Syria Table of Contents

As of 1987, Syria had successfully vetoed its neighbors' peace initiatives and constructed a credible unilateral military deterrent to Israel. It had also outlined its position on potential multilateral negotiated solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Syria had accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 338 of October 22, 1973, and indicated that such acceptace implied acceptance of Resolution 242, which was adopted after the June 1967 War. However, in 1986 Damascus suggested a willingness to negotiate only a state of "nonbelligerency" with Israel, not a comprehensive peace treaty. Whereas Resolution 242 specifically requires Arab recognition of Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, Resolution 338 more generally calls for negotiations between the parties concerned "under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East." Although Resolution 338 does, in fact, call on the parties to start implementation of Resolution 242, it does not spell out in its text Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist. Although the distinction appears to be semantic, Syria's refusal to endorse Resolution 242 without reservation remained a block to Syrian participation in Middle East peace negotiations. Syria has indicated that it would accept Resolution 242 only if Israel first withdrew from occupied Arab territory and guaranteed Palestinian rights. At the same time, some Syrian propagandists have maintained the more intransigent definition of the entire state of Israel, rather than the areas seized by Israel in the June 1967 War only, as occupied Arab territory. When the Israeli Knesset voted in December 1981 to permanently annex the Golan Heights, Syria perceived the action as a renunciation of Resolution 242 and the "land for peace" formula for resolution of the Middle East conflict. In 1987 Syria viewed Resolution 242 as a virtually obsolete framework for a settlement.

Instead, Syria advocated the implementation of the Fez Resolutions that were sponsored by Saudi Arabia at the Arab Summit at Fez, Morocco, in 1982. The Fez Resolutions demand settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute at an international conference to be attended by representatives of all Arab governments, Israel, the PLO, and both superpowers.

Although Syria wants involvement in such diplomatic initiatives, it has increasingly less faith that a negotiated, peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict will fulfill its demands. Accordingly, Syria has come to rely more heavily on the hope that its military will ultimately secure its objectives or, at the least, act as a credible deterrent to future Israeli aggression. The Syrian-Israeli combat in Lebanon in 1982 increased Syrian confidence in confronting Israel on the battlefield. Although the Syrian armed forces lost men and military matériel, they performed well in several crucial engagements.

Throughout 1985 and 1986, Syria and Israel engaged in brinkmanship and saber rattling, as Syria brandished its new military strength. For example, Syria deployed some of the troops it had withdrawn from Lebanon to the Golan Heights. Then, on November 19, 1985, Israel shot down two Syrian MiG-23 jets inside Syrian airspace. In December Syria retaliated by deploying mobile air defense missiles to Lebanon. Although the missiles posed an identical tactical threat to Israeli reconnaissance flights over Lebanon whether they were stationed in Syria or just across the border, Israel regarded the move as a challenge to a longstanding tacit understanding that such missiles, if located in Lebanon, would be subject to Israeli attack. Syria withdrew the missiles within several weeks after the United States interceded and mediated the dispute. On February 4, 1986, Israel intercepted and forced down a Libyan executive jet, enroute from Tripoli to Damascus, which was carrying Baath Party assistant secretary general Abdallah al Ahmar and other senior Syrian politicians. Israel had ostensibly been searching for Palestinian terrorists, but Syria viewed the interception as a deliberate provocation and an act of air piracy. Finally, in May 1986, it was revealed that Syria had built revetments and entrenched fortifications in Lebanon that faced Israel. Although the construction was defensive, Israel viewed it as enhancing Syria's potentially offensive position on the Golan Heights.

To underscore Syria's increasing belligerence, in an important speech delivered to the People's Council in February 1986, Assad departed from his usually calm demeanor by declaring that Syria would work to put the Golan Heights "in the middle of Syria and not on its borders." Assad was engaging in hyperbole and exaggerating Syria's true intentions. Nevertheless, in 1987 most Syrian and Israeli officials believed that, because of the two countries' irreconcilable conflicts, the outbreak of war was inevitable in the future; some felt it to be in the distant future, while a minority, cognizant of the escalation of tensions in 1985 and 1986, believed it to be imminent.

More about the Government of Syria.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress