Since the tragic 1997 collision of two Israeli helicopters, which collided while transporting Israeli soldiers into Lebanon, there has been a series of calls for Israeli withdrawal from its Lebanese security zone. The first calls for withdrawal emanated from the political left. These people perceived the Israeli security zone as merely another superfluous remnant of the old Middle East and a manifestation of the siege mentality that had been pervasive in Israeli strategic planning prior to the onset of the Oslo process and the introduction of the "New Middle East."
However, as Israeli casualties increased, the chorus calling for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon gained momentum and culminated in a declaration by the Netanyahu government that it accepted UN resolution 421 calling for Israeli withdrawal from that country. This Israeli position was confirmed during Israeli Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu's May 1998, visit to the United States. During this visit, Netanyahu told the UN Secretary General that Israel was indeed interested in withdrawing from Lebanon. While Netanyahu's offer was contingent upon a concomitant Lebanese commitment to ensure that Israel's northern border is free from Hizb Allah terrorism, it is unlikely that any Israeli withdraw from Lebanon would secure its northern border. Indeed, by its agreement in principle to withdraw from Lebanon the Israeli government has established the basis for continued discussions over withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
The premise underlying this conclusion is that Syria is in de facto control in Lebanon and would require a quid pro quo in agreeing to exercise the requisite restraint over Hizb Allah. Since Syria refuses to participate in negotiations that will not result in a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, it is well understood that any viable solution to Israel's Lebanese problem will be negotiated through Damascus and will require an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Consequently, the question to be asked is what will Israel gain through such an agreement.
What should be clear, is that any agreement with Syria concerning Lebanon, that is accompanied by a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, will be ephemeral and will bereft Israel of most of its strategic options. Just as the Oslo Accords has not resolved the problem of Hamas terrorism, contrary to the promises made by supporters of the peace process, a peace agreement with Syria will not resolve the problem of HizbAllah terrorism in Lebanon. Proponents of Israeli withdrawal offer three arguments to buttress their claims. First, they argue that Assad is a man of his word and will keep his promises. Second, even if he doesn't, then Israel will retain the option to take appropriate measures to ensure its security. Finally, they argue that the advent of ballistic missiles has made the whole issue of strategic depth moot and therefore Israel has no compelling strategic interest in retaining the Golan Heights.
The argument that Assad will honor an agreement with Israel over Lebanon is patently absurd. Assad has demonstrated on numerous occasions his willingness to ignore agreements deemed not to be in Syria's strategic interests. Examples include: The "Red Line" understandings reached with Israel on April 1, 1976; Syrian commitments to withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon; and agreements with Turkey concerning Syrian aid to Kurdish rebels. Just as Arafat has demonstrated his unwillingness, or incapability, to control Hamas, so too, will be the case of Assad and HizbAllah.
Syria is currently not experiencing serious problems with Hizb Allah because they are pursuing compatible strategic goals against a common enemy. Should Syria attempt to curtail Hizb Allah activities against Israel, those common goals will dissipate thereby increasing the likelihood of a Syrian - HizbAllah conflagration. It is delusional to believe that Syria would risk its enormous economic interests in Lebanon (through its pervasive drug operations in that country), and sacrifice its strategic relationship with Iran merely to fulfill its obligations to Israel. Assad estimates that he can probably reach a modus vivendi with HizbAllah for a defined period.
That is one of the reasons that he is adamant that the time table for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights be no longer than 12 to 18 months. However, once Syria secures a full Israeli withdraw from the Golan Heights, Assad will have strong incentives to continue serving as a conduit for Iranian military and economic aid to HizbAllah.
Assad, as in the case of Arafat, will ignore those provisions of any peace treaty that he believes is not in his strategic interests. Consequently Israel, having lost the deterrent effect in having its forces in close proximity to Damascus, will be faced with the untenable choice of declaring terrorist attacks a casus belli, and beginning a military campaign against Syria with its forces deployed below the Golan, or absorbing HizbAllah terrorist attacks. Moreover, Israeli strategic options will be greatly constrained by the international community as they try to rescue another failed policy. The Israeli government, finding itself in an detrimental strategic position, facing international pressures to exhibit restraint, and having a divisive domestic constituency, will once again have few viable alternatives.
The believe that modern weaponry has made strategic depth moot represents a very myopic and Illusional view of reality. Indeed, the lethality and speed of modern weaponry has enhanced the importance of strategic depth. The accuracy and range of modern artillery, the speed and deadliness of modern armor, and the precision of missile guidance systems have all served to reduce the time required for mobilization and deployment of forces. In this environment, Israeli defense forces have far less time to respond to strategic threats. While strategic depth may not negate the potential lethality of ballistic weapons, the current disposition of Israeli forces on the Golan does reduce the probability that these missiles will be used. Moreover, as historically demonstrated, traditional policies of deterrence are far more effective than policies of appeasement.
The solution to securing Israel's northern border is not theoretically complicated. Assad merely needs to be convinced that the IDF has the capability to pose a much more significant danger to Syrian interests in Lebanon than does Hizb Allah. This approach requires that Israel return to its traditional deterrent posture of holding countries responsible for terrorist attacks emanating from territories under its control. Consequently, each Hizb Allah attack in the security zone should be met with an Israeli retaliatory attack against Syrian interests in that country.
Undoubtedly, such a strategy entails the risk of escalation. However, Assad realizes that currently the risks of a general Israeli - Syrian conflagration pose a far greater threat to his interests than Israel's. In the event of such a war, Syria would be isolated without the material or political support of a major power. Under such conditions, Syria would be militarily devastated by an Israeli military unencumbered by superpower geo-political constraints. Such a war would likely result in the destruction of Syria's military and end Assad ability to achieve Syria's primary strategic objective of controlling the Fertile Crescent. Indeed, such a loss would probably result in the overthrow of the present regime.
The fundamental premise of supporters of the peace process is that any ultimate resolution of the Arab - Israeli conflict requires Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Arab - Israeli war. This was the fundamental process behind Oslo and is the basic premise of supporters of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. However, the Oslo process has clearly demonstrated that the time is not propitious for such concessions. Indeed, Israeli concessions have served to increase the hatred and terrorism directed toward Israel while simultaneously placing Israel in a much more tenuous strategic position.
Supporters of the peace process have consistently argued that the time for realism is needed. Indeed, it is time for supporters of the peace process to disabuse themselves of the fantasy of a "New Middle East" and begin to deal with Israel's security problems in a realistic manner. Their first lessen in realism should be that accommodationist attitudes toward despots seldom succeed and generally result in catastrophic results.
Major Shawn M. Pine is a military/strategic analyst and a research associate of the Freeman Center For Strategic Studies.