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Opinion

Revolution in Egypt should prompt peace talks between Syria and Israel

Political transition in Egypt is generating substantial risks – but also golden opportunities. The Obama administration should take advantage of Israel's and Syria's newfound strategic vulnerability to push for a peace deal.

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Incentives for Syria

Second, a similar logic could apply to Syria, although in Syria’s case, the potential threat that could encourage it to cooperate on issues of peace with Israel today is primarily internal in nature. Like all other authoritarian countries in the Middle East, Syria is worried about the potential spillover of the success of the Egyptian uprising into its own territory. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime is perhaps more brutal than Mubarak’s, its clientelistic network of relations with the military and societal elites and businessmen is more extensive than Mubarak’s, and the Syrian opposition is much smaller and weaker than Egypt’s. But this does not mean that Syria is immune to social upheaval and unrest. That very likelihood, in fact, is what could drive Damascus to knock on Israel’s door and talk peace, as part of a strategy designed to bolster the legitimacy of the Ba’athist regime and secure its long-term survival.

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Resolving territorial disputes to defuse internal threats is a strategy that several authoritarian regimes have used effectively in recent years. For example, internal threats played a prominent role in an attempt to settle the Iran-Iraq dispute over the Shatt-al-Arab waterway (although the attempt ultimately failed). Also, China has cooperated consistently on several external territorial disputes when its regime faced or perceived it was facing political unrest at home.

A golden opportunity

This is a golden opportunity for Syria and Israel to test each other’s intentions. The process would still require US mediation, of course, given the lingering mistrust between the two countries. US input also remains central, because the United States is the only actor that can provide Israel and Syria with the security and political assurances they need to finalize a deal. Also, only Washington can finance a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement and make it “stick.” The contours of the settlement are well known and have not changed since December 1999 when the two parties extensively negotiated in Washington and then Shepherdstown, W.V.: Israel would return the Golan Heights to Syria and withdraw to the 1967 lines. Syria would normalize relations with Israel and provide it with tangible security assurances in return.

The Obama administration is understandably preoccupied with managing a highly volatile transition in Egypt. But amid the chaos, there is an important opportunity that should not be missed. If Washington’s broader objective is to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the Egyptian transition and introduce some stability to the strategic politics of the Middle East, then one crucial way to do so is to push for Syrian-Israeli peace. Fast-moving changes in Egypt are heightening Israel’s and Syria’s feeling of strategic vulnerability. The Obama administration should keep that in mind and take advantage of these favorable conditions before they change.

Bilal Y. Saab is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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