An Israeli–Syrian peace deal is a real possibility and would have a positive effect on the Middle East and U.S. interests there. But the two sides will not reach an agreement without U.S. leadership. The incoming administration should use a balance of pressure, incentives, and robust diplomacy to make the agreement a reality, concludes a new paper by the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Paul Salem argues that President-elect Barack Obama should continue the Bush administration’s policy of pressuring Syria to keep out of Lebanon and Iraq, which has helped push Syria towards a peace agreement. But the new administration must pursue a more balanced approach with strong diplomacy to reach a land-for-peace deal over the occupied Golan Heights.

Key Conclusions:

  • The United States would only benefit from an agreement, which would help stabilize Lebanon and Iraq and curb Iran’s influence in the region. Leading the push to secure a peace agreement would also help restore America’s image in the Middle East.
  • The outlines of such a treaty were largely fleshed out during previous negotiations, but finalization and implementation will be challenging. Syria views complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as the first step, while Israel does not want to withdraw from the Golan Heights until it is sure Syria has abandoned its support for Hizbollah and Hamas and fundamentally altered its relations with Iran.
  • The majority of Israeli political elites recognize the value of an accord with Syria, which would put pressure on Lebanon to negotiate a peace treaty, limit Hizbollah and Hamas’ strategic options, and weaken Iran’s influence.
  • Syria has much to gain from an agreement. The return of the Golan Heights would be a significant coup for Bashar Assad, the regime—like other Arab regimes that have signed peace deals with Israel—would acquire long term security, and Syria would benefit economically. 
  • Syria will need to change its relations with Iran as part of an agreement. It could follow Turkey’s example, which has very good political, economic, and security relations with Iran but is not locked into a political or military alliance.

Salem concludes:

“The issues between Israel and Syria are complex, and the challenge of shifting Syria’s strategic posture is even more demanding. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done an excellent job so far. But it will take a fully empowered U.S. secretary of state or presidential envoy—and, eventually, direct presidential engagement—to achieve a breakthrough on the Syrian–Israeli track.”