Syria – The Bigger Picture

We in the Middle East, neighbors of Syria in Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinians and Turkey, and of course the Syrians themselves, are waiting for the word from Washington, to know what comes next. 

We will soon be marking the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which began on October 5th, 1973, with a combined surprise attack by Syria and Egypt against the Israeli forces on the Golan Heights and in Sinai.  As an Israeli,  unlike the Americans in the Congress and Senate who will soon be voting on the next steps in the current drama, I actually faced off against the Syrians on the Golan Heights in 1973/74, for eight months, in the Combat Engineering Corps of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).   So like Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hegel, I know the horrors of war.

One of my primary conclusions from that experience was the importance of doing everything possible to resolve the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and, to seek a peaceful and nonviolent long term resolution to conflict situations in general. That does not equal pacifism, because there clearly are situations where there is no alternative but to use military force in self-defense, and to keep and maintain the peace.

When it comes to Syria, there are what I would call the zoom in and the zoom out approaches.  

The Zoom In Approach

The zoom in approach focuses on one detail.   Chemical weapons were used in Syria, and since this is a violation of universal norms, and of President Obama’s red-line, action is required.  Something must be done – whatever the complicated consequences. Despite the fact that nothing was done when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Iranians, even though the number of victims was around 100,000 Iranian civilians and soldiers.  

The Zoom Out Approach: The Post-Civil War Syria

The zoom out approach focuses on the bigger picture.  There is a civil war in Syria that has been going on for almost two years, with over 100,000 combatants and civilians killed, on both sides.  Chemical weapons were used, apparently by President Assad’s forces, though there are also claims that it was a provocation by the rebels. There is a need, not just to prevent the use of chemical weapons, but to arrive at a stable post-civil war situation in Syria, which will guarantee the safety of all three major communities, the Alawites/ Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds.  And there are also Druze and Christians whose interests and safety must be considered.   This is much larger than the chemical weapons issue alone.  The quest for a post-civil war Syria probably will require American-Russian, and perhaps American-Iranian cooperation, and the involvement of the United Nations and possibly the League of Arab States.   And that solution will be achieved by political, diplomatic means, not military means, though a peace-keeping force may be required in the transition period.


And that’s not all.   Another part of the bigger picture is the crisis around the Iranian nuclear program.   With the election of President Rouhani, an apparent Iranian readiness for diplomatic discourse with the West, and first and foremost the United States, should be explored.   Such an exploration could help to resolve the conflict around the Iranian nuclear program, and it could also contribute to the creation of a stable post-civil war Syria.


Another piece in the bigger picture is the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, thanks to the determination of Secretary of State Kerry.   Progress on this track, which is dependent on the readiness of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and continued American determination to be an effective facilitator, could be a major building block towards resolving the general tensions in the Middle East.  It would also eliminate the Israeli occupation as a mobilizing factor for radical and extremist forces in the region.

Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East

And the other major piece in the puzzle is the need to create a new regional regime for security and cooperation, as was done in post-World War II Europe.   One of the foundations of this new regime would be the creation of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East. This would mean no chemical weapons in Syria, no nuclear weapons in Iran, or any other country in the region, and a treaty with ironclad guarantees and the means for monitoring and maintaining the treaty.  And this is not just a theoretical idea.  The NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review conference, meeting in New York in April/May, 2010, resolved that an international conference should be convened, to begin the process of moving towards a WMD Free Zone in the region, under the auspices of the U.S., the United Kingdom, Russia and the UN Secretary General.  Although the conference was not convened in 2012 as originally planned, it is still on the international agenda, and must be convened before the next NPT Review Conference in 2015 to save the current international non-proliferation regime.

There is no doubt that if the American government wills it, and does what is necessary to promote it, a regional conference on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East can and will be convened.

But that requires looking at the bigger picture, and acting accordingly.



About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv