Syrian President Bashar Assad’s candid interview this week with Lebanon’s As-Safir paper ought to be studied by anyone who still believes in either the possibility of Israeli-Syrian peace or the utility of Western engagement with Syria.
According to both the Jerusalem Post and Ynet (the website of Israel’s largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth), Assad told As-Safir that Israeli President Shimon Peres sent a message via Russia offering him the entire Golan Heights if Syria would sever ties with Iran and with terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. But Assad said he wasn’t interested: He refuses to abandon the option of “resistance.”
Whether or not Peres actually made this offer (which his office vehemently denies) is irrelevant. The point is that Assad claims it was made. Yet his response was not to pursue it via direct or even indirect talks with Israel. It was to assert that Syria will never pressure Hamas and co. to disarm; that Israel doesn’t want peace anyway, so there’s no point in talking; and that it would be a “mistake” to “erase the resistance option,” thereby “becoming hostage to the peace option.”
This response has three noteworthy aspects. First, Israeli advocates of peace with Syria all claim that previous talks collapsed over one single issue: Jerusalem insisted that the border be the recognized international border, while Damascus demanded the pre-1967 border, which includes Israeli territory that Syria illegally occupied in 1948. Therefore, they argue, if Israel would just stop fussing over that sliver of land and cede it all, a deal would swiftly be signed.
Second, these advocates always said peace would bring one major benefit: Syria’s removal from the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas axis.
Yet now, Assad claims that Peres offered precisely what Israeli peace advocates always wanted: the whole Golan. And he contemptuously refused to pay the desired quid pro quo.
Most noteworthy of all, however, was his reason: Abandoning “resistance” would be foolish, because it works. And as evidence, he cited Syria’s renewed ties with the West, especially Washington. In short, he views the Obama administration’s engagement drive as proof that supporting terror pays.
Moreover, when asked to identify Syria’s key regional interests, peace with Israel didn’t make the list — but “dialogue with the U.S.” did. Thus peace with Israel no longer offers any compensation that would justify abandoning “resistance”: The one benefit it was traditionally thought to offer — an opening to Washington — has now been achieved by “resistance” instead.
This also explains why Assad eagerly engaged in indirect talks with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just two years ago, but scorns the idea today. Then, he was being boycotted by the West, and especially by former President George W. Bush, so talks with Israel were needed to end the boycott. Today, he is courted by Europe and Washington alike. So who needs peace with Israel?
The conclusion is clear: As long as Assad can get everything he wants from the West without a peace deal, Israeli-Syrian peace will be unattainable. Only when the West starts punishing “resistance” rather than rewarding it will Assad’s strategic calculation change.