Why would Israel want to talk to any of its northern neighbors?
Hizbullah's summer attack and continued ransom of two Israeli soldiers has led many Israelis to realize that the status quo is no longer automatically preferable to a settlement. And Israel’s inability to humiliate Hizbullah - as nothing less could be considered a victory - only reinforces the need to do something different.
How can Israel neutralize the northern threat?
Shiite and Hizbullah ministers in Lebanon are actively trying to force a collapse of the current anti-Syrian government by resigning in bulk, and possibly by killing popular anti-Syrian ministers. It is unclear if Prime Minister Fouad Siniora can weather this storm, but regardless, his government could never survive a political or military confrontation with Hizbullah.
Syria, on the other hand, is in the powerful position of being the only country (other than Israel) that shares a border with Lebanon. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the wherewithal and lack of ideological constraints necessary to physically isolate Hizbullah in Lebanon. He merely lacks the motivation.
What would motivate Syria to cut off Hizbullah?
At its core, Syria is opportunistic. While Hizbullah is the ideological offspring of Iran, Syria merely serves as a channel between Iran and Hizbullah in the interest of money and power, not ideology and certainly not religion.
To ensure the operational capabilities of Hizbullah, Iran needs unimpeded access and supply lines through Syria and into southern Lebanon, which President Assad offers in order to get a free ride on Iran’s shoulders, as the popularity of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only increases. And as always, Syria longs for a return of the Golan Heights, and the vast majority of Syrians are prepared to make sacrifices to get it back.
Neither the Israelis or Syrians are willing to put their big chips on the table (land and peace, respectively) until they have reason to believe they will not regret trusting each other. To this end, Assad’s diverse insecurities would give Israel the pretext to negotiate without immediately discussing the Golan Heights.
For instance, Damascus is facing a severe water shortage and needs billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure to transport water to Damascus, either from the Mediterranean Sea or the Euphrates River.
What’s more, Assad needs money (and a surge in international commerce) to strengthen his hold on power. Widespread resentment of his Alawite regime for its perceived corruption and ineptitude comes easily to a population that is nearly 75 percent Sunni and on the border with war-torn Iraq.
For various reasons, Arab nations have withdrawn their financial and political support for Syria, forcing Assad to become increasingly dependent on Iran—militarily, politically, and financially. This trend is not irreversible, but Assad has to embrace these trends or face a coup.
Or, the United States could step in.
Why would the United States engage Syria?
Constrained by a number of factors, President Bush could only engage Syria if it would benefit the US position in Iraq or limit the reach of Iran. Syria’s porous eastern border with Iraq is likely the easiest - and most used - method for Sunni fighters to enter Iraq and join the insurgency. The border is too long for the US forces to monitor, but Assad has the power to guard it, were he so inclined.
Furthermore, leading Syria away from Iran’s periphery would strike a blow to Tehran’s overall strides toward regional dominance. In fact, such a policy would be celebrated (and potentially rewarded) by the nervous Sunnis in Saudi Arabia.
By comparison, luring Syria should seem no more difficult than President Bush’s successful engagement with Libya and its leader, Moammar Qaddafi, who for decades was isolated for sponsoring terrorism.
Why would Israel negotiate with Syria?
Without a substantive mandate to disarm Hizbullah, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon will only delay an inevitable reprise, spurned by whatever new and deadly weapons Hizbullah acquires in the meantime.
No country would be more threatened by a nuclear Iran than Israel, especially if Syria continues to act as a liaison between Iran and Hizbullah. But if handicapped by Syria, Iran could only pose a strategic nuclear threat to Israel with conventional nuclear missiles. Though far from ideal - especially in Israel - limiting Hizbullah’s technological reach is preferable to nothing at all.
Short of a nightmarish US invasion of Iran, the best Israel can hope for is to neutralize and starve Hizbullah’s supply lines and ideology out of existence. The same could be said for Hamas’ operation in Damascus - a chip that Assad would gladly hand over if it meant internal stability.
Besides, even skeptics of engagement recognize that Israel has a substantial strategic interest in preventing the overthrow of Syria’s ruling family, as their replacement or (more likely) his usurper would almost certainly do far worse than arming Hizbullah.
Admittedly, the scenario painted by this analysis is exceedingly rosy. It glosses over the nearly unthinkable Israeli decision to give up the Golan and asks for dramatic changes in policy from both Syria and the United States.
But Syria is vulnerable. Assad is allying with Iran’s fiery leader out of necessity, and he knows that Tehran will discard him as soon as he outlives his usefulness. That moment is approaching, and direct engagement with Syria is necessary to ensure Israel’s long-term security and to protect American interests in the Middle East.
David Young is a Policy Analyst at the Israel Policy Forum in Washington, DC