The resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the ensuing political transition in Cairo has created a wave of uncertainty over the strategic politics of the Middle East, carrying both risks and opportunities for US interests and allies in the region. One potential and less-than-obvious opportunity is to relaunch peace talks between Syria and Israel.
Admittedly, most American policymakers are focused squarely on the risks. Many analysts are trying to gauge the likelihood that a new government in Cairo, responding to popular demands, could decide to cancel its peace treaty with Israel.
It’s an understandable concern, but the evidence suggests that post-Mubarak Egypt will remain a peace partner to Israel. The Egyptian military has issued a statement suggesting that Egypt will respect all international treaties it has signed. Meanwhile, alarmist commentary that suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood could “take over” the country and terminate the peace treaty with Israel is baseless and sensationalist. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to be a force in post-Mubarak Egypt, but the movement will neither monopolize nor dominate national policy and political opinion because its support base remains relatively small, and its ability to expand is limited.
Yet this very alarmism, in addition to internal threat perceptions in Syria, could revitalize the Syrian-Israeli peace track.
Syria and Israel have not been able to reach a peace agreement over the years in large part because neither country has felt a sense of urgency for doing so. While peace was and continues to be desirable for both sides, the continuation of the status quo was not viewed as costly or intolerable – until now perhaps.
A needed shock
In the past, both countries preferred to kick the can down the road until conditions changed and became ripe for peace. The consensus among analysts and policymakers in Washington was that for Syrian-Israeli peace to be achieved, a major shock to the external or internal environments in which both countries operate would have to take place in order to break the logjam and alter the strategic calculus of both sides.
The success of the Egyptian uprising represents precisely that kind of strategic driver that could reshuffle the deck of Syrian-Israeli relations and move their peace process forward. Two things explain this potential development: First, Egypt’s uncertain political future has made Israel nervous about its external security environment.
Perceptions matter greatly in international relations. Even though post-Mubarak Egypt is likely to preserve its peace treaty with Israel, Israel’s worldview and perception of external military threats may have already changed and taken a more pessimistic turn. Consider Jerusalem’s perspective: Turkish-Israeli relations are uncertain at best, Iran seems determined to acquire nuclear weapons, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is dead, and Hezbollah’s political and military power is at an all-time high. Add to that the serious concern over Egypt’s political direction and you have a worried leadership in Israel. To balance against perceived security threats, reduce strategic uncertainty, and ameliorate its deteriorating external environment, Israel may have fresh incentive to reach out to Syria and cooperate on a peace deal.
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.
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.