January 4, 2000
By Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington institute for Near East Policy.
The millennial year opened on a high note for U.S. diplomacy, with Syria-Israel peace talks
convening yesterday in Sepherdstown, West-Virginia. Unlike the other two participants, however,
Washington has so far not indicated what it wants from these negotiations or what it is willing to pay
to get it.
Although Washington dons the cap of the impartial mediator, it is disingenuous to suggest that the
U.S. cares equally about advancing the interests of both Israel and Syria – one an ally, the other a
charter member of the list of states that sponsor terrorism.
It is also naive to suggest that the U.S. should not, through these negotiations, promote its own
wider strategic interests. It’s obviously in Washington’s strategic interest to help Israel achieve its
goal of peace with security, even if that requires additional military aid and a contribution of a small
contingent of U.S. personnel to monitor provisions of a peace agreement. The real dilemma for the
U.S. concerns whether, in the context of a peace deal, Washington should also provide aid to Syria.
Following every Arab-Israeli agreement to date – from Camp David to Oslo to Wadi Arava –
Washington has rewarded the Arab peacemaker with financial aid, military assistance and a political
For Syrian president Hafez Assad, that is the real prize. Perhaps the most urgent objective for the
69-year-old mr. Assad is to exploit peace with Israel to cultivate among the American political elite an
interest in the survival of his brutal dictatorship.
Even a small aid package would achieve this goal, an especially important one when reports of
mr. Assad’s declining mental and physical capabilities and his family’s violent internal feuding
suggest profound vulnerability within his regime.
What makes this issue especially complex is that Israel is usually the chief lobbyist on behalf of U.S.
aid to the Arab side. That is because Israel believes that Arab clients of Washington are less likely to
break the peace and risk losing American largesse.
It is also because Israel knows that the u.s. is more likely than any other major power to take
Israel’s interest into account when considering Arab military requests. Out of such enlightened
self-interest, Israel and its American supporters are the most ardent advocates for u.s. aid to Egypt,
Jordan and the Palestinian authority.
While it is for Israel to decide whether to trade land for peace with Syria, it remains for America to
decide whether it should extend its political umbrella to the Assad regime. The operational question
for U.S. policy – one that deserves to be debated now, before Washington makes premature
commitments to ease the passage of an Israel-Syria peace agreement – is whether the u.s. should,
under any circumstances, care about the fate of mr. Assad’s Syria.
Here, the legacy of Egypt-Israel peacemaking is instructive. When Jimmy Carter helped strike the
Camp David deal in 1978, he not only brokered the first Arab-Israel peace accord; he put the
capstone on a five-year, bipartisan effort to wean Egypt away from the soviet union. That was one of
America’s greatest victories in the cold war. The billions in aid that subsequently flowed to Cairo were
rewards for Anwar Sadat’s heroism both in making peace with Israel and in throwing in his lot with the
In practical terms, that meant close cooperation in Persian Gulf security, the first large-scale
joint military exercises in the Arab world, u.s. access to a military facility on the red sea coast, and an
aggressive Egyptian posture toward Muammar Gadhafi.
In addition, Sadat welcomed u.s. economic aid conditioned on liberalizing his economy and
opening it to the world.
Today Arab leaders like mr. Assad and Yasser Arafat seek u.s. patronage not because they want to
jump from the soviet ship but because the soviet ship sank.
America has a lesser interest in supporting such men than it did in supporting Sadat in the
1970s. That does not mean the U.S. should reject in principle their application to join “our club.” It
only means that the membership fees should be much higher than they were two decades ago.
Most observers tend to focus on the steps Syria needs to take to merit removal from the list of state
sponsors of terrorism as the price it will pay to earn a new relationship with Washington.
This is wrongheaded.
Ending support for terrorism – as well as providing full cooperation to U.S. investigations of
anti-American terrorist attacks, extraditing nazi war criminals, securing the freedom of Israelis still
missing in action, and stopping transport of Iranian arms to Hezbollah across Syrian-controlled
territory – should be the beginning of this process, not its end.
The Clinton administration has signaled otherwise by agreeing to defer redress on these issues to
host a negotiation that enhances Syria’s prestige and that is, in part, designed to address Damascus’
grievances. Washington has never fully spelled out the specific requirements Syria must meet to be
removed from the terrorism list.
Past precedent suggests this can be a very politicized process. In 1982 the Reagan
administration was under no illusion that Saddam Hussein had forsworn terrorism, but it still removed
Iraq from the terrorism list in order to help Baghdad in its war with Iran.
Beyond these preliminaries – and in addition to Syria satisfying Israel’s demands for peace –
membership in America’s club in the middle east today means opening the economy and subscribing
to U.S. policy in the Persian gulf.
the latter would entail active support for the containment of Saddam Hussein’s regime – i.e.,
closing the Syrian-Iraqi border to illegal trade, offering overflight rights to U.S. and allied aircraft,
perhaps even hosting a tour of the air expeditionary force that rotates around regional states to patrol
no-fly zones over Iraqi territory.
It would also mean severing a strategic relationship with Iran, including shutting down access to
the Bekaa valley for Iran’s revolutionary guards and terminating cooperation with Tehran and
Pyongyang in ballistic missile development.
A Syria that is a full partner in America’s two great regional projects – Arab-Israeli peace and security
in the gulf – and that is committed to market-oriented economic development is a country that would
merit U.S. support.
It would also be a very different Syria, one that could see progress toward human rights and
Though they risk spoiling the mood in Shepherdstown, U.S. diplomats should waste no time in
making clear to Syrians and Israelis alike that only a different Syria is welcome in our club.