The Syria-Israeli peace deal that almost was: A diplomat looks back

Syrian leader Bashar Assad had almost agreed to a U.S.-brokered peace accord with Israel. Then he cracked down on his own citizens with deadly force. 

"Reaching for the Heights: The Inside Story of a Secret Attempt to Reach a Syrian-Israeli Peace," by Frederic C. Hof, United States Institute of Peace Press, 216 pp.

In the spring of 2011, secret U.S.-brokered negotiations between Israel and Syria brought the two enemies tantalizingly close to the edge of peace, an outcome that could have led to a broader Arab-Israeli settlement and reshaped the political contours of the Middle East.

Instead, the effort ended abruptly when anti-regime demonstrations broke out in southern Syria in March 2011. President Bashar Assad chose to respond with brute force, setting in motion a chain of events that led to a bloody and ruinous decade of civil war.

The story is told for the first time in “Reaching for the Heights: The Inside Story of a Secret Attempt to Reach a Syrian-Israeli Peace,” a frank and fascinating memoir by Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department diplomat.

Hof has a long association with the Middle East beginning in 1964 when he was a teenage exchange student in Damascus. He was defense attaché at the U.S. embassy in Beirut in the early 1980s and went on to serve in a series of appointments at the Department of State and the Department of Defense. But Hof is probably best known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the borders of the Levant. He wrote in 1985 what is still the best English-language account of the creation in 1920 of the Lebanon-Palestine boundary and its subsequent turbulent history. His later works on the Israel-Syria border influenced negotiations between the two countries in the late 1990s. More recently, Hof worked on delineating a maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel.

In April 2009, Hof was tapped by George Mitchell, special envoy to the Middle East peace process, to explore reviving the Israel-Syria track. The last serious effort to forge peace between Israel and Syria had foundered in March 2000 with an unsuccessful summit in Geneva between then-President Bill Clinton and the Syrian leader, Hafez Assad, who died three months later and was succeeded by his son, Bashar. Syria’s top demand was the return of the Golan Heights seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Israel’s primary interest was for Syria to drop its alliance with Iran and its backing of anti-Israeli groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.

In May 2010, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry met with Bashar Assad in Damascus and returned to Washington with a document indicating that Assad was open to meeting all Israeli requirements in exchange for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Hof met with an initially skeptical Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, who agreed to a U.S.-drafted “discussion paper” as the basis for a Washington-brokered mediation effort.

In the following months, the secret talks made progress as Hof, working closely with Dennis Ross, a senior White House staffer and veteran of the Middle East peace process, shuttled between Damascus and Jerusalem. In February 2011, Hof held a one-on-one meeting with Assad in Damascus, a crucial moment to determine whether the Syrian leader would fully agree to Israel’s security requirements. Hof devotes a chapter of the book to the meeting in which he found an “engaged, inquisitive, and businesslike” Assad, who after carefully reading Hof’s document agreed to all its points, including the severance of military ties with Iran and Hezbollah. Assad assured Hof that Hezbollah “would fall into line” once Israel and Syria proclaimed a peace agreement. He also said that peace with Israel was “Syria’s business, not Iran’s.”

If Assad’s word could be trusted, it appeared that a peace deal was within reach. At the beginning of March 2011, Hof and his team began working on a discussion paper that could serve as a draft peace treaty and a separate U.S.-Israeli memorandum of understanding.

But developments in Syria were about to scuttle the entire process. On March 18, Syrian security forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators protesting the detention and torture of children who had spray-painted anti-Assad graffiti. Even as Hof raced to finish the draft documents, anti-regime protests erupted across Syria and were met with violence. As the situation deteriorated in Syria, the administration of President Barack Obama began to distance itself from the peace track. Hof does not hide his criticism of what he considered was a “gratuitous lapse in responsible statecraft” by the White House. A direct intercession by Obama with Assad in the very early stages of the uprising may, or may not, have made a difference. But the effort was never made because the administration feared the domestic political fallout of being seen “coddling” Assad. Furthermore, the prevailing view within the administration was that Assad was doomed anyway. The peace effort fizzled out.

Hof concludes with a soul-searching examination about what might have been. If Assad had shown magnanimity rather than brutality toward the demonstrators, he might have nipped the uprising in the bud, allowing the peace process to continue. Hof also raises important questions about the genuine commitment of the two main protagonists, Assad and Netanyahu. Was Assad truly desirous of peace or was he more interested in stringing out a process to buy time with Washington? His glib assurances that Hezbollah and Iran would not object to a Syria-Israel peace were scarcely credible, as, indeed, Hof notes. Six years earlier, Hezbollah operatives had assassinated a former Lebanese prime minister who had threatened to turn the status quo in Lebanon against Iranian, as well as Syrian, interests. Perhaps Assad would have met a similar fate if he had embarked on a strategic course that undermined Iran’s regional ambitions.

Also, would Netanyahu have stayed the course in a peace process with Syria or would domestic political considerations about returning the Golan Heights have made him balk? After all, last minute cold feet by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak in early 2000 had contributed to the failure of the Geneva summit. We will never know the answer to these questions.

Hof and his close colleagues deserve credit for their diligent efforts to forge a lasting peace between Israel and Syria, despite Netanyahu’s initial skepticism, the uncertainty over Assad’s authenticity, and what Hof describes as an overstaffed White House that micromanaged the Israel-Palestinian track but showed almost no interest in Syria. “Reaching for the Heights” is a detailed, heartfelt, and engagingly written account of the ultimately unsuccessful Israeli-Syria peace effort. It is also a poignant read in light of the tragedy that has befallen Syria over the past decade, and the sobering thought that this may well be the last memoir ever written on an Israeli-Syrian peacemaking effort.

Nicholas Blanford is a senior fellow with the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council and a former Beirut correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. 

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