Keeping Peace in the Golan

January 17, 1995|By A. J. BACEVICH

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Discussions of whether the United States should dispatch peacekeepers to the Golan Heights in support of a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty should proceed with several considerations in mind.

First, the status quo on the Golan is not altogether unacceptable. The cease-fire that ended the fighting there in 1973 has proved to be remarkably durable: the chief by-product of the ensuing Israeli-Syrian military stand-off has been stability. Although formidable, the Syrian military today is no match for the Israeli Defense Forces. Indeed, by virtually any measure, Syria is a declining threat, crippled by its loss of superpower sponsorship and enjoying few attractive options. Thus, from a U.S. perspective, there is no compelling need to offer large incentives to entice either Syria or Israel into signing a treaty.

Second, American purposes in the region will continue to be best served by maintaining a strategic partnership with an Israel that is strong and self-confident. Any American military presence, however well intentioned, that erodes those qualities -- for example, by undermining Israel's traditional insistence that it alone bears responsibility for defending its borders -- is likely to prove contrary to the long-term interests of the United States itself.

Third, thanks to the profligacy of U.S. policies since the Persian Gulf War, the present-day global posture of the United States suffers from a growing imbalance between means and ends. As Americans awaken to this fact, that awareness may exacerbate a latent urge to disengage from areas where the return on U.S. investment is not self-evident. Absent the old logic of the Cold War, for example, certain American commitments in the Middle East -- one thinks of the billions poured annually into Egypt -- may appear disproportionate to the benefits derived. New obligations hastily undertaken not only worsen the current imbalance between ends and means but may inadvertently feed a backlash that will complicate efforts to sustain even genuinely vital commitments in the region.

With this as background, what are the criteria that any proposed Golan peacekeeping mission must meet in order to merit serious consideration? There are four:

* Stationing American peacekeepers on the Golan must not only enhance peace but also contribute to broader U.S. interests such as containing Islamic fundamentalism, suppressing terrorism, and assuring access to Middle East oil.

* Any peacekeeping mission must be affordable within context of constrained U.S. military and economic resources.

* Recognizing that no mission will be risk-free, a Golan commitment must not expose American personnel to undue hazards: There can be no repeat of the Beirut bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines in 1983. To the extent that hazards remain, the American people must accept them with a clear-eyed understanding of what they entail -- even after the hoopla of ceremonies on the South Lawn has become a distant memory.

* Finally, any Golan peacekeeping mission must be sized so as to affect only minimally the U.S. capacity to pursue important interests elsewhere in the world.

Such criteria are stringent but they are not prohibitive. Nor are they unreasonable. They do point toward a peacekeeping force of modest size and assigned a limited mandate.

Eliminated from the outset is the option of stationing substantial American combat elements on the Golan, a force large enough (( to mount a credible defense of the Golan itself and therefore presumably capable of deterring any would-be aggressor in the first place. This ''fighting deterrent'' option fails on several counts: expense, drain on U.S. resources, limits on American global flexibility, implications for American-Israeli relations and risk to American soldiers dispatched into an environment that is by implication hostile.

Most of all, the deterrent option fails because the mere requirements for such a force implies that the peace process would have produced not genuine peace but a continuation of armed truce with American forces replacing the Israeli Defense Force along the Golan. Both Israel and Syria have already shown themselves more than competent to manage such an armed truce without direct American assistance.

If not deterrence, then what? The proper -- indeed the maximum -- mission of any American peacekeeping force should be to monitor and report compliance with conditions mandated for the Golan as one facet of a comprehensive and therefore authentic peace accord. Among those conditions should be provisions for demilitarizing the Golan and its environs while preserving for both Syria and Israel some early-warning capability.

The force required for such a mission would be small and lightly equipped -- not substantially larger than the two-battalion United Nations Disengagement Observer Force that for two decades has done yeoman work supervising the 1973 Syrian-Israeli cease fire.

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