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Talking Peace and Trading Goods: A Formula for U.S. Mideast Policy

February 05, 1989|Howard R. Teicher | Howard R. Teicher was on the National Security Council staff, directing political-military and Middle Eastern issues, from 1982 to 1987

WASHINGTON — Despite the understandable desire to move cautiously in formulating foreign policy, the Bush Administration's early priority will almost certainly be the Arab-Israeli conflict.

With escalating tension between Israelis and Palestinians, pressure for a U.S. peace initiative is growing. The U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization has already set in motion political forces that will test bipartisanship between the President and Congress. Israeli and Arab leaders both seek early meetings with the Bush Administration; the European allies push their own peace initiatives. Meanwhile, the grisly resurgence of Middle East terrorism, aimed at disrupting the peace process, has begun.

To contain these pressures and move the peace process forward, the United States must ensure its two fundamental interests in the Middle East: the deterrence of war and peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel. No peace initiative can hope to succeed without these cornerstones of U.S. policy.

The Bush Administration must assume that Arab radicals will do all they can to sabotage the process--for peace in the Middle East always seems tentative.

Syria remains the Arab state most capable of preventing peace--whether by overt military means or its support of international terrorism. Although Damascus has softened its rhetoric--perhaps reflecting new signals from Moscow--deterrence can never be taken for granted. Washington should have no doubts about Syria's ability to undermine any peace process it does not support. Though President Hafez Assad has always been careful to preserve a peace option, he has never been ambiguous about resisting any initiative he did not approve. It is worth recalling the U.S. experience in Lebanon to ensure mistakes are not repeated.

Assad was consistent and determined to defeat U.S. policy in Lebanon in 1983-1984. During Secretary of State George P. Shultz's shuttle diplomacy after the April, 1983, bombing of the U.S. Embassy, the Lebanese foreign minister reported, with grim foreboding, having failed to convince Assad that the agreement between Lebanon and Israel would benefit Syrian interests. On the contrary, Assad warned, "there was nothing good in the agreement, and that the Lebanese government should just remember what happened to (Anwar) Sadat."

In fall, 1983, Syrian-backed military and terrorist pressure against Beirut culminated with the bombings of the U.S. and French barracks. Caught up in a political struggle in Washington, the United States talked tough but failed to act. So Syria grew bolder--firing surface-to-air missiles at U.S. reconnaissance aircraft while increasing the level of combat in Beirut and its environs.

By February, 1984, the multinational force had left Beirut. Damascus resumed its pre-eminent position.

It had taken less than one year for Assad to defeat U.S. policy in Lebanon and fulfill his earlier warning. Syria fought and won a limited war with the United States. Now as then, the United States cannot afford to overlook Syrian interests and Assad's capabilities.

Today, though seemingly bogged down in Lebanon, the Syrians have, in fact, improved their military capabilities qualitatively and quantitatively. Advanced MIG-29 aircraft, a modernized and expanded surface-to-air missile network, expanding inventories of accurate SS-21 ballistic missiles and thousands of T-72 tanks contribute to Assad's declared goal of "strategic parity"--Syria would be able fight Israel without any Arab partners.

Syria's relationship with its principal patron, the Soviet Union, has changed. Most significant, Michael S. Gorbachev recently advised Assad that strategic parity between Syria and Israel is not obtainable for political and economic reasons. Damascus now grumbles that Moscow no longer fulfills all its equipment requests--and acts as it sees fit.

For example, when the Soviet Union refused Syria's request for equipment to manufacture chemical weapons, the Syrians turned to West Germany. Yet Syria remains Moscow's most important ally in the region.

As in Lebanon, Syria will not hesitate to use force to advance its political objectives against Yasser Arafat or other Arabs, Israelis or whomever. President George Bush, together with Congress, must determine how to persuade Syria to desist from its spoiler role. Washington should not assume that the Soviets alone can discourage Assad from using violence.

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