What hazards along the road to Damascus? Mission impossible

BY: Frank Gaffney
The Washington Times, October 27, 1994

As part of its search for a "comprehensive" peace, Israel is negotiating an agreement with Syria that is expected to entail Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and possibly, over time, the complete return of the Heights to Syria. Relinquishment of this territory is a sensitive military and political issue not just in Israel but also in the United States, because Israel expects that compensatory security arrangements will include the deployment of American troops to the Golan as monitors or peacekeepers.

This study evaluates the benefits and costs to the United States of such a Golan mission for the U.S. armed forces. The benefits — that is, the rationale for such a deployment — divide into three categories: monitoring, deterrence, and support for a Syrian-Israeli peace.

Monitoring: A monitoring mission might focus either on (a) the monitoring of military activity for purposes of early warning and military intelligence or (b) monitoring the parties’ compliance with the peace agreement.

Neither Israel nor Syria would in fact look to U.S. monitors or those of a multinational force to provide early warning of the other side’s significant military activities. That kind of military intelligence collection and analysis is an essential national security function. Although a country might, under certain circumstances, choose to rely to some extent on another country for military intelligence, this is less likely to be the case when the second country is doing its monitoring not as an ally, but as an impartial or neutral observer, as would be the status of any U.S. forces deployed on the Golan under an Israeli-Syrian agreement.

U.S. troops could help perform the function of monitoring the parties’ respective compliance with an agreement. This is a realistic function of some value. But it can be performed effectively without the permanent stationing of U.S. troops on the Heights, with all the attendant costs and risks of such a deployment. If a compliance issue arises and a party wants American personnel to serve as "honest brokers" to mediate the issue or monitor specific treaty conditions, that party could invite those personnel in on a case by case basis.

Deterrence: Some commentators suggest that U.S. forces on the Golan could help deter Syria from violating a peace agreement and attacking Israel militarily in the future. How might the U.S. forces fulfill this function?

Are they to serve as a deterrent on the military level — i.e., the forces themselves would be a military factor in the calculations of a Syrian military commander — or are they to serve simply as a contribution to deterrence on the political level?

There are two ways the forces could function as a military deterrent: either (1) the U.S. deployment would be large enough to serve as an effective military barrier to a future Syrian military offensive or (2) the U.S. deployment would serve as a "tripwire" to ensure that such a Syrian offensive would trigger a large American military intervention to oppose it.

First, no one has suggested that the United States deploy to the Golan a force with the numbers and types of men and equipment that would allow it to serve as military barrier against Syria’s large armored forces. Much of the talk in press and policy circles has been of a [small] deployment — perhaps as few as 800 lightly-armed troops.

Second, some commentators have spoken of the contemplated U.S. deployment as a "tripwire" -that is, a device to ensure that a future Syrian aggression would more or less automatically trigger a substantial U.S. military intervention to defend Israel. This is an idea of enormous strategic importance. It is the concept most likely to affect Israeli public opinion about the security risks of territorial withdrawals in favor of Syria. The concept deserves the most intense scrutiny, for it represents the gravest danger to U.S. interests.

A tripwire arrangement would create, in essence, a mutual defense alliance between Israel and the United States. Such an alliance, however, cannot be built on a trilateral peacekeeping agreement including Syria. It would require a formal defense treaty between Israel and the United States, duly ratified with the approval of the U.S. Senate. It would be reckless for Americans or Israelis to suppose that U.S. forces on the Golan could in fact function as a tripwire in the absence of such a formal treaty commitment.

The United States has an interest in discouraging its Israeli friends from harboring unrealistic expectations. Israel should not count on a peacekeeping force functioning as a mechanism that can be relied upon to engage the United States deeply on Israel’s behalf in the event of another war with Syria. Were a future Syrian attack to injure or kill U.S. peacekeeping forces on the Golan, the U.S. government may decide to remove the peacekeeping force altogether rather than reinforce the troops.

Even if U.S. troops on the Golan do not contribute to military deterrence — as a tripwire or otherwise — might they not be justified as a contribution to deterrence at the political level? In the event (1) Israel and Syria sign a peace agreement, (2) Israel withdraws from the Golan under that agreement and (3) Syria, at some point in the future, decides to launch an attack on Israel to capitalize on that Israeli withdrawal, Syria would know that its aggression will antagonize the United States whether or not U.S. troops are stationed on the Golan. At most, such troops could serve as a marginal factor in Syria’s calculations.

The real political deterrent to Syrian aggression is not U.S. troops on the Golan, but the strength of U.S. ties to Israel and the certainty of U.S. support for a swift and effective Israeli response to such aggression. This deterrent requires no U.S. troops on the Golan.

[Moreover,] such troops would be more likely to deter Israeli military action — action required for the defense of common U.S. and Israeli interests — than Syrian military aggression. The presence of U.S. troops on the Golan would increase the likelihood of U.S. opposition to pre-emptive military action by Israel, no matter how urgent or well-advised. The standard American tendency to disapprove military action would be reinforced powerfully by solicitude for the U.S. peacekeepers. Hence, the effect of the U.S. deployment might be the opposite of that intended: It could reduce fear of Israeli pre-emption among potential Arab aggressors. By tending to embolden rather than deter those contemplating renewed aggression against Israel, this would tend to undermine any Syrian-Israeli peace agreement, decrease regional stability and increase the risks of war.

Support for an Israeli-Syrian Accord: As a general proposition, it is not sensible for the United States to make a commitment of indefinite duration to put U.S. troops on the Golan for symbolic purposes, when the necessary symbolism can (and undoubtedly will) be supplied amply by other means. Such a commitment would not be sensible even if the troops were to be stationed in a stable and safe environment. Given the dangers of terrorism in the region, and the political instabilities and risks of war, it would be very irresponsible to deploy those troops as symbols.

Conclusion: There is no mission or rationale for a U.S. peacekeeping force on the Golan that would justify the resulting costs and risks. Indeed, the net effect could be negative for Israel’s security and regional stability, while the consequences could include the loss of U.S. lives and, possibly, a credibility-damaging retreat of the U.S. forces under terrorist fire. In any event, such a deployment would increase the danger of direct U.S. involvement in a future Middle East war and undermine Israel’s standing with the U.S. public as a self-reliant ally.

A U.S. deployment on the Golan Heights deserves immediate, serious consideration by U.S. policy-makers, legislators and the public. If such consideration is delayed until all the details are set — until after the United States is committed formally as part of an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement — U.S. options will be severely constrained. On the other hand, if the subject is now debated and Congress and the executive branch decide to oppose a deployment of U.S. troops on the Golan, Israel and Syria could take this into account in their negotiations and devise alternative security arrangements accordingly. Such a decision would be far less disruptive if made now than if deferred until after a Syrian-Israeli deal is concluded.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the director of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

***** EDITORS NOTE: President Clinton is scheduled to meet today with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus. In his pursuit of a breakthrough in peace talks between Israel and Syria, Mr. Clinton may formally offer to do something U.S. and Israeli officials have hinted at in recent months — the introduction onto the disputed Golan Heights of peacekeepers or monitors as part of a negotiated agreement. Earlier this week, however, a group of 11 high-ranking, former U.S. national security officials — including three members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — issued a study that concluded that no mission for a U.S. Golan troop deployment would justify the costs and risks.

Participants in this study were (listed with the positions formerly held): Gen. John Foss, commanding general, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (who had responsibility for U.S. forces in the Sinai). Gen. Al Gray, commandant, U.S. Marine Corps. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Pustay, assistant to the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and president, National Defense University. Gen. Bernard Schriever, commander, U.S. Air Force Systems Command. Adm. Carl Trost, chief of naval operations. Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., chief of naval operations. Douglas J. Feith, deputy assistant secretary of defense and Middle East specialist, National Security Council. Frank J. Gaffney Jr., acting assistant secretary of defense (international security policy). Richard Perle, assistant defense secretary (international security policy). Eugene Rostow, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and undersecretary of state (political affairs). Henry S. Rowen, assistant defense secretary (international security affairs) and chairman, National Intelligence Council, Central Intelligence Agency. (NOTE: The military officers are all now retired.) The following are excerpts from this study titled, "U.S. Forces on the Golan Heights: An Assessment of Benefits and Costs," published by the Center for Security Policy.

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