I did not think it inevitable that Assad — a computer-savvy individual who knew mass murder could not remain hidden from view in the 21st century — would react to peaceful protest as violently as he did, with no accompanying political outreach. And as Syria began to descend into the hell to which Assad was leading it, I did not realize that the White House would see the problem as essentially a communications challenge: getting Obama on “the right side of history” in terms of his public pronouncements. What the United States would do to try to influence Syria’s direction never enjoyed the same policy priority as what the United States would say.
Frederic C. Hof joined the State Department in 2009, where he advised Special Envoy George Mitchell on the full range of Arab-Israeli peace issues falling under his purview and focusing on Syria-Israel and Israel-Lebanon matters. Weeks before the popular uprising in Syria in 2011, Hof had won Bashir al-Assad’s provisional support for a peace deal with Israel which, if supported by Israel, would have resulted in the return of all Syrian territory lost in 1967.
Assad, told me in late February 2011 that he would sever all anti-Israel relationships with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and abstain from all behavior posing threats to the State of Israel, provided all land lost by Syria to Israel in the 1967 war — all of it — was returned. My conversation with him was detailed in terms of the relationships to be broken and the behavior to be changed. He did not equivocate. He said he had told the Iranians that the recovery of lost territory — the Golan Heights and pieces of the Jordan River Valley — was a matter of paramount Syrian national interest. He knew the price that would have to be paid to retrieve the real estate. He implied that Iran was OK with it. He said very directly he would pay the price in return for a treaty recovering everything.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was interested. He was not at all eager to return real estate to Syria, but he found the idea of prying Syria out of Iran’s grip fascinating. And the negative implications for Hezbollah of Lebanon following Syria’s peace accord with Israel were not lost on him in the least. Although there were still details to define about the meaning of “all” in the context of the real estate to be returned, Netanyahu, too, knew the price that would ultimately have to be paid to achieve what he wanted. [Continue reading…]