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The truth about the near-miss Israel/Syria deal that some think could have averted the war

Syria's civil war has deteriorated to a certain point that calamities sometimes reach: so awful that many in Washington believe the US is morally compelled to act, but so far gone that they can no longer agree upon a viable solution and many believe none even exists.

This paradox often leads conversation among policy experts in a strange direction: the counterfactual. What if we had done this thing or that thing differently, when the window was still open? Such discussions are, by design, futile. But they can nonetheless be instructive if they might apply elsewhere, or at least interesting.

Washington's current counterfactual obsession is this: What if the US had succeeded in brokering a peace deal between Syria and Israel? Could that have lessened or even prevented Syria's current civil war?

I am skeptical that it could have; it seems likely that such a peace deal, whatever its positive implications, would not have changed Assad's fundamental calculus that led him to spark the Syrian war. But some smart people disagree with this, so it's worth looking through the debate.

What an Israel-Syria peace deal has to do with Syria's war

obama netanyahu
Obama and Netanyahu on October 1, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Israel and Syria have never had formal diplomatic relations. During a 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel seized a piece of Syrian territory on its border known as the Golan Heights, which it still holds.

The US has helped broker peace treaties between Israel and other Arab states: with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. It has made gestures at brokering a peace deal between Israel and Syria as well, and Israeli and Syrian leaders have in the past suggested they were open to it, but nothing has come of it.

Fred Hof, a former State Department official who worked on Syria, wrote recently in Politico that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad suggested in early 2011 — just before the Syrian uprising that would later become the Syrian civil war — that Syria could accept a peace deal with Israel on pretty sweeping terms:

Assad, told me in late February 2011 that he would sever all anti-Israel relationships with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and abstain from all behavior posing threats to the State of Israel, provided all land lost by Syria to Israel in the 1967 war—all of it—was returned. My conversation with him was detailed in terms of the relationships to be broken and the behavior to be changed. He did not equivocate. He said he had told the Iranians that the recovery of lost territory—the Golan Heights and pieces of the Jordan River Valley—was a matter of paramount Syrian national interest. He knew the price that would have to be paid to retrieve the real estate. He implied that Iran was OK with it. He said very directly he would pay the price in return for a treaty recovering everything.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was, Hof says, "interested." The Golan Heights have militarily strategic value for Israel, and no country likes to lose territory, but "flipping" Syria would weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and drastically reduce Iran's ability to threaten Israel. The two countries reportedly engaged in secret US-brokered negotiations in 2010 over such a deal, but it fell apart.

The debate over whether such a deal would be on net beneficial for Israel is a complex and often heated one. (And often people on both sides of the argument use it as an implicit stand-in for arguing about whether an Israel-Palestine peace deal is a good idea.) For our purposes, though, the question at hand is whether such a deal, if Israel and Syria had both acceded to it, would have changed the trajectory of events within Syria that resulted in a terrible civil war.

The case that a Syria-Israel peace deal could have prevented Syria's war

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad meets with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran.

Some of Hof's colleagues in the US government, he says, believed that "a treaty signing in early 2011 could have kept the gale force winds of the Arab Spring from unhinging Syria." (Others think it would have been a bad idea.)

The immediate (and most optimistic) case seems to be that under such a deal, Assad would have cut himself off from Hezbollah and Iran. Therefore, once the uprising began and once it devolved into a civil war, Assad would not have had these allies to call upon. Iran and Hezbollah have been major front-line forces and crucial for propping up Assad.

Without this outside support, might Assad have been more willing to compromise on a peace deal, as he's refused to do? Or might the rebels have had an easier time toppling Assad outright? Could Syria's Arab Spring have looked more like Egypt's or perhaps like Libya's, in which Muammar Qaddafi fell quickly in part because he had no real outside allies?

A secondary case is that under an Israel-Syria peace deal, Syria's behavior would be changed on the margins — not altering anything decisively, but maybe steering Assad a touch in a better direction.

A country that fears external threats is more likely to fear internal ones, so perhaps a Syria at peace with Israel would be a touch less paranoid about internal dissent. A public, US-brokered peace deal with Israel would've forced Assad to use softer rhetoric toward Israel and the West, and might've thus softened his hard-line "Axis of Resistance" rhetoric toward the uprising early on. Maybe the peace deal would've led to softened US-Syria ties, bringing more foreign investment and giving Assad an added incentive not to massacre civilians.

On net, the argument is that a Syria-Israel peace deal would have turned Assad away from Iran and Hezbollah and integrated it a bit more into the international order, thus depriving him of Iranian-backed military support and adding incentives for him to be a bit less horrific in his response to protesters. And those changes in 2011, when the uprising began, might have deterred him from so violently attacking protesters as to spark the civil war.

The case that a peace deal would not have prevented Syria's war

A March 2011 photo shows protesters marching in the Syrian city of Damascus (AFP PHOTO / STR)
A March 2011 photo shows protesters marching in the Syrian city of Damascus. (AFP PHOTO/STR)

There are a number of counterarguments to each of the arguments above — this is a counterfactual, after all, so we could bicker endlessly. But to my mind, the most convincing argument is that ultimately Bashar al-Assad values his regime's survival above all else, and his regime had a policy, going back decades, of suppressing popular dissent with unchecked violence.

The Hama Rules, as Thomas Friedman termed them, have defined the Assad regime since it took power decades ago. The name refers to Hama, where, in 1982, Syria's then-leader, Hafez al-Assad, massacred thousands of civilians as "punishment" for a popular uprising that had originated there. The message Hafez sent was that he would gladly mow down every last Syrian if that was what it took to put down uprisings against his rule.

His son Bashar, who took power in 2000, at first looked like he might be a softer, kinder despot who'd break from the Hama Rules. His government sparked the "Damascus Spring," allowing public debate and dissent, a flowering of political and intellectual activity, and even government reform.

But by 2001 it became clear that the opening had been a ruse. Opposition figures who'd stuck their heads out, believing Assad would welcome them, were jailed en masse. The reforms were withdrawn and the nascent opposition crushed. Torture and violence returned as tools of political control in Assad's Syria.

It is reasonable to expect that under an Israel-Syria peace deal, Assad would likewise make all the right shows of rejecting Iran and Hezbollah and of opening up his long-closed nation. And there is every reason to believe that, as with the Damascus Spring of 2000, he would return to violence and despotism just as quickly if he saw his rule threatened.

The fundamental calculus of Assad rule, that the Syrian population itself is the ultimate threat and must be controlled at all costs, did not change with 2000's transfer of power and the Damascus Spring, and there is no reason to believe it would change with an Israel-Syria peace deal.

Assad, it seems highly likely, at least to me, would still respond to peaceful Arab Spring protests with overwhelming violence. He would still send his own tanks into the streets to massacre civilians, leading Syrian army officers to defect and join with the protesters in forming the Free Syrian Army. He would still throw himself into Iran's arms — and who could doubt that Tehran would welcome him back? — for the country's support in killing Syrians. He would still invite Hezbollah to cross into his territory. A quarter million Syrians would still have died and 12 million been displaced.

To be clear: Many of the iterations of this debate have really, deep down, been not about Syria but about Israel, and whether it is a good idea for Israel to seek peace with its neighbors. This should not be read as an argument against Israel ever seeking peace with anyone, but rather as a reminder that certain regimes have made their priorities and practices perfectly clear. Syria's is one of them.