By Major Shawn Pine

The visit of Madeline Albright to the Middle East in September 1997 sparked hopes that the comatose Syrian - Israeli peace talks might once again be revived. In many respects, this optimism was the residual product of earlier predictions by Middle East prognosticators anticipating the dawning of a new Middle East. Arguably the most optimistic assessment came on September 9, 1993, when Moshe Maoz, Israel's internationally recognized Syriologist, predicted that a Syrian - Israeli peace treaty was in the offing.1

Unfortunately, Moaz's predictions succumbed to Middle East realities as ominous Syrian troop movements in Lebanon and Syria in August 1996, coupled ith bellicose statements emanating from Syria, led many Israeli Syriologists to express fears that the chances of a new Israeli - Syrian conflagration had risen to perilous levels.2 Many regional observers and Middle East pundits attributed this sudden deterioration of atmosphere, from peace towards war, to the May 29, 1996, election of Benjamin Netanyahu and a perceived hardening of Israeli negotiating positions on both the Syrian and Palestinian negotiating tracts.3

However, a review of the Netanyahu government positions on issues relating to the peace process does not support those contentions. Moreover, examination of Syria's regional strategic goals and interests, coupled with its historical and current perceptions toward Israel, casts serious doubts as to the veracity of claims that Assad has made the "strategic" decision to make peace with Israel.4 The previous sanguineness of Maoz, and scores of other scholars and pundits, that a new Middle East was just beyond the horizon, may have been more a product of wishful thinking and misplaced optimism rather than an accurate appraisal of the situation.

Examination of Syrian strategic goals, coupled with a review of Syrian President Assad's negotiating behavior over the last four years, suggests that Assad's desire to regain the Golan Heights may not be as important to Syria as conventional wisdom dictated. Indeed, an examination of Syrian regional and domestic priorities reveals that the benefits in regaining the Golan Heights far exceeds the price Assad would have to pay in regional and domestic prestige and influence.


Syrian participation in the peace process has not precluded that country from continuing its harsh discourse towards Israel. The government controlled press has routinely compared Israel to the Nazis and uses quotation marks whenever it refers to Israel.5 As with most Arab states, Syria has traditionally viewed Israel as a foreign and expansionist entity forced upon them by the former European colonial powers. Syria defines its conflict with Israel in existential terms and believes the Arab - Israeli conflict is a struggle for survival between two irreconcilable movements.6 Additionally, Syria views Israel as an obstacle to fulfilling its ambition of expanding to what it considers its historical, rightful, and natural boundaries. These boundaries include present day Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. This Syrian view of Israel, as an unwanted, alien, regional entity, has been a constant theme in the government controlled press. Finally, Syria regards itself as the leader of Arab pan-nationalism, and sees the existence of Israel as an anathema to that movement.7

The belief that Assad's willingness to negotiate with Israel is not a fundamental change in regime policy toward Israel is strengthened by a review of the manner in which Assad has approached negotiations. Assad has rejected most ideas of normalizing relations with Israel. Assad views a peace treaty as the price he has to pay in order to regain the Golan Heights. His concept of a final agreement does not include any of the trappings of normalized relations such as trade, open borders, or full diplomatic relations. In short, Assad's concept of peace is different than Israel's, and more closely resembles a nonbelligerency agreement than a peace agreement.8


On June 6, 1996, Mossad Chief Shabtai Shavit, departing from the belief of many Israeli Syriologists that Assad has made the strategic decision to make peace with Israel, expressed his reservations concerning Assad's desire to achieve peace with Israel.9 Shavit believed that Assad's decision to negotiate with Israel was a tactical, rather than strategic, decision.10 Be that as it may, Assad's departure from Syria's traditional confrontational strategy concerning Israel, is designed to achieve three primary objectives:

1. Establish and consolidate its power and dominance in the Fertile Crescent in light of new political realities.

2. Build bridges to the United States in order to facilitate goal #1 and weaken United States support for Israel.

3. Legitimize its rule in Lebanon.11

It is important to remember that Syria, as with most of the regions Islamic countries and organizations, takes a long-term view of its conflict with Israel and sees the Arab - Israeli conflict as another phase in historical clash between Islam and the West. By frequently equating the current Arab struggle with that of the crusades, and inculcating this notion throughout the Syrian population, Assad makes it clear that Israel's presence in the region is ephemeral and that Israel will ultimately follow the way of the crusaders.

Assad, in accordance with his historical view of the struggle, is confident that the regional balance of power will ultimately shift in favor of the Arabs and the eradication of Israel from the region will ultimately be achieved. To facilitate this end, Assad has chosen to enter the peace process in order to insure Syria a voice in determining the outcome of the peace process and to achieve Syria's short-term goals which are: regain the Golan Heights; consolidate its de facto absorption of Lebanon; permit it to influence the peace process; to insure continued foreign aid and investment; and begin to erode traditional US support for Israel.12

Assad's decision to participate in the peace process was motivated by three significant events: The collapse of the USSR which resulted in the loss of Syria's primary patron; the defeat of Iraq in the Persian Gulf War which lessened the prospects of another Israeli - Arab war; and perceived changes in US policy regarding the strategic value of Israel given the passage of the aforementioned events.13 The peace process has created an interesting dilemma for Syria. While the peace process is its only viable option to achieve its primary short-term objectives, amelioration of its conflict with Israel will diminish its strategic regional importance as the vanguard state in the existential Arab struggle against Israel and therefore poses a long-term threat to Syrian strategic interests.


To facilitate achievement of its strategic goals, Syria has entered into a de facto regional alliance with Iran. On the surface, the Syrian - Iranian alliance is an enigmatic relationship. The Syrian secular, pan-Arab vision of an "Arab integrated nation" seems incompatible with the Iranian goal of creating a "unified Islamic world." While these two visions are destined to clash in the long-term, the Syrian - Iranian alliance currently provides ideological and tangible benefits to both countries.

The alliance reflects a mutual convergence of interests as both Syria and Iran oppose the goals of the American inspired "new world order."14 For both countries, the goals articulated within the context of the "new world order" are viewed as antithetical to their regimes. US support for the Israeli - Palestinian peace process, the elimination of terrorism, and the promotion of democracy and human rights in the region, are considered to pose potential existential threats to the ruling regimes.

Success of the Arab - Israeli peace process will greatly diminish the influence and ability of both countries to achieve their long-term strategic goals. Both countries gain much utility from their vociferous opposition to the Jewish state. Peaceful resolution of the Arab - Israeli conflict will diminish their importance while simultaneously strengthening the regional strength of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Additionally, a reduction in regional terrorism will cost both countries their main tool for exerting regional and international influence. Finally, regional democratization, coupled with its associated concerns for human rights issues, could result in the eradication of the ruling regimes in both countries.15

The regimes in Teheran and Damascus view their alliance as a counterbalance to regional threats posed by they other major regional powers. Both countries view the alliance as conducive for obtaining their respective strategic goals concerning Lebanon.16 Syria serves as an conduit for the flow of Iranian weapons to the Hizb Allah terrorist groups. In return, Hizb Allah has proven useful in helping Syria consolidate its hegemony over Lebanon. Moreover, Syria has also used Hizb Allah terrorist attacks against Israel as leverage in its peace talks with that country.17 Finally, Iran has assisted Syria in its arms buildup by providing Syria with much needed hard currency.

Syria's alliance with Iran may also afford it the opportunity to exploit residual influence should Iran fulfill expectations and obtain offensive nuclear capabilities in the short-term. In addition to the immediate benefits afforded by the alliance, both countries see the alliance as facilitating a number of medium and long term objectives such as:

1. Creating an Arab - lslamic bloc to counter US hegemonic influences in the region.

2. Buildup a significant military capability to deter any potential threat.

3. Create a geo-strategic sphere of influence until Egypt, Turkey and Algeria succumb to Islamic radicalism.

4. Develop a worldwide terrorist network to facilitate the expansion of their influence. 18

The Syrian - Iranian alliance represents a potential shift in the regional balance of power. Both countries have devoted significant resources in developing and strengthening their military capabilities in both conventional and nonconventional weaponry. Moreover, there are indications of cooperation between the two countries in the development of military technology. For example, intelligence sources suspect the two countries of cooperating in the development of cruise missile technology.19 Notwithstanding their long term antithetical objectives, the alliance poses a major impediment to the peace process and directly threatens many of the smaller countries in the region. The ultimate success of this alliance in reshaping the region, and thwarting the current regional movement toward peace, will be largely dependent upon the success of Islamic extremism to proliferate throughout the region.


On paper, Syrian presents a formidable military threat to its neighbors and has devoted significant resources toward building its military. Syria, in a futile attempt to achieve strategic military parity with Israel, has devoted upwards to 65 percent of its yearly budget toward the military. The drive to achieve strategic military parity with Israel has reached such proportions that it has precipitated a severe economic crisis in the country.20

Syrian additions to its military since the Persian Gulf War include purchases of: 150 SCUD-C missiles from North Korea; 600 T-72 tanks from Russia and the former Soviet bloc states; 48 MIG-29's and 24 SU-24's from Russia; and the formation of two new active armored divisions.21 Funding for these additions was provided by a $2 billion grant from Saudi Arabia for Syria's participation in the Gulf war.

Syrian ground forces are currently configured into the Golan Corps and Lebanon Corps. They consist of 11 divisions that includes: six armored divisions; three mechanized divisions; a republican guard division; and one special forces division.22 I Corps is deployed in the Golan region and consists of the 1st, 3rd, and 9th armored divisions as well as the 5th and 7th mechanized divisions. II Corps is deployed in the Lebanon region and consists of the 10th Mechanized Division, 11th Armored Division, 14th Airborne Division and the seven special forces regiments. The Republican Guards Division and 569th Armored Division are deployed around Damascus for capital and regime security.23 Syria fields a 408,000 man military, with another 400,000 in reserve, along with 4,500 main battle tanks and over 640 combat aircraft and 100 attack helicopters.24

However, despite its numerically formidable size, the Syrian military is plagued by logistical and operational problems. Syria's lack of hard currency reserves, coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union, has left much of Syria's military machine ineffective. Approximately 25 percent of Syrian armor is not fully operational and have been placed in static defensive positions, and Syria is having difficulty obtaining replacement parts for its combat aircraft.25 Moreover, it appears that Syria's drive for conventional military parity with Israel has lost its steam as Syria reduced its arm forces by some 88,000 personnel in 1994, and is currently spending approximately 20 percent less than in 1990.26

Syria lags far behind most of the major regional powers in the quest for nuclear weapons, opting instead to concentrate on its conventional capabilities and "poor man nuclear weapons" such as biological and chemical weapons. However, in 1988, Syria embarked on $3.6 billion program to construct six nuclear reactors, and Jane's Defense Weekly reported, in 1994, that Syria had "joined the drive to acquire nuclear weapons."27

Syria has made up for its modest nuclear program by obtaining a chemical capability that is estimated to be greater than that of pre-Gulf war Iraq.28 Syria began its domestic production chemical missile warheads in 1985, and currently produces several hundreds of tons of mustard gas and nerve gas sarin each year.29 The primary conduit for Syria's nonconventional weapons is the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherche Scientifique (CERS). CERS is purportedly a civilian research center that has official ties with a myriad of research centers throughout the world.30 The center was instrumental in facilitating the import of Chinese missile components to Syrian factories.31

Moreover, Syria has succeeded in obtaining an impressive array of ballistic delivery systems for its chemical and biological weapons. In addition to the 150 Korean SCUD-C missiles, with a range of 600 Km., the Syrians have 100-200 SCUD-B missiles and has reportedly begun self-production, having obtained assistance in constructing the plants from North Korea, China, andIran, of the SCUD-C missiles.32


In September 1996, Syria redeployed the 14th Airborne Division and 10th Mechanized Division to the northern slopes of Mount Hermon, thereby precipitating a spiraling of tensions between it and Israel. The fact that the 1973 Yom Kippur War was initiated by a Syrian commando attack on Mount Hermon was not lost on Israeli military analysts.33

This sudden escalation of tensions led those Israeli Syriologists, who endorsed the notion that Assad had made the strategic decision to make peace with Israel, to express their belief that Assad's actions were motivated by a sense of frustration over the stalled peace process. They drew attention to the fact that the 1973 Yom Kippur War was initiated by a Sadat frustrated that his 1971 peace initiative was not taken seriously. Conversely, those Syriologists who were skeptical of Assad's metamorphosis from the banner carrier of pan-Arabism to peacemaker, contended that Assad's deployments were not due to frustration over the progress in the stalled peace process. Rather, it was due to Assad's sense that preoccupation with the Israeli - Palestinian tract was regulating Syria to a subservient role and, therefore, the Syrian movement was designed to return Syria to the center of the regional peace process.

However, regardless of the intent of the Syrian military deployments in the fall of 1996, it is important to note that the collapse of the USSR, coupled with Iraq's military defeat in the Persian Gulf War, has reduced Syria's ability to launch a sustained military offensive against Israel. While the possibility of a limited war is possible, it is improbable given the enormous disparity in the cost to benefits ratio. It is possible, if Syria achieved strategic surprise, that it could make limited territorial gains in the Golan Heights and try to obtain a cease-fire before an Israeli counter-offensive.

Measured against these potential gains is the probability that Syria would receive limited support from its neighbors and would have to face the full brunt of Israel's military virtually alone. In the event of such a war, Syria would be isolated and without the material or political support of a major power.34 Without such support Syria would be militarily devastated by an Israeli military unencumbered by superpower geo-political constraints. Such a loss would destroy Syria's military, end Syria's ability to achieve its primary strategic objectives, and would probably result in the overthrow of the present regime.

It is unlikely that Syria would risk losing its control over Lebanon and weaken its future ability to exercise hegemonic control in the region in such a risky military venture. The subservience of regaining the Golan, as compared to its interests in Lebanon and Iraq, was underscored by a senior Jordanian official who stated that "Lebanon is ten times more important to Syria than Golan, and Iraq is ten times more important than Lebanon. Syria can live without the Golan forever, but it cannot afford a situation in which Iraq falls under the influence of the US or its regional allies."35

Consequently, it is far more likely that Assad will emulate the pre-1973 Soviet strategic objective of leaving the region in a state of "no war and no peace," rather than follow Sadat's strategic decision to initiate a limited war. Such a strategy would best serve Syria's strategic interests in the region. Assad, by maintaining the region in an atmosphere of "controlled tension" is able to exploit and manipulate Western fears of a regional war to exert international pressures on Israel and force it to be more forthcoming to Syrian demands.

Such a strategy will allow Assad to maintain Syria as the standard bearer in the pan-Arab struggle against Israel while leaving him the flexibility of building bridges to the West. More important, a state of no war and no peace will enable Assad to circumvent the detrimental effects that peace in the region would have for the Syrian regime such as: marginalizing Syria as a regional actor; strengthening Jordan at the expense of Syria; freeing the Palestinians of Syrian influence; and allowing Israel to gain regional acceptance and become a regional rival to Syria.36

Syria will rely on its deterrence capabilities, afforded by its ballistic and nonconventional weapons, and fortify its defenses to deter a potential Israeli attack. Syria will continue its participation in the peace process, albeit on its own terms, while simultaneously continuing its quest to achieve a viable military option should the peace process fail to return the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty. To make Israel more amicable to Syrian demands, Assad will use terrorist surrogates in Lebanon, to pressure Israel into making concessions or to force Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

Despite its participation in the peace process, Syria will not sacrifice any of its core values to secure the return of the Golan Heights. It is important to remember that the Syrian regime rejects fundamental principles of normalization with Israel and views manifestations of peace, such as political democratization and economic interdependence, as threatening to regime longevity and stability. Consequently, under the present Syrian regime, the duration and success of any Syrian - Israeli agreement will be predicated upon Israel's ability to maintain the perception of tactical and strategic military superiority, rather than on fundamental changes of Syrian attitudes and perceptions toward Israel.


The peace process has only marginally improved Israel's acceptance in the region. In addition to historical, cultural, and religious animosities, the majority of Arab states still view Israel as a hegemonic economic and military threat to inter-Arab competition for regional supremacy. The major states in the region have vested economic and political interests in not allowing Israel to become a fully integrated regional actor. Israeli withdrawal from the territories will not diminish Arab perceptions of Israel as an alien and unwelcomed regional interloper and will not resolve any of the fundamental core problems of the conflict.

Israeli withdrawal from the territories will not significantly decrease the prospect of a future Arab - Israeli war. It is the general consensus of most regional scholars and experts that deterrence of a future Arab - Israeli war is a function of Arab perceptions that the balance of forces greatly favors Israel.37 Should this perception change, then the prospect of a future Arab - Israeli war will be high regardless of continued Israeli presence on territories captured in the 1967 Arab - Israeli War.

Ironically, Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, may accelerate a future Arab - Israeli war. The presence of Israeli forces on the Golan Heights, and in close proximity to Damascus, is a powerful deterrent to potential Syrian aggression. The removal of these forces would decrease Israel's strategic advantage and lower the threshold in which Syria, in a coalition with other forces, might perceive it has gained military parity with Israel. In the final analysis, the probability of a future war will be greatly determined by the success, or failure, of Islamic extremism to proliferate throughout the region, rather than substantial progress on resolution of the Arab - Israeli conflict.

A strong argument put forth for signing a peace agreement with Assad is the perception that he honors his agreements. However, the premise that Assad adheres to agreements is somewhat spurious. In the past, Assad has broken agreements deemed not in Syria's best interest on numerous occasions. These include:

1. The "Red Line" understandings reached with Israel in April 1, 1976. Under these agreements Israel acquiesced to Syrian forces entering Lebanon and Assad agreed not to deploy aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, or more than one brigade of soldiers into Lebanon. Assad violated all three agreements when he ferried troops by helicopter and deployed surface-to-air missiles in the Zahle area in 1981.38

2. Three commitments to withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon. The Riyad-Cairo Accords of October 1978, the Fez Declaration of 1982, and his 1989 commitment to the Lebanese to begin negotiations on the redeployment of troops from Beirut and the Bekaa valley.39

3. At least 16 agreements with Turkey concerning Syrian aid to Kurdish rebels fighting Turkey.40

Consequently, given this track record, it is highly unlikely that any Syrian - Israeli agreement would stand the test of time. This is especially true pertaining to any demilitarized or force reduction agreements on the Golan Heights. Assad will view these types of agreements as an infringement upon Syrian sovereignty and may feel compelled to violate them due to shifting strategic interests. Probable factors that could cause the Syrian regime to abrogate any future peace treaty or agreement with Israel include:

1. Failure of Israel and the Palestinian authority to reach final settlement on such outstanding issues as the status of Jerusalem, water rights, or the Palestinian right of return.

2. Assad's perception of losing the Pan-Arab nationalist banner to another rival state such as Iran or Iraq. It is unlikely that Iran and Iraq will cease their support of Islamic extremist organizations in Lebanon. Should Syria perceive that its control in Lebanon is threatened and is forced to chose between abrogating its treaty with Israel or losing Lebanon, it will chose the former.

3. Failure to obtain expected Western economic assistance.

4. Change in Syrian regime. A new Syrian regime will be greatly tempted to abrogate the treaty in order to demonstrate its adherence to pan-Arab principles.


The "land for peace" formula, which forms the basis for the current peace process, has been complicated by both its ambiguity and inherent asymmetry in negotiating empirically measured territories in return for an ideal that is empirically and conceptually difficult to define and open to differing interpretations. Political decisions, such as territorial compromise, are never made solely for security reasons. Domestic, regional, and international pressures frequently lead political leaders to make decisions exclusive of security concerns. The expectation of immediate social, economic, or political benefits often motivate leaders to take potential security risks. However, leaders that take such risks by depreciating, or ignoring, legitimate security concerns, or by accepting data that supports preconceived notions of preferred political decisions, are abrogating their responsibility as leaders.


1. Moaz, in a September 9, 1993, editorial in The Jerusalem Post, predicted that in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights Syria would agree to full diplomatic relations, a phased withdrawal over seven years or more years, and demilitarization of the Golan.

2. For example, in October 1996, BG Amos Gilad, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that "the Syrians are talking about a military option, are preparing for it, and it will be implemented in accordance with developments." October 15, 1996, Israel Channel 2. Additionally, Professor Ze'ev Moaz, head of the Tel Aviv University Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, warned that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had created a greater prospect that Syria would initiate a war. August 18, 1996, Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz (Hebrew).

3. Professor Ze'ev Moaz, head of the Tel Aviv University Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, warned that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had created a greater prospect that Syria would initiate a war. August 18, 1996, Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz (Hebrew).

4. Proponents of the "strategic" decision concept assert that Assad's decision to participate in the peace process represents a fundamental change in Syria's attitude toward Israel and its willingness to recognize the right of Israel to exist in the region under certain conditions.

Skeptics reject the notion that Assad has undergone a metamorphosis. They take a more traditional meaning of the concept and see Assad's willingness to participate in the peace process as a maneuver to facilitate his short term objective of regaining the Golan Heights.

5. Eyal Zisser, "Inching Toward Peace," Middle East Quarterly, September 1994.

6. Michael Eisenstadt, Arming for Peace? Syrias Elusive Quest for "Strategic Parity," (Washington: Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1993), p. 2.

7. M. Zuhair Diab, "Have Syria And Israel Opted For Peace?" p. 78.

8. Moshe Moaz, "Syrian-Israeli relations and the Middle East Peace Process," Orbis, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer 1987, p. 13.

9. In addition to Moshe Moaz, the belief that Assad was ready to make peace with Israel was also expressed initially expressed by former IDF Intelligence Chief Uri Saguy.

10. Shavit made his remarks during a June 7, 1996, interview on Israeli radio.

11. Amos Gilboa interview with author.

12. Syria's desire to weaken US support for Israel was articulated by Israeli B.G. Amidror. The Jerusalem Post, June 12, 1996.

13. Eisenstadt, p. 10.

14. Phares, Walid, "The Syria-Iran Axis," Global Affairs, Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer 1992. p. 83.

15. Phares, p. 83.

16. The strategic importance of the Syrian - Iranian alliance was underscored by the Syrian Ambassador to Teheran, Ahmad al-Hassan, when he stated that Syria's participation in the peace process would not come at the expense of its relationship with Iran. Tehran Times, January 1, 1996.

17. The Jerusalem Post, April 12, 1996.

18. Phares, pp. 85-86.

19. The Jerusalem Post, April 12, 1996.

20. Moshe Moaz, From War to Peacemaking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 189.

21. Eisenstadt, p. 40.

22. 1993-94 Military Balance.

23. Eisenstadt, p. 57.

24. 1993-94 Military Balance.

25. Anthony Cordesman, as quoted in The Jerusalem Post, November 1, 1996.

26. 1995 report of the US Arms Control Disarmament Agency.

27. The Jerusalem Post, August 7, 1994.

28. Israeli Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, quoted in The Jerusalem Post, December 8, 1991.

29. Center for Defense and International Strategic Studies, 1996 country report of Syria.

30. The 1995-96 Military Balance.

31. Center for Defense and International Strategic Studies, August 19, 1996.

32. Reported by Israeli Channel 2 news on August 19, 1996.

33. The Jerusalem Post, September 19, 1996.

34. Soviet Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov announced that the Russia would not support Syrian military action against Israel. Reported by the Israeli Broadcast Authority, November 1, 1996.

35. FBIS NES-96-88, May 6, 1996, p. 16.

36. Barry Rubin, Modern Dictators, (New York: New American Library, 1987), pp. 226-7.

37. This observation was drawn following the results of a Golan Heights questionaire that was circulated among scholars from the Jaffee and BESA research centers in Israel.

38. These observations were made by Daniel Pipes in an editorial to The Jerusalem Post on August 19, 1994.

39. Pipes.

40. The Jerusalem Post November 9, 1994, and January 15, 1996.


Major Shawn M. Pine is a former US military strategic intelligence officer and is currently a research student in international relations at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Pine recently joined the Freeman Center For Strategic Studies as a Research Associate.

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