There's no doubt Bashar Assad really wants the Golan. It's likely that he would give much in order to bring back to Syria the asset his father lost in the Six Day War, in order to gain prestige and a place of honor in the pantheon of Syrian history.
Assad junior is also very interested in extricating himself from the diplomatic isolation and relieving Syria of the status of a pariah in the eyes of the democratic and wealthy West. Yet there's one thing that is more important to the Syrian president than those two strategic matters, and that is the regime's survivability.
He knows well that if he meets even some of the demands presented to him by Israel, the United States, and Europe, his regime would face genuine danger as would the Alawite-Shiite sect he leads. Therefore, he is unable to deliver the goods even if he receives everything he wants.
He is unable to disengage from Iran because it holds a triple whip over him: It's getting stronger and assisting him in expending his ballistic missiles arsenal, which he uses to create a balance of fear vis-à-vis Israel and Turkey; Iran also controls Hizbullah, which is able to thwart overnight all of Assad's hopes regarding Lebanon.
It's enough that Hizbullah, following a hint from Tehran, change its policy and back the demand made by Lebanon's political majority to completely disengage from Syria and hold a trial for Hariri's murderers, in order for Assad to find himself in deep trouble.
Bashar may indeed respond by curbing the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hizbullah through land, but the Shiite-Lebanese group already possesses enough arms in order to be able to withstand a Syrian embargo for a long period of time, until Iran comes up with new and creative ways to transfer assistance. Iran is also the major ideological and religious backes of the Alawite-Shiite sect in Lebanon that is Assad's main power base.
If Iran withdraws its support for the Syrian Shiites, it could constitute a sign for the Sunni majority and Kurds in Syria to raise their heads and demand control of the country. The Iranians are well aware of Assad's dependence and are therefore allowing him to declare his peace intentions towards Israel.
They too have an interest in reducing the American and European pressure on Damascus to expose Hariri's murderers and weaken Syria's hold on Lebanon. Tehran knows that it has the power to veto any Syrian move it doesn't like when the time comes for practical concessions on Damascus' part.
For this reason, Assad is unable to force Hizbullah to completely end its activity against Israel. As long as Syria provides the Lebanese organization with arms and other assistance, it has the ability to influence it on the tactical level. Yet as long as the group is supported by Iran and takes orders from Tehran, Syria has no real ability to exercise strategic influence on it so it abandons its anti-Israel activity.
In fact, Assad is strategically more dependent on Hizbullah than the organization is dependent on him. Assad knows that only Hizbullah is able to open a second front in Lebanon against Israel should it attack Syria. Hizbullah and its Iranian patrons received proof of this in the last Lebanon War when Hizbullah fought on its own, successfully in its view, against the IDF. Therefore, Assad is unable to provide Israel with what it wants in the Lebanese context.
Assad is unable to deliver the goods not only in the Israeli context but also in the American context. He could, physically and technically, meet the American and European demand and curb the flow of money, fighters, and weapons to the Sunni rebels in Iraq. Yet he doesn't do this because he knows that if he does, they will launch a war against him and his regime with the help of Syria's Sunni sect.
The Sunni majority in Syria, and particularly the Islamic Brotherhood, are desperate for outside assistance in order to act against the Alawite-Shiite regime in Damascus. Up until now, the Iraqi Sunni rebels refrained from acting against the Syrian regime (as opposed to what they're doing in Jordan, for example) because Assad provides them a line of assistance and contact with their supporters outside Iraq.
Should Assad stop the assistance, the Iraqi Sunnis would join forces with the Islamic Brotherhood in Syria and threaten Assad's regime. They will also resort to terrorism (possibly with Iran's assistance) in order to torpedo any attempt for Syrian-Israeli economic cooperation and any display of normalization should a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement be signed.
There's only one area where Assad can meet Israel's and the West's demands without this significantly endangering his regime. He can withdraw his support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and expel their political leaders from Damascus. He, and particularly his father, already did this in the past for short periods without sustaining damages.
The problem for him is that if he does this as a precondition for the holding of peace talks, as Israel demands, he will lose the only bargaining chip in his control. He is also risking deterioration in his relationship with Iran, which is sponsoring both groups. Palestinian Islamic Jihad is an Iranian satellite organization just like Hizbullah.
The bottom line is that Assad, under the conditions currently prevalent in the Middle East, cannot give Israel and the West anything substantive in exchange for a peace agreement in the Golan, even if we wants to do so very much. Why then does he insist and constantly declare that he is interested in engaging in talks with Israel without preconditions, even though he knows well that the implementation of an agreement will fail even if the negotiations are successful?
The answer for this can be found in Beirut and Damascus. The reasons for Assad's peace offensive are mostly tactical: He believes that engaging in negotiations with Israel, even if indirectly, would remove international public opinion and UN pressure regarding the Hariri trial. Nobody would want to worsen relations with Syria while it's on its way to changing from a provoking and violence-supporting element in the Middle East to an element that brings peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The second reason for Assad's peace offensive is an argument currently underway among top Syrian officials in the wake of the second Lebanon War between Israel and Hizbullah. This war and its results led a large group of "hawks" in the Syrian regime to demand that Syria, just like Hizbullah in Lebanon, open an attrition and guerilla war against Israel in order to regain the Golan.
This group is apparently led by Assad's brother-in-law, the belligerent intelligence chief Asef Shawkat. This group is facing a moderate group that argues that acts of hostility against Israel would be met with a severe reaction to the point of an all-out war that would endanger the Syrian regime. After all, the Syrian regime, which has a regular army and government institutions, is much more vulnerable to an Israeli military-aerial response than Hizbullah.
This group proposed that Assad take advantage of Israel's relative weakness and the weakness of its government in order to engage in talks and regain the Golan at a bargain price. Intelligence officials claim that Assad is indecisive. He is leaning towards the moderate group but fears the more powerful militant group. Therefore he decided to give talks a chance before he turns to the other, more belligerent option.
This fact presents Israel with a catch-22 situation. We have no interest in easing the pressure on Damascus over the Hariri affair, but we are interested in preventing Syria from engaging in a guerilla and terror war in the Golan Heights. For internal reasons, the Israeli government has a clear interest to show that it did everything in order to avoid going to war with Syria.
This will be important particularly if eventually, in a year or two, such war is forced on us after all. Therefore, Jerusalem should be using all the diplomatic creativity it is able to draw on.
It's completely clear that the Syrians are unwilling to adopt any significant step that would even partially meet Israel's advance demands. Syria argues that it cannot limit Hizbullah and will not expel Hamas before the talks start bearing fruit.
So be it, but before we completely reject Syria's outstretched hand we can examine its intentions - and expose the Syrian bluff, through simpler means: We can, for example, demand that Syria undertake a humanitarian gesture and allow investigators on behalf of Israel to uncover the bones of Israeli MIAs buried in Damascus.
Syria (and Israel too) are closely familiar with the exact location of the MIAs graves. All it needs to do is allow a European delegation to examine the graves, and if the findings indeed confirm available information, transfer the missing deceased to Israel.
Syria can also undertake a similar humanitarian gesture for the sake of the family of Israeli spy Eli Cohen that has been trying to transfer the remains of her loved one to an Israeli grave. The Syrian regime knows that President Assad and King Hussein undertook, each in his own way, trust-building gestures to the Israeli public before starting talks regarding the very substantial territorial concessions Israel must make in exchange for peace.
Should Syria comply with these simple requests, Israel's government – any Israeli government – would be unable to reject its offer for negotiations. If it refuses, then it would be clear that Damascus' offers are a tactical move lacking real meaning. Olmert's argument that he must reject Syria's offer out of hand in order not to embarrass the US Administration is false and borders on the ridiculous.
Such argument constitutes blatant Israeli interference in internal US politics. Moreover, the current Administration in Washington can be convinced relatively easily that a genuine peace agreement between Israel and Syria would serve its regional objectives better than any other means employed by America at this time.