Since August we have witnessed troop movements along the Israeli-Syrian border, major military maneuvers based on offensive scenarios, and threats by officials in Syria, Egypt, and Israel regarding the potential for, and consequences of, another Arab-Israeli war. If the hands-off policy of the Clinton administration toward the Israeli-Syrian peacemaking track is not changed very soon, the US may bear at least some of the burden of such a war.
The prospects for conflict stem from a continued stalemate in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, an unintended escalation of tensions owing to statements and actions by the parties to deter each other from attacking, and a general breakdown of the peace process in the region.
By February 1996, Israel and Syria reached a series of understandings that were summarized in the American "nonpaper." Both Israel and Syria, each for its own reasons, refused to sign the "non-paper," but they did not challenge its substantive points. Israel agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights it seized in 1967. Syria did not challenge the paragraphs calling for full normalization and equal but not symmetrical security arrangements on the Golan Heights and beyond.
The last elections in Israel placed negotiations in deep freeze. Not only did Benjamin Netanyahu, the new prime minister, reject the Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace and security arrangements, but he also abandoned the "Land for Peace" principle as a whole. Interviewed in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Mr. Netanyahu stated: "When we get into negotiations [with Syria] our demands would be equivalent to those of Syria, if they demand the entire Golan Heights, so shall we."
Violation of understandings
From a Syrian perspective this position represents a violation of understandings that took four years to accomplish. If no change takes place in the Israeli position very soon, Syria may conclude that its peace strategy has exhausted itself. A war strategy may not become more attractive, but it may well emerge as the only viable hope of putting the peace process back on track.
Another scenario concerns the possibility of an inadvertent or accidental war. Statements by Netanyahu and his defense minister, regarding a potential confrontation in Lebanon, led to Syrian troop movements, which were reciprocated by Israeli forces.
In recent weeks Israeli and Syrian officials have made both threatening and reassuring statements. However, in strategic dialogues, threats receive considerably more credence than reassurances. They are reminiscent of the war of words that escalated into the accidental 1967 Arab-Israeli war. A difference is that now the possibility of a non-conventional war could no longer be excluded, as the Syrian ambassador to Cairo stated on Nov. 27.
The outbreak of a war in the present political climate would rally the Arab world behind the anti-Israeli flag, with all the military, economic, and political implications of such a process.
Despite the gravity of the situation, and despite repeated warnings by both US officials and intelligence agencies in the region, the Clinton administration is taking a business-as-usual attitude toward the Israeli-Syrian tensions. The quick reaction of the administration following the outbreak of violence in the occupied territories in September represents a stark contrast to the calm and seemingly indifferent attitude of the administration toward the Israeli-Syrian confrontation. Dennis Ross, the special US envoy to the Middle East, has spent weeks in the region trying to facilitate a Hebron redeployment, but there has been no official visit to Damascus, the Syrian capital, since July. No real effort was made by US officials to renew negotiations. At best, US ambassadors in the region served as delivery boys for reassuring messages.
One possible explanation is bureaucratic: Until the appointment of its new secretary, the State Department was engaged mostly in desk-cleaning jobs. Another explanation is more troubling: The administration has given up hope for an Israeli-Syrian treaty under the present political circumstances and has resolved to let events run their course.
A Machiavellian version of this is that Washington does not regard an Israeli-Syrian war as a calamity. Paradoxically, a war may bring the parties closer to an agreement than direct US pressure, because it may convince both sides, better than the US can do at present, that stalemate creates an unstable and dangerous future for both of them.
Be that as it may, this policy may have adverse consequences for US interests in the Middle East. Even if such a war starts as a limited confrontation, there is no guarantee that it would not escalate into a major confrontation involving other Arab states and consisting of missile attacks on population and industrial centers. The cost of such a war to the West might be enormous, including a possible oil embargo and major environmental damage. The US may find itself not only helping bring about an Israeli-Syrian ceasefire, but also an Israeli-Egyptian one. We cannot rule out an Iraqi or even Irani involvement in an anti-Israeli front.
In the last four years, the traditional dilemma of US Mideast policy of having to choose between support for Israel and support for moderate Arab states was resolved by the peace process. A new war might revive this dilemma under more difficult circumstances than during any time since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979.
Whatever the outcome of a war, both parties would act to replenish their military losses. This would bring about a renewed arms race. Such an arms race would be more dangerous than its predecessors in that it entails higher quantities and more sophisticated weapon systems. All of the work that was done to stabilize the region politically and strategically since the Gulf war might go down the drain; stabilization efforts would have to start from scratch.
How US can avert war
What can the US do to avert war?
First and foremost, it must signal both parties that the Israeli-Syrian track has priority equal to the Israeli-Palestinian track. This can be done only through top-level meetings, not for their own sake but as part of a concentrated effort to renew negotiations.
Second, the Clinton administration must state its views about the need to preserve consistency in foreign policy not only with respect to the Oslo agreement for a peace process but with respect to the "Land for Peace" formula as a whole. Since this administration was responsible for the Israeli-Syrian "non paper," it cannot remain silent about the parties' verbal commitments to its major paragraphs. The present silence is inexplicable, especially in light of Syrian assertions in November regarding the understandings reached in February.
Third, the administration must act more decisively to prevent the outbreak of an unintended war by providing both parties more explicit reassurances that would prevent a preemptive strike by any of them.
It is important to hear a public statement regarding the US reaction in the event that one of the parties decides to fire first, be it a preemptive strike or a clearly offensive move. US silence in this matter could be interpreted by either side as permission to escalate.
Strategy entails hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. US behavior in the last months on the Israeli-Syrian track appears to many as upside-down strategy. If indeed the US is bent on preventing the outbreak of yet another Arab-Israeli war, it better get its act together before it is too late.
Zeev Maoz, head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a professor of political science at Tel-Aviv University, is author of "Domestic Sources of Global Change" (University of Michigan Press).