Joshua Landis said promoting peace between Syria and Israel is important for the United States if it wants to “preserve its broad interest in the Middle East and good relations with Arab allies such as Egypt and Tunisia.”

Landis was speaking March 14 to the monthly gathering of the Mid Coast Forum on Foreign Relations at Point Lookout. His talk was titled “How Syria Fits, and Doesn’t Fit, into U.S. Middle Eastern Policy.”

He said the United States’ relationship with Syria is not good and “remains quite bad” in the Obama administration. Landis said throughout his speech that the issue for Syria is the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that separates Israel and Syria.

“The democratic revolution now spreading across the Arab world is fraught with opportunity and danger for the U.S.,” Landis said. “If the U.S. does not solve the Arab-Israeli conflict it will increasingly be forced to choose between friendship with Israel and its longtime allies in the region.”

He said Turkey is a “bellwether for this trend.” He said the people of Turkey have begun to criticize the United States for policies such as support for Israeli settlements. The Arab-Israeli conflict also damages the United States’ relationships with other Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, Landis said.

“Democracy will undermine U.S. relations with Middle Eastern governments unless people believe the U.S. is acting as an evenhanded proponent of peace and enforcer of international law,” Landis said.

Landis said the first and easiest step to the Middle East conflict is peace between Israel and Syria. He said a solution for the Golan Heights issue was largely worked out in the 1990s. Why then has there been no resolution? The answer, Landis said, is because the “regional balance of power has been too skewed in favor of Israel to make a deal look advantageous to Israeli governments and to America’s.”  

He said a history lesson shows that U.S.-Syria relations are tied to Israel and Golan. To start, “U.S.-Syria relations have been bad since President Truman decided to back the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1947,” Landis said.

Post-World War II, Syria was a viable state and a country that was important for the transport of oil and gas, Landis said. Syria wanted military training from the United States, but Syria was rebuffed because of U.S. support for Israel. Syria turned to the Soviet Union when it learned it would not get help from the United States. “This is the beginning of Syria’s alienation from America,” Landis said. “And relations are going to go from bad to worse.”

Following a coup in Syria, Hussni al-Zaim took over, and had help from the CIA. The plan was to make peace with Israel, arrest communists, and open up pipelines.

“So in many ways, America helped to undermine a fledgling democracy that had been left by the French,” Landis said. “It undermined the Sunni upper class elite and put the army in charge, or it helped. This was being done for domestic security reasons as well, but Syria went along. And this is the beginning of what we have today, which is an Alawite-led government in Syria because the Alawites were the dominant minority within the Syrian army. And the Sunnis were thrown out by the end of the ‘60s.”

The upper class, which would have worked with the West, was out of power. The Ba’ath party took over and Syria looked to the Soviet Union. “And Syria became a staunch enemy of the United States,” Landis said.

Next came Arab nationalism and Abdel Nasser and the ’67 war where Israel conquered the Golan Heights. Landis said more than 100,000 Golanis fled during the invasion and there are approximately 300,000 refugees in Syria today. There are about 20,000 Israeli settlers in the Golan Heights, “which make it very difficult to solve because it’s an important section of the Israeli population.”

“This sets the stage of Syria’s foreign policy, which is oriented around the problem of getting back this big hunk of territory, this irredentist cause, the Golan Heights,” Landis said.

Golan is the key to Syria’s friends and enemies.

Friends of Syria include Iran and Russia, Hezbollah, the PLO and Hamas. “All of these are countries that are willing to arm it or help it in its struggle with Israel in an attempt to pressure Israel to give back the Golan,” Landis said.

Enemies of Syria in the Arab world are America’s allies, Landis said. They include Egypt, which signed the Camp David agreement. Landis said the recent uprising in Egypt was labeled “The end of the Camp David regime” in Syrian media.

“For Syria, that was the importance, we’re going to get rid of this Israeli-Egyptian alliance and Israel’s ability to keep the Golan Heights,” Landis said.

Landis said WikiLeaks cables have cast new light on the U.S.-Syria relationship. “They explain why engagement has failed, and where the stumbling blocks are,” Landis said.

In one cable, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he would change his country’s relationship with Hezbollah and Hamas if peace is reached with Israel and the Golan issue is solved.

The problem comes when Syria offers this deal and the United States responds that Syria needs to stop supporting terrorism before it will help, Landis said. Because this issue gets stuck, Syria believes it must change the balance of power, he said.

“When Syria is strong, Israel will deal with it. So long as it is weak, and its allies are weak, as they are today, Israel will ignore Syria,” Landis said. “Syria sees the U.S. as the key for the balance of power. It believes the U.S. guarantees Israel’s military hegemony in the region through its diplomatic, economic and military support.”

Syria’s plan, therefore, is to change the balance of power through a regional alliance.

“Syria believes it can increasingly build up Hezbollah with better missile technology, build itself up with these low-grade missiles that will pepper Israel and this is a way to change the balance of power in Syria’s favor,” Landis said. “So in a sense Syria is trying to arm itself as a deterrent to Israeli incursions but also as a way to pressure Israel to eventually come back to the bargaining table and get back the Golan Heights.”

Landis said Syria believes it is on a long-term winning trajectory with a Northern Alliance that includes new allies.

“Syria puts great stock in improving relations with Turkey in particular, and what it hopes is an emerging Northern Alliance linking Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon in a trade and increasingly military alliance that can pressure Israel for the Golan Heights,” Landis said.

He said recent revolutions in the Middle East give Syria hope. “The regimes which have been upended are all U.S. allies — Egypt, Tunisia, now troubles in Bahrain,” Landis said. “Syria has taken much gratification from these recent events.”

Syria, meanwhile, has been stable, Landis said.

In all this, Israel feels the pressure and has asked for $20 billion in additional military aid from the United States.

“In some ways this will be a test for the United States,” Landis said. “Whether it’s going to increasingly double-down on Israeli security or whether it’s going to work for a peace arrangement, which is the way I think out of this escalating military buildup and this dangerous situation for the United States in the region where democracy should be playing into our hands but may not in the short term.”

Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma. He writes Syria Comment (syriacomment.com), a daily newsletter on Syrian politics. He has lived in the Middle East and was one of the first Fulbright Scholars to go to Syria to study.

The Mid Coast Forum on Foreign Relations has been meeting since the mid-1980s to discuss international affairs. For more information, visit midcoastforum.org.