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Make a Deal With Syria and Weaken the Iran-Hezbollah Axis

Is Damascus serious in its repeated offers to negotiate peace with Israel? Even if it is, should Israel let down its guard and take a chance on negotiating with this known supporter of terrorism?

The consensus answer in Washington and Jerusalem seems to be a firm no. But a careful look at the current situation, both in Syria and in the region, points toward a different answer.

The common wisdom these days appears to be that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have formed a new axis of evil against the United States and Israel. Given this past summer’s war in Lebanon, there is undeniably something to this view, but it is far from the whole truth — and it is in our own self-interest to acknowledge that our enemies are not necessarily all of the same stripe.

The key to the trio is Syria. Without Syrian political and military aid, Hezbollah would never have been able to destabilize Lebanon the way it has, let alone build up the forces needed to confront Israel.

Syria forms the critical link between Hezbollah and Iran. The airport in Damascus is the gateway through which Iranian weapons and Iranian military advisers have been reaching Lebanon for some two decades. Close the gateway, and the flow of aid will be much diminished, if not eliminated.

Syria itself is a relatively small and relatively poor country. Unlike Iran, it does not have oil. And unlike Lebanon, it cannot attract Saudi money. Hence, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad finds himself more dependent on his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, than perhaps he would like.

Both Iran and Hezbollah are committed to a radical version of Shi’ite Islam. Since the regime in Damascus is secular, Assad finds him in a rather uncomfortable position. Were Shi’ite fundamentalism to gain a stronger foothold in Syria, it might upset the delicate religious-ethnic balance that for the past quarter-century has kept the country stable. Should the United States evacuate Iraq and some kind of Iranian-guided Shi’ite entity established in Baghdad, Damascus will find itself in a less comfortable situation still.

Add to that the fact that Hezbollah, far from being controlled by Damascus, is to some extent a loose cannon — one that someday may drag Syria into a war against a much more powerful Israel. Should such a war break out, Tehran’s willingness — and certainly its ability — to come to Assad’s aid will be strictly limited.

All this, of course, does not come as news to Assad, and it is because of his weak position that he has been going out of his way during recent months to call for peace talks with Israel. So far, Israel has rejected the outstretched Syrian hand, either because Washington cast a veto or due to other reasons.

If Washington and Jerusalem’s aim, however, is to dismantle the alliance between Syria and Iran and in the process leave Hezbollah high and dry, then perhaps Assad’s calls for peace talks deserve a more positive response.

Peace between Israel and Syria will, of course, come at a price: the Golan Heights. A document published earlier this month in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz gives some idea of what such a peace could look like. Apparently drawn up by unofficial Israeli and Syrian representatives during talks between 2004 and 2006, the document spells out such matters as ending the state of belligerency, borders, demilitarization and control over water.

The critical question is whether Israel can defend itself against a Syrian attack even without the Golan Heights. Assuming that the Israeli military can pull itself out of its current leadership mess, the answer to this question should be an unqualified yes — as, indeed, some senior Israeli commanders have been saying for years. In fact, defending Israel from the Jordan Valley rather than from the Golan Heights is not only feasible but also perhaps even preferable.

Any Syrian offensive would have to be motorized and mechanized. We are unlikely to see hordes of whooping and screaming Syrian infantrymen coming down from the heights toward the Israeli kibbutzim in the area. And motorized and mechanized forces need space to deploy.

As the Yom Kippur War in 1973 made clear, such space is available on the Golan Heights, particularly the southern half. However, there is precious little room on the few roads descending from the heights down to the Jordan Valley, and any Syrian forces driving down from the Golan Heights would be unable to leave those few roads. In the face of Israel’s overwhelming superiority in air power and precision-guided weapons, the Syrians might just as well commit suicide. Doing so would save Damascus a lot of money and effort.

As the Iraq Study Group report implied, a peace process involving Israel and Syria might also benefit Washington. Iran might lose an important ally that, at present, enables it to extend its reach all the way to the Mediterranean. Syria might do more — what it can, that is, given its relative weakness — to help end the war in Iraq on terms favorable to the United States. In return for Washington agreeing to end Syria’s isolation and perhaps extend some aid, Assad might give up on supporting Hezbollah as well as Hamas.

A peace between Israel and Syria may turn out to be no more cordial than the one that has prevailed between Israel and Egypt over the past quarter-century. Resentment and a certain degree of ill will may remain. And there is no absolute guarantee that hostilities won’t one day be resumed.

But as the great military writer Carl von Clausewitz wrote more than a century ago, when peace — however tenuous — is reached, numerous sparks are extinguished and prove hard to rekindle. For the sake of its future, Israel should at least try and see what Damascus has to offer.

Martin van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University, is the author of the forthcoming “The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat From the Marne to Iraq” (Presidio Press).

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