EAGER to encourage and even guarantee a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, the Clinton administration is weighing the possibility of contributing United States forces to an eventual peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights.
It has long been assumed that any peace agreement between Israel and Syria would require the US to act as guarantor on the Golan, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. The idea has gained salience as prospects for an actual peace have brightened.
Diplomatic analysts say a possible US presence on the Golan was one of several things implied when, during a six-nation tour of the Middle East last week, President Clinton assured Israel that the US stood ready to help reduce the risks of peace.
But even as options are being weighed inside the administration, several new private studies caution that US peacekeeping operations on the Golan could strain the shrinking resources of the US military, sour US relations with Israel, and even jeopardize Israel's own security.
``The Clinton administration seems to look to the Golan as an ideal peacekeeping operations since it would be between two armies and two states and not in the middle of a civil war, like Somalia,'' says Dore Gold of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and author of one of the reports.
``That's a mistake,'' Mr. Gold adds.
A State Department official says no US troops would be sent to the Golan without congressional authorization. Nevertheless, the State Department and Pentagon are studying the feasibility of peacekeeping operations, and the Defense Department last year commissioned an independent assessment by the Rand Corporation.
That study concluded that the risks of placing US troops on the Golan may be outweighed by Washington's strong interest in obtaining peace between Israel and Syria, according to the newspaper Washington Jewish Week, which recently obtained a copy of the classified document.
Sinai, a precedent
Advocates of a US-peacekeeping role on the Golan point to what they say is a relevant precedent: the 2,000-strong multinational force based in the Sinai Peninsula that has monitored compliance with the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt without incident since 1982.
Securing peace between Israel and Syria ``may well mean some kind of US forces on the Golan just as we have long provided forces on the Sinai,'' Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in a television interview last year.
But skeptics say a Golan operation could end up looking less like Sinai and more like Somalia, where US peacekeeping forces became caught in a lethal factional cross-fire during an 15-month deployment starting in 1992.
Unlike the Sinai, where 900 US soldiers operate far from the Egyptian and Israeli armies, the Golan is small, near invasion routes, and within striking distance of Lebanon-based terrorist groups such as the one responsible for the 1988 death of Marine Lt. Col. Richard Higgins, who was serving in a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
``Putting forces on the Golan Heights is an invitation to more of the same,'' says Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy, which last week issued a critical assessment of Golan peacekeeping over the names of 11 retired senior military officers and Pentagon officials.
Ideally, monitoring a Syrian-Israeli peace would require only a small, lightly armed force of a few hundred men. But that would be possible only in the event of a warm peace between the two countries.
A cold peace could require a combat force of up to 5,000, sufficiently armed to deter hostilities, analysts say. That could stretch US forces thin at a time when US manpower is needed for other peacekeeping missions around the world.
``That would be tying a lot of combat power down in one place,'' says Andrew Bacevich, executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Dr. Bacevich is co-author of a report, scheduled for release this week by the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, which also raises questions about the feasibility of peacekeeping on the Golan.
Critics warn that peacekeeping operations on the Golan could, by lowering Israel's strategic value to the US, undermine Washington's special relationship with Israel and jeopardize the huge annual US foreign-aid contribution that has come with it.
``If Israel is seen as unwilling to assume military and financial burdens that are correctly its own, Congress might call into question the basic relationship'' by cutting aid and canceling joint military projects, warns yet another critical report, issued this fall by the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center National Policy Institute.
The report says tensions could also arise if the US peacekeepers withheld intelligence from Israel or stood in the way of a preemptive Israeli strike in the aftermath of an act of Syrian belligerence.
In another worst-case scenario, casualties inflicted on US troops on the Golan could generate hard feelings among the American public toward Israel, leaving Israel ``transformed into just one more burdensome foreign entanglement'' for the US.
Even without such complications, the US, acting as intermediary between the two countries, would be obliged to abandon its historical favoritism toward Israel.
``If the US is up there monitoring an agreement, it will have to play the role of honest broker, and that automatically changes the way the US relates to its key friend and ally in the region,'' Mr. Gaffney says. On one of several public statements on the subject, Mr. Christopher told a Senate panel last spring that ``if the parties felt that it was necessary in order to reach an agreement, the United States might participate ... in a security force on the Golan Heights.''
Indications of support
President Clinton underscored the point indirectly last week when he told Israeli leaders during a five-day swing through the Middle East that the United States stood ready to help reduce the risks of peace.
``The parties have never directly asked us for US troops on the Golan,'' says a State Department official. ``But given the context and tenor of the peace talks, such a request would not be unexpected.''
Christopher has visited the Middle East five times since May to help broker a deal under which Israel would give up the Golan in return for a full normalization of relations with Syria.
For Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, peace also brings the prospect of being dropped from the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism - a concession the US would make if Syria suppressed the pro-Iranian Hizbullah (Party of God), which has launched attacks against Israel from Syrian-controlled south Lebanon.
The legitimacy that would come from being off that list could open the door to more foreign investment in Syria, if Mr. Assad is also willing to begin liberalizing his country's socialist economy.
The US might also be able to help Syria negotiate away part of its burdensome debt to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and Russia, its erstwhile cold-war-era sponsor.