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Assad Will Hold Peace Talks with Israel Only if the Golan Heights are Given Back

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When the U.A.E. normalized relations with Israel, and then Bahrain followed suit, among those Arab leaders who remained silent was Bashar al-Assad. His silence was interpreted as possibly indicating that he was mulling over the possibility of doing something similar. He might, after all, be thinking that at least entering peace talks with Israel, if not normalizing relations with it, would be one way to persuade Washington to remove economic sanctions on Syria and its ruling elite. On the other hand, were he to make any move toward recognizing Israel Assad would surely incur the wrath of both Iran and Hezbollah, that have helped him so much during the Syrian civil war. Decisions, decisions. What’s a poor, mass-murdering dictator to do? The latest on Bashar’s demands is here.

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Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview with Russian state news Thursday that peace talks with Israel would only take place if the Israelis return the Golan Heights to Syrian control.

In the interview, Assad said that Syria would hold peace talks with Israel only when the Jewish state was ready “to return the occupied Syrian land.”…

Assad’s statements seemingly came in response to recent speculation that Syria is interested in negotiations with Israel in order to alleviate crushing economic sanctions imposed by the United States.

The report by Ibrahim Hamidi, a senior diplomatic editor at the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper and an expert in Syrian affairs, speculated that Syria’s silence on the recent normalization accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, along with a delivery of humanitarian aid from the UAE, indicated Syria was interested in coming to the table in order to appease the Americans.

Ibrahim Hamidi gave Assad too much credit for realism. Assad’s imagination has run away with him. He still thinks there is a chance – even a good chance — that Israel would give up the Golan Heights in exchange for Syria agreeing to “talk” with the Jewish state. But Israel will never surrender the Golan, not for talks, not for a peace treaty, not for full normalization of relations. Israel annexed the Golan Heights, made it part of Israel, nearly forty years ago, in 1981. Israelis disagree on many territorial issues – whether or not all, or part, or none, of the West Bank should be given up to the Palestinian Arabs – but there is no disagreement, none, on the Golan Heights. Israelis remember how, from the Golan, that loomed high above Israeli farms and villages far below, the Syrians would rain down fire on Israel civilians. Not even the far-left Meretz Party would give up the Golan. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said in 2016, the Golan Heights is an integral part of Israel. Giving any of it back to Syria “will never happen.”

Asked about normalization with Israel, Assad said that normalization is possible “only when we can reclaim our land, it is very simple,” he said.

Assad also emphasized in the interview that Syria was not negotiating with Israel….

Those talks failed because Hafez Assad continued to insist, as his son now does, on a return of the Golan Heights. Israel offered then, and offers now (see the U.A.E., see Bahrain) “peace for peace,” not ”land for peace.” No peace agreement could enhance Israel’s security vis-à-vis Syria as much as its continued possession of the Golan Heights.

Israel has no need of recognition by, or normalization of ties with, Syria. Unlike the U.A.E., which has billions to invest in Israel, and offers enormous possibilities for cooperative ventures with Israelis — in high tech, solar energy, agriculture, cybersecurity, trade, tourism — Syria is now, and will be for decades to come, an economic basket case. Five million Syrians have fled the country, six million are internally displaced. There is hardly a city or a village in the country that has not suffered catastrophic damage that brings to mind how German cities looked in 1945. Merely to put Syria back into something like the condition it was in just before the civil war began in 2011, would cost at least $350 billion.

The Israelis have been striking Iranian and Hezbollah bases in Syria at will. Hundreds of devastating strikes have been carried out with the loss of only one Israeli plane, an F-16 shot down on February 10, 2018 (the plane crashed inside Israel, the pilot survived). The Syrian military have been so degraded by the civil war, with 130,000 Syrian soldiers killed, and 3,000 armored vehicles destroyed (analysts offer this as a low estimate), and 125 planes destroyed, that they are no longer a military threat to Israel. What worries Israel is not the Syrian military itself, but the possibility of Iran establishing bases in Syria, and transferring precision-guided missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Assad’s dreamy belief that Israel might ever contemplate handing back the Golan Heights testifies to his miscomprehension of the real situation. That horse left the barn nearly forty years ago, when Israel passed the Golan Heights Law making that captured territory part of Israel – as much a part as Tel Aviv or Haifa. There is no going back. On the other hand, making peace with Israel could provide Syria with tangible benefits. Israel would be willing, in exchange for normalization of relations, to engage in collaborative efforts with Syrians in some of the same areas in which it has undertaken to cooperate with the U.A.E. (and, to a lesser degree, with Bahrain). These areas would include high tech of all kinds, solar energy, agriculture (including advanced methods of drip irrigation), electric vehicles, medical equipment, even tourism. Could Assad ever be able to shake off his mind-forged manacles, abandon his preposterous demand for Israel to give back the Golan, and come to the table with Israel, willing to deal for the sake of his country? So far, the answer is No.

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