The new Syrian syndrome

Syrian-Israeli negotiations once enjoyed high visibility, spreading over a decade and passing through several Israeli governments, from the toughest Likudnik to the supposedly softest leftist dove. Thus, judging from the continuing state of belligerence between the two countries, one might assume the difficulties in reaching a peace agreement were insurmountable.

It is true that relations between Syrians and Israelis have been at their most hostile in recent years. Having developed a "Syria syndrome", Israel pretends to believe its own fabrications and ironically turns all things Syrian into obstacles to conviviality and dangers to the stability of the region, ignoring its own history of aggression. Syrian propaganda, meanwhile, has been only too happy to play along, inflating Syrian capacity to defend itself and the Palestinian cause, if not to attack.

The war of 1973 played a big role in these mind games. For the first time, Israel’s neighbors neither felt afraid to fight nor necessarily victims at the end. The contrast with the catastrophic black days of June 1967 couldn’t have been greater: in October 1973, Syria felt capable of leading the region and of standing up to Israel. Had Anwar Sadat not stopped so abruptly in mid-fight, or had Gamal Abdul Nasser still been in charge, things would probably have been different.

But the limited victory in 1973 could not erase the defeat of 1967 and the loss of the Golan Heights, especially after Sadat went his separate way. Often accused of not caring about the Golan and paying it only lip service, the Syrian regime has nevertheless been keen, at least officially, to argue that peace was its foremost goal and that the return of the entire Golan Heights was the only option.

In fact, if the situation were to be "analyzed" and the return of the Golan "rationalized" (a redundant exercise since Israel should not have to be proffered reasons to return stolen land but should rather be forced to do so), of all the problems in the region the Syrian-Israeli track is certainly the easiest to solve. This is true even 40 years after the occupation of the Golan and 26 years after its illegal annexation by the Israeli Knesset was rejected by UN Security Council Resolution 497.

Even if seen from a purely Israeli perspective–assuming that such factors really matter when international legality is to be enforced– there are no settlers of the religious kind (as in Hebron) to evacuate from the Golan, and it is not land the Jewish people claim as part of their history (unlike, say, most of Palestine). Peace with Syria would probably solve a number of other problems for Israel, including curbing current support for militant Palestinian groups and the Lebanon file and the thorny issue of Hizballah.

From a legal and political perspective–apart from UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338 on which the peace process launched in Madrid in 1991 was based and the principle of the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war"–reassurances to Israel even came with the Arab peace initiative of 2002, re-launched this year as if it were a regular marketing campaign waiting for the customer to bite.

The current Syrian regime has made repeated overtures about resuming peace talks, not where they last left off but from scratch. With recurring media statements, handshakes initiated in the most unlikely of settings, dubious non-papers offering unprecedented concessions and frequent messages sent via third parties, the Syrian regime has left no doubt as to its aspirations. If there ever was a Syrian syndrome, this is it.

And yet, Israel still refuses to return to negotiations, blowing hot and cold about peace prospects, claiming doubts about Syria’s real intentions (e.g., that Damascus is supposedly attempting to escape an isolation that exists only in the fantasy of its opponents) and refusing to give it the "benefit" of engagement while the US is isolating it. What a strange turn of affairs and questionable attitude for a country pretending to be desperate for peace. And how astonishing that it has somehow become acceptable for Israel to publicly discuss the ifs, the hows and the whens of a return of the Golan Heights. In full defiance of the so-called will of the international community–which is deemed sacrosanct only when it suits pro-American agendas–Israel is not only allowed but actively encouraged to flout dozens of resolutions, a behavior that would have been costly for other countries. After 40 years of occupation, absurdly, the onus is on the victim to reassure its aggressor about its peaceful intentions.

This current political seesaw is quite symbolic of the Israeli-American attachment to the glorification of 1967, as they continue to romanticize the fabulous David and Goliath tale they have woven, alleging Israel was the aggressed party fighting for its survival, even concocting an excuse for Israel’s violent attack on USS Liberty, and continuously justifying Israel’s violent greed for its neighbors’ lands. But Israel and America are acting as if 40 years of occupation and confrontation, after 20 years of dispossession since 1948, had not been catastrophic for the Palestinian people and had not triggered a wave of dire consequences that have affected much more than the Middle East. As long as they maintain this unilateralist, victorious and remorseless attitude, 1967 cannot be forgotten, let alone forgiven.


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