In Retrospect

Israel And Syria: A Missed Opportunity?

03.05.13 6:45 PM ET

What do Benjamin Netanyahu, Bashar al-Assad, Ehud Barak and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have in common? They all thought, at some point in the last decade and a half, that a peace treaty between Syria and Israel was within reach and that it would greatly advance regional peace. The only “visionaries” who opposed the idea make for an odd couple: Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President George W. Bush.

Bashar al-Assad was presented as a reasonable autocrat. Israel would give him all of the Golan Heights and he would sign a peace agreement, thereby distancing himself from Iran and Hezbollah. Maybe he would even kick Hamas out of Damascus.

Israel’s relationship with Syria has always been complicated. Israelis never had the same ideological attachment to the Golan Heights as to the West Bank. Despite the popular Israeli bumper sticker proclaiming “The People with the Golan,” many of the Golan “settlers” are leftists or centrists. Their relocation, although painful, would be very manageable.

There was of course the problem of Syria’s secret nuclear program, but that was solved—for now—in September of 2007 when the Israeli Air Force destroyed the North Korean-built reactor. That was denounced as “counter-productive” by some at the time, since it put at risk the secret efforts to broker a peace deal. But despite the strike, Turkey was very close to brokering a deal between Syria and Israel in 2008-2009, until the first Gaza operation (“Cast Lead”) derailed it.

The Middle East is a complicated place. This supposedly great opportunity for peace on Israel’s northern border looks very different today. What a deal it would have been: Israel would have been perceived as the objective ally of a mass murderer. Images of the last Gaza conflict would have reinforced images of the war crimes committed by Assad’s thugs. We would have had split screens on Al-Jazeera with images of Zionists and Alaouite hordes killing civilians. The most loathed leader on the planet would have been the one Arab leader alive to have signed a peace deal with Israel. Exciting.

As for the “counter-productive” strike against Syria’s nuclear reactor, in retrospect it does not look like such a bad move. The international community could be facing the same Syrian regime committing war crimes today, except that it would possess a couple of nuclear weapons. It would probably not have made the international community more inclined to act militarily to protect Syrian civilians.

The absurdity of today’s situation is probably not lost on Syrian citizens themselves. They have been told since 1967 that they would regain the Golan Heights through war or an agreement. And to achieve that goal they made enormous sacrifices as a nation, which allowed the Assad regime to build one of the most powerful military forces in the Middle East. But they got very little in return. The peace deal with Israel never happened, nor did the great war of liberation. Instead, the formidable military they paid for has been used by the regime to kill tens of thousands of civilians.

To put the grim scale of the killing in perspective, Assad’s men were able to kill more Syrian civilians in the last 2 years than all Arab armies combined have killed Israeli military personnel since 1948. The number of Israeli military casualties stands at approximately 22,000; the number of Syrian casualties is harder to estimate but the last estimate from the U.N. is around 70,000 since April 2011, with civilians representing approximately half of the victims. Syrian human rights organizations think the number of civilian casualties could prove to be much higher. That number represents more than 3 times the total number of Palestinian casualties attributed to Israeli security forces since 1948 (estimates vary but these numbers come from combining statistics from B’tselem and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Seventy thousand victims in 22 months averages out to more than 100 casualties per day. On average, there are more Syrian casualties every 2 days than the total number of Palestinian casualties during the last Israeli operation in Gaza (“Pillar of Defense”). In fact, more than ten times as many Syrians have died in the last two years than Palestinians have died since 2000, including the Second Intifada and the last two Gaza operations.

The northern border continues to be relatively quiet since the “missed opportunity” of 2009. Two weeks ago, a special unit of the IDF was confronted with a bizarre situation: a group of critically injured Syrian rebels made their way to the border and called for help. They needed immediate medical attention or else many of them would die. After administrating first aid treatment, the soldiers received a green light from a baffled hierarchy and took the Syrian fighters to an Israeli hospital where they were treated by Zionist surgeons. That’s far from a peace treaty, but it still makes for a small moment of humanity in a very dark period for the region.