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Golan Heights Symbolize Syrian Frustration

December 17, 2003 |
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Land for peace? That phrase is constantly being heard in the Middle East. These days the Israeli government seems willing to part with much of the Gaza Strip, some of the West Bank -- and none of the Golan Heights.

If that's the case, Syria will continue to be the enemy of Israel. On my visit to Damascus last week, almost every Syrian to whom I spoke said loudly that the return of the Golan Heights, which were under Syrian control until the June 1967 war, is a non-negotiable element of any settlement with Israel.

The words "non-negotiable," of course, are a poor prelude to negotiations, but at the same time, the Israelis seem uninterested in letting go of the Golan. After all, they have bitter memories of pre-1967 Syrian artillery barrages from the Heights -- which are a commanding presence overlooking the flatlands around the Sea of Galilee.

And, so maybe any land-for-peace deal between Israel and Syria is a non-starter. If the Israelis are content with that status quo, and the Syrians are not, then perhaps we should think about a word from the language of diplomatese -- namely, "revanchism," the national yearning for regaining territory.

The term comes from the French word for "revenge," and thereby hangs a tale. After France lost two eastern provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, to Germany in 1870-71, the regaining of those lost provinces became the focus of French foreign policy. The word "revanchism" was coined in 1882.

In the late 19th century, the French set in motion two plans for regaining Alsace-Lorraine -- one dumb and one smart. The dumb plan was their military strategy, which was based purely and stupidly on revanchist ideology.

In 1914, in their next war with Germany, the French simply charged headlong into the enemy fortifications in Alsace-Lorraine. The French eventually discovered that revanchist zeal was no match for barbed wire and machine guns. Meanwhile, the main German force outflanked the French to the west and nearly captured Paris. In the first four months of World War I, France suffered 850,000 casualties.

Fortunately for the French, their second plan was worked out in cool reason, as opposed to hot passion. That second strategy was the building of alliances that could surround and strangle the Germans.

France allied itself with its historic enemy, Britain, which it had been fighting for centuries longer than Germany. And France clinched an alliance with another old foe, Russia. And, of course, together France and Britain were eventually able to entice the United States into the war. That huge coalition prevailed in 1918, and France got its land back. In other words, political maneuvering won for the French what military maneuvering could not.

So where are the Syrians, revanchism-wise? Cholene Espinoza, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, who was also visiting Syria, dismisses Syria's military prospects against Israel: "Their airplanes would literally never get airborne." Without air power, she adds, Syria's land power wouldn't last long. Imad Shueibi, of Damascus University, recognizes his country's military weakness. Making a snapping motion with his fist, he asks, "What are we going to do, bite the Israelis?"

It's possible that the Syrians are resigned to their geographic fate. After all, they realize that their country today, with or without the Golan, is a smidgen of what it once was. When I visited the National Museum of Damascus, my guide pointed out a map of the Umayyad Caliphate, and in the 7th and 8th centuries, Damascus was the capital of an Islamic empire stretching from Spain to Pakistan. Given how much they have lost already, maybe the Syrians will accept a Golan-less future.

But maybe not. Syria has no military punch against Israel, but it does have some political cards to play. The Syrians dream of an affiliation with the European Union. Such a linkage might give them new leverage over the Israelis. And they hope that the Americans, now the overlords of the Middle East, might eventually impose a land-for-peace settlement on Israel in an effort to help pacify restive Muslim populations from the West Bank to Iraq to Afghanistan.

Those political schemes might fail, too, as Syria's track record on diplomacy is little better than its record on the military. In which case, the revanchist Syrians will probably continue searching for ways to get revenge.

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