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SYRIA: A THORN IN ISRAEL'S SIDE

By Ran Ukashi

Despite his longstanding willingness to follow the “land for peace” formula, albeit on much stricter conditions than his Labour predecessors, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a reputation for being a “hard-line” leader that pulls no punches. He is viewed as willing to do whatever it takes to secure Israel from danger both externally and internally.

 

 History has shown that Israel not only does what it needs to militarily to ensure its own security, but will cede territory in exchange for peace treaties that ensure mutual security between states (i.e. Israel’s agreements with Egypt and Jordan). Israel has made generous offers to the Palestinians in the Oslo Accords, the Taba Accords, and other offers which have been consistently rejected by the Palestinians. Last month, Netanyahu, like Israel’s previous leaders, expressed interest in establishing direct negotiations with Syria.

 
Although Israel’s relations with the Arab and Islamic states, (including with Jordan and Egypt), have been tenuous at best, Syria is arguably the most bellicose of states with whom Israel must contend. Syria spews out much domestic propaganda against Jews and Israel, calling for its destruction, espousing the libel that Jews consume the blood of non-Jews, and that Israel employs death squads similar to the Nazi Einsatzgruppen that murder children. Syria is also entirely complicit in allowing itself to be used as a transit territory for Iranian arms to reach Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, while simultaneously offering safe haven to terrorist groups who threaten not only Israel, but Western targets in general, and fellow Arabs and Muslims throughout the region.
 
Despite all of these outrages, Israel is still hopeful, even if naively so, of achieving a semblance of peace with Syria. Syria demands Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights that it won in 1967 as a precondition for negotiations.  It is ironic that Syria is complaining of  having lost territory to Israel,  when Syria’s very goal was to eliminate the “Zionist” (read Jews) presence in “Palestine” (read Israel, excluding the West Bank and Gaza Strip), and extend its territory southward during the Six Day War. Syria had the same goal with Lebanon, which it successfully occupied from 1975 until 2005. Syria has refused to “directly” negotiate with the “Zionist Entity” because it does not recognize it as being a legitimate representative of anything. For Syria to negotiate with Israel directly would be an admission that Israel exists. This is simply not a viable option for the Syrian regime, which has built up its reputation as the anti-Israel poster boy of the Arab World, and the self-appointed heir of Nasserism.
 
Although, I personally would not oppose Israel entering into a peace treaty with Syria if somehow a guarantee of security could be arranged along the border, I have some reservations regarding the prospect of peace with Syria in the near future, and Israel’s security policy in the North.
 
It is necessary for Israel to understand—as I am sure it most certainly does—that Syria has absolutely no intention, or incentive to negotiate terms with Israel. The Golan Heights issue is simply an excuse for justifying its pre-existing belligerent attitude towards the Jewish state. Israel must change its defence strategy in order to deal effectively with its security concerns, and the Syrian challenge is a crucial factor. Syria has correctly understood Israel’s geostrategic position, and as such, has moved from attacking Israel from its own territory to employing and supporting proxy elements vis-à-vis Hezbollah, and other groups that attack Israel from Lebanon. Syria can thus gain credibility in the “Arab Street” as being a “stalwart” defender of the Palestinians and crusader against Zionism, while not facing any of the military consequences, which are subsequently absorbed by Lebanon. The Syrians (and to a larger extent Iran) have set up a situation in which Israel is playing by their rules, whereby they have determined the battlefield for Israel. As Noah Pollak wrote in the Jerusalem Post on Nov 22, (“Aim for the bull’s eye, or at least the center),” the idea is to force Israel to “fight on the battlefields that Iran and Syria have assigned to it.”
 
In my opinion, Pollak has hit the nail on the head. The strategy of Israel is to defend its north from direct attack, meaning Lebanon faces much of the brunt. However, despite Israel’s  professional and ethical conduct, even the most minute and acceptable level of civilian deaths is met with resounding, reflexive and deafening international criticism, because of the frequency in which Israel must defends its borders, which gives the impression that Israel is a perpetual warmongering bully state. The falsity of this image is not the issue; it is the very perception of Israel’s aggressiveness that limits Israel’s ability to act in her interests, which satisfies Syria, Iran, and all of Israel’s enemies around the world.
 
Perhaps the next time a conflagration erupts on her borders, Israel should do more than lament to the world of Syrian involvement in attacks against her citizens. Israel must avoid falling into the tit-for-tat proxy war into which she has been cornered. Perhaps it is time for Israel to remind the Syrian government exactly what happens when you play with fire. By employing this strategic tactic, Israel will place a great deal of pressure on the Syrian government. The Syrian military cannot overwhelm the Israel Defense Forces, and should it receive a strong enough message, perhaps it will cease to take its safety for granted. 
 
Ran Ukashi has an MA in International Relations with a focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict from the University of Manitoba, and has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
 
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