an aimlessness to all this engagement, and a willingness not to move one step beyond what the Israeli leadership itself wanted, that contrasted strongly with the engagement that President Bush had shown. The Clinton administration's engagement also contrasted strongly with, for example, the engagement of President Carter in the diplomacy of the Camp David Accords, or that of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in even earlier rounds of Israeli-Arab diplomacy. In President Carter's case, he showed that once he had committed himself personally to the negotiation, he would stick with it, and with America's commitments to the deal's signatories, as a full and guiding participant until it was successfully concluded--or there would be a price for the dissentingparty to pay. Secretary Kissinger's diplomacy, similarly, was very different from the role of tentative message-carrier that Secretary Christopher and even President Clinton seemed to see for themselves.

The Syrian leadership's commitment to concluding a deal--provided it was based on a full Israeli withdrawal--did not seem to vary as much during the period under question as did that of the Israelis or Americans. Was there more that President Asad could have done to bring earlier success to the negotiations? Undoubtedly there was. He could have revealed more of his negotiating hand to the Israelis earlier. He could have taken action to brake or end the activities of groups committed to violence inside Israel, or against Israeli targets within Lebanon. But all these actions would, in Asad's ever-cautious view, have involved some political costs; and these he considered not worth paying in the absence of any clearly visible dividend from Israel or the United States.

If there is to be an Israeli-Syrian agreement, this will have consequences for the good throughout the Middle East. But with the return to power of Likud in 1996, and the re-election of President Clinton five months later, such an agreement seems considerably more distant than it appeared in 1991.


1. The 1974 agreement under which the two states agreed to disengage their forces on the Golan was signed by military representatives of the two states at the same ceremony. But it had been negotiated entirely through the shuttle diplomacy of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

2. These included Israel's attempted expulsion of 400 alleged Hamas activists in December 1992 (which led to a short Syrian suspension of participation in the bilaterals); its July 1993 bombing campaign in Lebanon which killed some 120 Lebanese civilians along with a small number of military personnel; and the killing of 29 Palestinian civilians in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron by a Jewish-Israeli extremist (February 1994).

3. In October 1996, the Israeli National Oil Company even announced plans to drill for oil in the Golan. These plans were reported as canceled two days later, on account of new plans to privatize the oil company.