The Complexities Surrounding Syria-Israel Negotiations
During the past few months, there have been contradictory signals about the possibility of war between Syria and Israel. These signals include military mobilizations on the borders, veiled threats about an imminent conflict and claims by analysts of the risk of a summer war between the two countries. This rhetoric, however, has also been accompanied by declarations of the willingness of both countries to restart negotiations in order to reach a stable and durable peace. These mixed signals have come from Syria especially.
During the past year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has spoken about the possibility of peace and the possibility of war. These mixed signals make the state of relations between the two countries even more confused and opaque, and they add further problematic elements to an already complex and fragmentized regional system. The question of a negotiated peace between Israel and Syria can only be analyzed if the entire framework of the Middle East is taken into account.
The Syrian View: The Importance of the Golan Heights
Assad has repeatedly expressed the intention of negotiating with Israel without "any preconditions." At the same time, however, Assad has warned that if Israel does not respond positively to his proposals, then Syria would pursue war in order to achieve its goals and preserve its interests. Syria's recent military maneuvers near its borders with Israel seem to be signals of this policy. Nevertheless, it is likely that these moves are not signals of an imminent attack by Syria, but instead an attempt to place increased pressure on the Israeli government.
Moreover, such moves can also be read as a need for Syria to be prepared in case of an Israeli attack timed with a U.S. attack on Iran, or as a result of the Syrian government wanting to avoid criticism by internal factions more critical of Israel.
In bargaining with Israel, the primary goal of the Syrian government is the complete return of the Golan Heights. Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, had identified the return of the Golan Heights as the essential foundation for peace between Syria and Israel, and this interest has remained at the forefront of Bashar's foreign policy. Recent statements made by Bashar al-Assad are unambiguous about the importance of the issue to Syria. Speaking at the Peoples Assembly in mid-July, he said that "there was recently some talk about Israel's intention to resume the peace process on the Syrian track. … We support the resumption of negotiations in order to achieve the main principle which regulated the process from the beginning. I mean land for peace, in a manner that guarantees the return of the whole of the Golan."
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