How can Israel staunch its wounds in southern Lebanon, where about a thousand of its soldiers have been killed over two decades?
One route - preferred by the Barak government and most Israelis - is to reach a deal with President Hafez Assad of Syria, the man who makes the key decisions in Lebanon. The hope of closing this deal helps explain why several Israeli governments have shown such extraordinary flexibility in dealing with the strongman of Damascus, even to the point of offering him the Golan Heights, hoping this will put a stop to missiles and terrorists crossing the border.
But this hope is premised on the dubious assumption that Assad would keep promises after getting back the Golan: a close look at his record shows a nearly perfect thirty-year history of breaking his word with everyone - Turks, Lebanese, Israelis, Jordanians, Russians, and Americans. Even after he has the Golan, there is good reason to suppose Hizbullah would still harass Israel.
Stronger medicine is needed.
Turkey's recent experience suggests what that might be. Starting in 1984, a Marxist-Leninist organization, the Worker's Party of Kurdistan (PKK), began using Syria as a launching board for terrorist attacks on Turkey. By 1987, this insurgency had grown so much that the Turkish president traveled to Damascus to demand its cessation; Assad duly agreed, and in July 1987, their two governments solemnly signed a security protocol promising to "obstruct groups engaged in destructive activities directed against one another on their own territory and would not turn a blind eye to them in any way." But this agreement did little good, as PKK attacks soon picked up again.
In fact, the situation got so bad that the Turkish president took the unprecedented step, in October 1989, of publicly threatening Damascus to live up to the 1987 agreement or find its water supply diminished. This warning did lead to a reduction in PKK attacks, but not for long.
By 1992, Turkish officials began speaking publicly about the PKK problem; the Syrians responded by signing a second security protocol. Within months, however, attacks resumed. In late 1993, a top Turkish official delivered a first military warning: "Turkey cannot tolerate terrorist attacks from any of its neighbors... The necessary answer will be given."
More rounds of talks and agreements followed, all to little effect. A pattern had evolved: Turkish threats, a Syrian lull, a resumption in attacks, followed by new Turkish threats and another cycle.
Turks grew increasingly agitated as Syrians made promises they did not carry out. Finally, in mid-September 1998, Ankara got serious and made a series of specific demands of Damascus (drop claims to Turkish territory, close down PKK camps, and extradite the PKK leader) as top officials delivered a volley of portentous messages. "We are losing our patience and we retain the right to retaliate against Syria," the president announced. The prime minister accused Syria of being "the headquarters of terrorism in the Middle East" and warned Damascus that the Turkish army was "awaiting orders" to attack. The chief of staff described relations with Damascus as an "undeclared war." Every political party in parliament signed a statement calling on Syria to cut its support for the PKK or "bear the consequences." The media went into high gear, reporting every development in inflamed tones.
Military exercises near the Syrian border began.
Then, suddenly, Assad caved, unconditionally expelling the PKK leader and ending Syrian aid to the PKK. More: this time he kept his word. Turkish officials say they are satisfied with Syria's actions and tensions have been diffused. There is now talk of increasing trade and visitors already are crossing the border in greater numbers.
All of which implies a major question for Israel: Could it be that the negotiations with Damascus, underway since 1991, are futile? That the only way to stop the violence is by emulating the Turks and making a credible threat of force? Something like: "Mr. Assad: Stop Hizbullah or else... "
A few Israeli voices have indeed called for this "Turkish model" - prominent names including Uzi Landau, Efraim Inbar, and Eli Karmon. But theirs are still voices in the wind. Only in time, as a negotiated settlement with Damascus still does not happen or (worse) proves illusory, will Israelis realize that there is no substitute for a forceful policy toward Damascus.
Totalitarian dictators understand this language and none other.