Up on the Golan Heights with my family, I can see Mount Hermon and know that just on the other side of that sits the despotic, failed state of Syria. I am reminded of the days that the governments of the United States and Israel both believed that a lasting peace with Syria was attainable, if only Israel gave the Golan Heights to Syria. I cannot help but realize how tiny and fragile the land of Israel is, or how incredibly dangerous it can be to base foreign policy on hope and wishful thinking rather than on a sober assessment of reality.
But as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated, “We in the West make a great mistake when we transpose our values on the rest of the world.”
Not every leader actually wants peace and stability. Not every leader is a Jeffersonian democrat that must answer to his people. Not every leader actually has compassion for his own people—let alone for foreigners, especially if they happen to be Jews.
In the early 1990s, I was one of no more than a half dozen people who worked against the stationing of U.S. troops on the Golan Heights, the first step in the famed “Golan Giveaway Deal.” This spirited deal planned on giving back the Golan Heights to former Syrian President Hafez Assad. However, the sobering reality that I, as well as my colleagues—Yoram Ettinger, the former minister of congressional affairs of the Israeli embassy; Yossi Ben Aharon, the director general of Yitzchak Shamir’s government; and Yigal Carmon, and a former intelligence official, currently the head of MEMRI—understood was that this is not a leader acting in good faith towards peace and stability. The stationing of U.S. troops on the Golan Heights was the first stage of this process, a sort of public-relations stunt to sweeten the deal for the Israeli and the American Jewish populace.
We had some formidable forces on the other side, including someone no less powerful less than the Israeli Ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich, who was the lead negotiator and champion of a Golan deal with Assad.
Could you imagine if Rabinovich had succeeded with his wishes? The United Nations has estimated that at least 350,000 people had been killed by the regime of Assad’s son, current Syrian President Bashar Assad, since the beginning of the Arab spring in 2011. And they call it an “undercount” because they didn’t start officially counting since 2014. This does not account for the approximately 128,000 who never emerged from the Syrian prisons, and some 14,000 that are dead from their grueling, ghastly treatments. Treatments so horrific that the United Nations labeled their prison process “extermination.”
Only a few weeks ago, a German court sentenced Anwar Raslan for the unbearable torture of 4,000 people in Syria’s notorious Al-Khatib prison. If this is what Assad does with his own dissident population, could you imagine what he would have done to Jews?
All of this brings me to Vienna today, where the U.S. administration is negotiating between its knees with the Islamic Republic of Iran. What is even more appalling than our total abasement—coupled with our willingness to submit to not even being allowed to enter the same room and negotiate directly with the Iranians—is the fact that we have put our trust in the Russians to be our interlocutors.
A story in Defense Weekly quotes U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as calling on Russia, which he sees as an ally of Iran, to use its influence on the Islamic Republic and how “Moscow should impress upon Iran that sense of urgency.”
One would think that while Russia is amassing approximately 130,000 troops on the border of Ukraine, poised for an attack, that he is not a trusted ally. Putin sees his relationship with the United States as a zero-sum game. He wins; we lose. His megalomanic aspirations could easily result in the sort of reckless brinkmanship that could result in World War III and untold suffering for millions of innocent civilians.
And just like ignoring Hitler’s Anschluss speech in Vienna did not prevent World War II, ignoring the buildup of troops on the border of Ukraine will not prevent World War III.
Putin would stop nowhere to undermine the American-led world order, and if that means enabling Iran to possess a nuclear bomb, so be it. Allowing him to be our emissary in Vienna in such an important, delicate negotiation is like allowing the “Boston Strangler” to babysit your children.
Returning to the negotiations of the ’90s between Israel and Syria, the fact that Assad said “no” to the Israeli offer, which would have cut Israel in half, extending Syria down to the shores of Lake Tiberias, was nothing short of a miracle.
But if recent history has taught us anything, it is that foreign policy should not be based on miracles or on wishful thinking, but on an accurate assessment of with whom we are dealing.
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.