Richard Haass: Obama Needs to Talk to Damascus Now

Opportunity" and "Middle East" are rarely mentioned in the same breath, and for good reason. The Middle East is a part of the world in which history is often defined by conflict. A sense of despair grips the region for other reasons, too: it trails Europe, Asia, Latin America and much of Africa by many measures of social progress, including the quality of education, the presence of democratic institutions and the treatment of girls and women.

All the same, there may be an opportunity now—to make peace between Israel and Syria, two countries that have been in a state of war for more than six decades. The opportunity exists even though Syria has been a principal supporter of both Hamas and Hizbullah, the two groups that have waged recent conflicts with Israel, and despite the fact that only 18 months ago Israel attacked a Syrian site suspected of being part of a fledgling program to produce nuclear fuel.

This opportunity should not come as a total surprise. Syria and Israel have negotiated partial agreements in the past (in the wake of the 1973 war, for example) and have come close to concluding a full peace several times. The basic contours of a deal—with Israel returning all of the Golan Heights in exchange for diplomatic recognition and formal peace—are well known and acceptable to both sides, including many conservatives in Israel. After nearly a decade in power, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad looks to be strong enough to overcome domestic resistance to making peace with Israel. He may be able to accomplish what his father could not: make the country whole.

During a recent visit to Damascus, I was told by a senior official that Syria is prepared to forge a separate peace—a bilateral agreement that would not include a resolution of the Palestinian issue. Syria also seems prepared to distance itself from Iran. The people I met in Damascus seemed far more interested in building relations with Iraq, a multiethnic Arab country on Syria's border, than in remaining close to the theocratic Shia regime in Tehran.

Israel has long sought peace with Syria. With treaties already in place with both Egypt and Jordan, a peace with Syria would leave Lebanon as the only "confrontation state" among Israel's immediate neighbors. This would allow Israel to focus on other security challenges—radical armed groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah, and an Iranian government that sponsors terror and is hard at work producing enriched uranium, the critical component of a nuclear weapon.

Moreover, Israelis are more open to peace with Syria than with the Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Israelis live in the Golan Heights, not hundreds of thousands. The land is far smaller in size than the West Bank and Gaza and is of strategic—not theological—value. Domestic political resistance to giving up the Golan Heights, while considerable, does not begin to compare to the opposition to giving up the Palestinian lands also captured in 1967.

Israel's security could be further buttressed by demilitarizing the territory returned to Syria. Technology could provide early-warning systems. Peacekeepers (possibly American) could be stationed there, much as they are in the Sinai to buttress the peace between Israel and Egypt. And the Syrian leadership is sufficiently strong that it could live up to security commitments, something the weak and divided Palestinian leadership could not.

There is one other incentive for Israel to compromise: Syria is in a unique position to influence Palestinian politics. Damascus is a base for Hamas, and the Syrians provide the group with support. It is possible that Syria's desire to normalize relations with the United States and the moderate Arab states—to enter the World Trade Organization, get out from under U.S. sanctions and gain Arab economic aid—could lead it to rein in its support for Hamas.

Any accord between Israel and Syria would require a push from the outside. Turkey has been hosting talks between the two countries, but it cannot succeed on its own. The United States needs to become a participant. For much of the administration of George W. Bush, Syria was treated as a de facto member of the Axis of Evil. It was heavily sanctioned. (No U.S. ambassador has been resident for four years.) But not talking to Syria has weakened U.S. influence, not the standing of the government in Damascus. Last week Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, met with Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman. This is a step in the right direction.

It may be difficult to make peace with Syria, but it will be all but impossible to make peace in the region without it. President Obama correctly views dialogue as a tool, not a reward. It is time to put the tool to use, and to see what can be built.