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Syria Looks for a Cozier Relationship With U.S.--and Israel Doesn't Object : Peace: With a cease-fire in Lebanon, Washington must grab the chance to invigorate the peace talks. As a first step, move the talks to Cairo.

August 08, 1993|Howard R. Teicher | Howard R. Teicher, who served on the National Security Staff from 1982-87, is the co-author, with his wife, Gayle Radley Teicher, of "Twin Pillars to Desert Storm " (William Morrow & Co.)

WASHINGTON — The U.S.-brokered cease-fire in south Lebanon has established a tenuous but more stable balance of power between Syria and Israel. It has also created an opportunity to break the deadlock in the Arab-Israeli peace process. With Israelis and Syrians pressing the United States to take a more active role in negotiations, Washington should consider a new initiative that would spur the talks without jeopardizing U.S. standing as an honest broker.

Several developments have contributed to a political environment in which the interests of both Arabs and Israelis would be advanced by progress toward peace. Of greatest significance is the resurgence of militant Islamic fundamentalism and the desire of Syrian President Hafez Assad to improve U.S.-Syrian relations.

Without the support of its former patron, the Soviet Union, and keenly aware of the renewed importance the Clinton Administration places on strengthening U.S.-Israeli relations, Assad has no illusions that Washington will attempt to extract political concessions from Israel without reciprocal Arab compromise. Damascus is calculating what it must do to improve relations with Washington. First, it must stop its sponsorship of international terrorism as well as its acquiescence to Iran's support of terror operations launched within Lebanon. With the potential for a military solution in the Golan Heights beyond grasp, the only feasible means for the recovery of occupied Arab territory is a negotiated settlement that restores Syrian sovereignty to the Golan in exchange for a meaningful and secure peace with Israel.

Against this backdrop, Assad and other leaders find themselves confronted once again with the specter of Islamic fundamentalism. With Tehran at the center of much of the militants' activities, Assad has bowed to Iranian inducements and permitted money and arms to flow from Tehran through Damascus to the radical Shia communities of the Bekaa Valley in south Lebanon.

Hezbollah has waged guerrilla warfare against Israeli soldiers and their Lebanese allies in Israel's self-declared security zone for nearly a decade. Their activities served Syria's interest in maintaining indirect, low-level pressure on Israel. Even had the Lebanese government been inclined to seek a political understanding with Israel and dispatch its army to the south, it could not do so without the approval and backing of Assad.

In contrast to Menachem Begin's disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the avowed goal of Yitzhak Rabin's military action was to pressure Syria into assuming responsibility for south Lebanon. Keenly aware of the political vacuum in the south, Rabin sought to give Assad a stake in a stable Lebanon. This goal was achieved when Syria authorized the Lebanese army to move south and stop Hezbollah attacks.

To date, Jersusalem appears satisfied with the outcome and almost eager to discern what Assad wants in order to move from ambiguous understandings to unambiguous agreements. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres even praised Assad for helping to arrange and guarantee the cease-fire. In the light of Assad's brutal record of dealing with rebellious Syrian Muslim fundamentalists in the early 1980s, when the Syrian army killed more than 20,000 civilians, Lebanese and Israelis are confident that Assad will keep the peace as long as he so chooses. The question is what will it take to preserve Assad's stake in a stable south Lebanon.

To strengthen the cease-fire and leverage the new balance of power into political achievement, Washington must undertake both procedural and substantive initiatives. As a first step, it is imperative that the negotiations be relocated to the Middle East and permanently reconvened in Cairo. Cairo is the logical choice because of its diplomatic ties with both Arabs and Israelis. It would also demonstrate that militant Islamic fundamentalism will not succeed in undermining secular governments.

Second, the United States should get more involved in the peace process. A presidential envoy with considerable prestige should be appointed and dispatched to the region to broker the negotiations as the parties negotiate agreements in the bilateral and multilateral talks. Occasional appearances by U.S. diplomats will not produce results.

With respect to the negotiations, the first priority should be to consolidate the cease-fire by permanently restoring Lebanese authority in south Lebanon. This can be achieved through negotiated security arrangements, the expanded presence of Lebanese army and U.N. peacekeeping forces, the disarming of all Lebanese militias and the withdrawal of the Israeli Defense Forces.

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