How Israel Weighed Its Syria Policy, Before and After the Uprising

Yitzhak Rabin’s former peace negotiator with Damascus discusses Israel’s attempt to cut a deal with Assad, before the Syrian dictator declared war on his own country

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How Israel Weighed Its Syria Policy, Before and After the Uprising
The head of Israel’s delegation to the Middle East peace talks with Syria on Nov. 19, 1992, as he arrives at the State Department/Robert Giroux/AFP via Getty Images

The Syrian rebellion of 2011 broke out when Israel and Syria were engaged in indirect negotiations mediated by the United States. This was the last effort to settle the Israeli-Syrian conflict during a period of 20 years that began with President George H.W. Bush’s administration when it convened the Madrid Conference in October 1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Several serious efforts at negotiations were interrupted by periods of active hostility. In 2010 and 2011, two U.S. mediators, ambassadors Dennis Ross and Frederic Hof, tried to work out a settlement based not on the traditional formula of “territories for peace” but with a formula of “territory for strategic realignment.”

The governing idea was to obtain a commitment from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to offer Israel an end to the close alliance with Iran and to make peace in return for withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The U.S. mediators subsequently reported that significant progress had been made in this effort. Willingness to withdraw from the Golan would be a surprising element in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy, but it is questionable whether it was a serious commitment on his part or an attempt to mitigate the Obama administration’s pressure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian deal. It was not the first time that Netanyahu agreed to the formula, initiated by Israel’s former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 when he sought to break the deadlock in these negotiations with Hafez al-Assad by “depositing” with the U.S. secretary of state a hypothetical, conditional willingness to withdraw from the Golan in return for a satisfactory package of peace and security. Rabin’s Deposit, as the proposal came to be, was adopted by several of his successors — Shimon Peres, Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert, in their own negotiations with Syria in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century.

The outbreak of the Syrian rebellion put an end to this effort, and its persistence presented Israel with a policy dilemma. Israel could, in theory, decide to support the uprising. Al-Assad, after all, was a sworn enemy, an ally of Iran and Hezbollah, and a leader who tried to develop a nuclear weapon, a program Israel dismantled with airstrikes in 2007. The challenges faced by Israel during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 demonstrated the depth of the threat presented by the radical axis composed of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Al-Assad’s replacement by a new regime, ideally connected to the Sunni Arab states and the U.S., would transform the regional balance and weaken Iran and Hezbollah. But Israel’s policy was shaped by a different line of thinking. Al-Assad was, as the idiom goes, the devil Israel knew. The likely alternative for him was not a moderate, liberal, democratic government but rather an Islamist or jihadist regime on Israel’s northern border. Furthermore, any Israeli support to the Syrian opposition would vindicate the claims of the regime that it was challenged not by an authentic revolt but by an external conspiracy led by the U.S. and Israel. Underlying Israel’s cautious attitude were the lessons from the failed intervention in Lebanese politics in 1982.

The policy adopted by the Netanyahu government kept Israel on the sideline of the Syrian conflict with three important exceptions: Israel was willing to offer discreet humanitarian help; it would fire back in the event of firing or shelling into its territory; and it would discreetly interdict to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah or if weapons of mass destruction were to fall into terrorist hands. This initial Israeli policy underwent several modifications reflecting the major developments in the Syrian crisis. Thus, Israel began to launch unadvertised attacks on Iranian shipments as Iran and Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian civil war increased in 2013. Israel also began to offer significant humanitarian help to the population of the Syrian Golan and subsequently, as Iran and Hezbollah tried to embed themselves in that part of Syria, Israel offered support to some local opposition groups by providing them with weapons.

The rise of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, and the challenge it presented to the existing order in the region prompted a policy debate in Israel’s national security community. One school of thought saw the jihadist threat to Israel as a major challenge, while the other school of thought continued to see the radical axis of Iran, the Assad regime, and Hezbollah as the main threat. The eventual decline of ISIS and the exacerbation of the Iranian challenge vindicated the argument of that second school of thought.

In 2015, Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war introduced a novel element. Israel had to deal with the military presence of Russia on its borders and more immediately with the repercussion of Russia’s deployment in Syria on its freedom of action in the Syrian airspace. In the event, Israel and Russia reached a modus vivendi and, with one major exception (when Russia blamed Israel for the shooting down of a Russian plane by Syrian missiles in December 2018), have so far managed to avoid a collision in Syria.

The turning point from Israel’s point of view came with the regime’s military victory in Aleppo in December 2016. This victory marked the end of the full-fledged civil war. Israel had to formulate a policy toward al-Assad’s drive to rebuild his authority over Syria and, more significantly, to address Iran’s decision to build military infrastructure in Syria including the deployment of precision-guided missiles. Iran’s original policy consisted of providing Hezbollah in Lebanon with massive quantities of rockets and missiles to deter Israel from attacking either Iran’s nuclear facilities or Hezbollah in Lebanon. Encouraged by the success of its effort to save Assad’s regime, Iran now developed a much more ambitious policy seeking to build a land bridge to the Mediterranean through Iraqi and Syrian territory and to create in Syria a military infrastructure that would complement its investment in Lebanon, which would be managed not by proxy but directly by the Iranian military.

Israel resigned itself to the idea that Assad’s regime would regain control of Syria (or a large part of it), but it wanted to ensure that Iran and Hezbollah did not entrench themselves in the Syrian Golan and thus implemented the plan to build one front extending from the Mediterranean to the Syrian Golan. It was equally determined to prevent Iran from building its military infrastructure deeper in Syria. Since 2016, Israel has been conducting a steady campaign to destroy Iranian facilities and weapon shipments. In this campaign, Israel enjoyed the tacit support of the Trump administration. More curiously, Russia did not seriously interfere with the Israeli campaign. Clearly, it has been reluctant to engage in a military and diplomatic collision with Israel, and given its ambivalent partnership with Iran, it was not seriously concerned by the damage caused by Israel to Iran’s military deployment in Syria.

During the past four years or so, Israel’s policy on Syria was focused more on the Iranian threat. Several major aspects of the Syrian crisis — Turkey’s military intervention, the ongoing effort to reach a political-diplomatic settlement, the U.S. military presence, the Kurdish issue in northeast Syria, the return of refugees, and reconstruction — are of lesser interest to Israel. Israeli policy is predicated on the assumption that there is no significant military threat posed by the opposition to Assad’s regime but that the regime’s ability to rebuild its control over the full extent of Syria’s territory and rebuild the Syrian state on a scale reminiscent of the state built by Hafez al-Assad remains questionable.

The prospect of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal is clearly off the table at the present time. Syria itself is not a coherent state that can conduct a serious peace negotiation, and from the Israeli perspective, the idea of handing back the Golan to an illegitimate ruler like al-Assad, who barely controls his own country, would be unacceptable.

There was significant opposition to a “territories for peace” deal with the regime from the very early days of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and this opposition led to the imposition of legal difficulties on the road to such a settlement. The opponents of such an agreement introduced legislation that required a referendum and a special majority in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) before territorial concessions in the Golan could be made. In December 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin passed legislation extending Israeli law to the Golan. Begin was careful to use this terminology rather than annex the Golan, as he did with East Jerusalem, but the fine distinction between the extension of Israeli law and full-fledged annexation was ignored by the Trump administration when it decided in March 2019 to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. President Joe Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, implied the new administration’s reservations regarding the legal aspects of Israel’s control of the Golan but stated that as long as Iran and its militias were present in Syria, Israel had legitimate reasons for holding on to the territory.

Now that the prospect of an Israeli-Syrian settlement seems so remote, it is interesting to speculate on the question of whether the making of such a deal under Hafez or Bashar al-Assad would have prevented the outbreak of the 2011 rebellion and subsequent civil war.

When the quest for an Israeli-Syrian peace settlement was seriously pursued, particularly at the height of the peace process during the Clinton administration, that settlement was broadly seen as a repetition of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord of the late 1970s. For Anwar al-Sadat, peace with Israel was part of a larger strategy consisting of a transformation of Egypt’s foreign policy from a Soviet to an American orientation and domestic liberalization. Hafez al-Assad, according to that view, was as interested in building a new relationship with Washington as he was in regaining the Golan that he had lost as Minister of Defense in 1967. A peace deal with Israel would not merely bring back the Golan to Syria but would mean a new relationship with Washington, economic aid, a certain political and economic liberalization in Syria, and a relaxation of Syria’s and Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon.

But there’s a problem with this analogy: The legitimacy of the Assad regime was predicated on its role as the most distinctive expression of muqawamah, Arab nationalist resistance to America and Israel. Under this banner, the regime tried to justify the control of Syria by a minority using a massive military and security apparatus. How could a continuation of this regime be justified if peace was made with Israel and Israel and the U.S. were no longer enemies of Syria?

Unlike the open opposition in Israel to a peace deal with Syria, there was opposition under the surface in Syria to the idea of peace with Israel. By 2000, Damascus civil society had resigned itself to the idea of peace with Israel, but there was an element of ideological opposition to such peace that was manifested after Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara’s statement in Washington that the existential conflict between Israel and Syria had ended. There must have been more subtle criticism in the higher ranks of the regime by members who thought that making peace with Israel would undermine the regime’s very standing.

Hafez al-Assad himself was ambivalent about his own negotiation with Israel. As Rabin’s negotiator with Syria, I was aware of Rabin’s own doubts that al-Assad was a genuine partner for peace. In the early summer of 1995, Syria’s chief of staff, Gen. Hikmat Shihabi, met with Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gen. Amnon Shahak in Washington to discuss security aspects of a potential peace agreement. It was a good meeting, but when Shihabi returned to Damascus and reported to al-Assad on his negotiations with Shahak, al-Assad determined that it was “a bad meeting.” Rabin then concluded that al-Assad did not really want to complete a deal and told me that a deal with Syria would have to wait for his second term (that was tragically denied to him by his assassination in November 1995).

Hafez al-Assad may have changed his mind briefly in December 1999, when he told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that he wanted to seriously negotiate with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Apparently, Hafez al-Assad wanted at the time to leave his son Bashar a clean slate by completing the negotiation with Israel and regaining the Golan. This led to the Barak-Shara meeting in Washington in December 1999 and to the subsequent failed negotiation in Shepherdstown. With the failure of that negotiation, the potential window of opportunity was closed. When al-Assad met President Bill Clinton for a final effort in Geneva in March 2000, the meeting was doomed to fail. By that time, al-Assad was physically and politically feeble, about to die. He had physical and political power left for one more thing and decided that would be guaranteeing the succession by his son, Bashar.

Under Bashar al-Assad, two mediations were held with Israel: by Turkey with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and by the U.S. with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Recognizing the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the Syrian rebellion, one of the two American mediators, Hof, published a powerful article in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat. Hof elaborated in greater detail than he did in earlier occasions on the terms of a tentative agreement reached with al-Assad on Feb. 28, 2011. Al-Assad, he wrote, “told the U.S. mediator he would break military ties with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas and neutralize all threats to Israel arising in Syria, provided Israel would agree to restore to Syria all land taken from it in June 1967. Informed days later of al-Assad’s conditional commitment, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, acknowledged the seriousness of the mediation and directed his team to move forward toward a peace treaty based on an evolving American draft.”

Against the backdrop of this tantalizing development, Hof finds it difficult to explain al-Assad’s decision two weeks later to respond with violence to the demonstrations in Daraa that prompted the larger outbreak in Syria. He speculates:

“One possibility is that Assad deliberately used violence to cancel his conditional peace commitments and escape the U.S. mediation. No one forced him to make those commitments; he offered them all during a 50-minute meeting. One wonders, however, if in the weeks following his promise of full strategic reorientation, Bashar al-Assad had second thoughts about Iran’s likely reaction and the domestic political implications of peace. In any event he has all-but-deeded to Israel the land he said he wanted returned to Syria. ‘Assad Heights’ would be a better name for Israel’s new Golan settlement than ‘Trump Heights.’”

We are left to speculate on the question of what the repercussions would have been for Syria if a peace agreement with Israel had been made by either Hafez or Bashar al-Assad during one of the rounds of serious negotiations held between 1992 and 2011.

A peace produced by such an agreement would have probably been colder than the Israeli-Egyptian peace, but if this was to be part of a larger reorientation, it would have released much of the pressure that had built up inside Syria and exploded in March 2011. But it is doubtful that either father or son would have allowed, or been allowed, to liberalize Syrian politics. Hafez’s limited reforms and Bashar’s tinkering with “the Damascus Spring” in 2000 and his subsequent limited economic liberalizations clearly indicated that the dilemma of a minority regime riding on a tiger could in fact not be resolved.

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