The Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, currently frozen because of a procedural impasse and continued terrorist attacks against Israel, offer Washington a chance to end the state of war between Israel and its most dangerous neighbor. But this opportunity is fraught with risks for both Israel and the United States.
Syrian President Hafez al-Assad demands the unconditional return of the Golan Heights, a strategic buffer zone that Israel has occupied since its victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israel cannot surrender such a strategic asset without numerous security conditions, some of which are unacceptable to Syria. The Clinton Administration is trying to bridge the gaps between the two sides. It has promised to deliver economic aid and security guarantees, possibly including U.S. peacekeeping troops on the Golan, as inducements for both sides to sign a peace treaty.
While helping to shape a peace settlement between Israel and Syria, Washington must be careful not to undermine its ally's long-term security. A stable peace is not possible without a strong security foundation. If Israel decides to relinquish the Golan Heights, this is its prerogative; but the United States should not pressure it to do so. Nor should it lull the Israelis to sleep about the risks of withdrawing from the Golan by providing a cosmetic U.S. peacekeeping presence that would do little to lessen Israel's security risks but would reduce the ability of U.S. armed forces to meet security challenges elsewhere.
The United States also should assert its own national interests in shaping a peace settlement by insisting that Syria actively support U.S. foreign policy goals outside of the peace process as a condition of receiving American foreign aid. Washington should not reward Damascus with foreign aid merely for signing a peace treaty that is in Syria's own interest. Syria should be required to take concrete actions to crack down systematically on all terrorists it supports, help contain Iraq, help isolate Iran, stop its support for drug smuggling and counterfeiting, and help build a stable and independent Lebanon before receiving one dollar of U.S. foreign aid.
James A. Phillips is a Research Fellow specializing in Middle Eastern affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.