Why U.S. Troops Should Be Deployed on the Golan

Syria will not sign any agreement with Israel without the return of the Golan Heights. Prime Minister Rabin has said he is prepared to cede some territory, though he has pledged to put the question of withdrawal to a public referendum. Obviously, if Israel does not withdraw, the question of stationing U.S. troops as monitors is moot. If Israel does come down from some part of the Heights, the probability is that some peacekeeping force or monitors will be required to fill the gap, since Israel will not allow the Syrians to return to areas where they can threaten northern Israel. The question then will be who should monitor the peace agreement. The Clinton Administration has suggested a willingness to deploy monitors and Israeli government officials have expressed interest in the idea, but made no decisions. One objective of opponents of a U.S. deployment is to convince Congress to preempt the decision by ruling out any use of American troops.

It is no coincidence that the most vocal opponents of the use of U.S. troops are opponents of the Rabin government and the peace process. Many see the issue as a means of torpedoing, or at least slowing the negotiations. Whatever their motivations, the critics' case merits consideration.

The most cogent case against the use of U.S. troops on the Golan is made by the Center for Security Policy (CSP), a staunchly pro-Israel, conservative think tank whose views usually mesh with my own. Here, however, I believe the organization's argument is flawed.

In its study, “U.S. Forces on the Golan Heights: An Assessment of Benefits and Costs,” the CSP says U.S. officials have never spelled out the mission or rationale for putting troops on the Golan, but the reason is clear. The purpose is to facilitate an agreement between Israel and Syria by allowing Israel to withdraw from some or all of the Golan with the confidence that the American presence will minimize (not eliminate) the security risk entailed in giving up strategic territory. The Israeli government's interest in U.S. monitors indicates Prime Minister Rabin believes they can play this role.

The CSP report disputes this conclusion primarily by building straw men and knocking them down. It begins by examining the function of Americans as monitors. Neither Israel nor Syria, the report says, would expect the Americans to provide early warning or military intelligence, that this is an essential national security function that would not be entrusted to outsiders. It is true U.S. forces would be deployed as impartial observers rather than as allies of Israel; nevertheless, it strains credulity to believe that Israel's staunchest ally would not provide any warning of aggressive Syrian movements. It also distorts the meaning of the word monitor, which does not imply a passive force that does nothing while actions are being taken around it. The monitors would forward reports to Washington. Unless one has no faith in the U.S. commitment to Israel, it is reasonable to expect that information to be shared with Jerusalem. Israelis could have no such confidence in any other national or multinational force; therefore, unless you believe no force is needed on the Golan after a withdrawal, it is difficult to imagine who would be better for Israel than U.S. troops. It is also important to note that the CSP report misleadingly suggests Israel does not use or need intelligence from "foreign interests." As the authors know, however, much of Israel's intelligence, particularly satellite imagery comes from the United States. Again, unless the U.S. was to stop supplying Israel with intelligence, Israel's ability to obtain needed data should not be compromised by U.S. troops on the Golan.

The second purpose for a monitoring force, one that is more realistic, is to insure compliance of the agreement. The CSP acknowledges this is something U.S. troops could do. The report focuses on the idea that the Americans would be stationed permanently on the Golan, but that is not necessarily the case. It makes little sense to suggest Americans could be called in on a case by case basis, as the report does, since monitoring compliance must be constant, particularly in an area the CSP correctly identified as being strategically sensitive. By being on the ground, the Americans can accurately report Syrian behavior and U.S. policy can be adjusted appropriately.

The CSP report also criticizes the notion that American forces would deter a Syrian attack. The two principal elements of deterrence are capability and the will to use that capability. The CSP report argues that deterring the Syrians would require a large troop deployment. This is why we have a massive deployment in South Korea. But the U.S. can deter attacks without such buildups. In most places in the world, the threat of U.S. intervention is sufficient. This is perhaps best exemplified in the Gulf where the sheikdoms refuse to allow large deployments of U.S. troops and yet their neighbors understand the consequences of an attack. Iraq invaded Kuwait mistakenly believing the U.S. did not consider its interests to be vital in that country. It did not attack Saudi Arabia, however, despite having no American military opposition (prior to the buildup). The Syrians would know that a direct attack on U.S. troops would invite retaliation. And this consequence should be made clear when the troops are deployed. Syria undoubtedly learned a lesson from the Gulf War and would understand the U.S. can quickly put more than enough troops in the theater to bring ruin to the country.

This suggests the U.S. troops would serve as a tripwire whereby a Syrian attack would trigger a U.S. response to defend Israel. The CSP argues this is dangerous and represents a dramatic break with the tradition of Israel defending itself. While American GIs have not fought for Israelis, U.S. backing has played a critical role in most of Israel's wars. The threat of U.S. intervention insured the Soviet Union would not directly intervene on the side of the Arabs. Moreover, since 1967, the U.S. has been Israel's principal arms supplier. Should an attack occur, the Israelis could take the position the U.S. did in the Gulf, namely, that they can handle the conflict on their own and don't need help. As the report admits, U.S. intervention may not be necessary.

Americans like the fact that Israelis are self-reliant, but there is no evidence the public would turn against Israel if it asked for our help. No public outcry was heard during the Gulf War when Israel accepted U.S.-manned Patriot missile batteries. Furthermore, a Syrian attack on U.S. forces would mean that it was the United States that was being attacked, not just Israel. Americans would certainly prefer not to be drawn into a war, but if our personnel were attacked, the public is going to back defending them. Acting in self-defense in such an instance should also obviate the need for the mutual defense treaty the report suggests would be required.

The CSP also argues that the U.S. might respond to aggression by withdrawing its peacekeepers as it did in Somalia and Lebanon. That is a possibility Israelis have to consider, but it is irrelevant to the question of American interests. Israel is apparently willing to take the risk that the U.S. will cut and run. And it is one that is far lower than the report suggests. The U.S. has a vital interest in the security of Israel; it had only a temporary desire to stop the fighting in those other countries.

The CSP report argues U.S. troops would not be a political deterrent because Syrian aggression would antagonize the United States whether or not U.S. troops are stationed on the Golan and therefore would "serve as a marginal factor in Syria's calculations." It's hard to believe, however, that the United States would be no more upset if its troops were killed than if they were not. Syria would be taking an exponentially greater risk by attacking American troops instead of Israelis and risking a direct military conflict with the United States. Hafez Assad has been called many things, but never stupid.

Perhaps the most serious argument against the deployment of Americans is the impediment it could create to Israel's desire to launch a preemptive strike against Syria. But this is an argument for why Israel should oppose the idea, not why it is contrary to American interests. The CSP is supposed to be making the case for why the deployment is a mistake for the United States, but in trying to come up with every conceivable rationale against using American troops, it periodically crosses the boundary into questions for the Israeli government rather than the Congress. From the American perspective (certainly the State Department's), inhibiting Israel's ability to preempt could be a positive development. The United States has frequently opposed Israeli strikes. If the Israeli government is willing to accept this handicap, Congress should not interfere. Moreover, it is not clear how seriously Israel's planning would be affected. If the threat to Israel were sufficiently serious, it is likely an Israeli Prime Minister would risk angering the United States, as Ben-Gurion did in 1956, Levi Eshkol did in 1967 and Begin did in 1981. More important, if the threat were that great, and U.S. troops were on the ground, it is also more likely the State Department would actively seek to defuse the threat. In addition, the study makes the dubious assumption the Arabs would gamble a) that Israel would be prevented from preempting and b) that they could ultimately attack the U.S. monitors with impunity.

The CSP acknowledges U.S. monitors would serve as a symbolic demonstration of America's commitment to the peace process. It argues, however, that the U.S. position is already obvious and deploying troops would be an "extravagantly costly" way of belaboring the point. But this is only true if the troops are seen just as symbols. The report divides the rationale for monitors into mutually exclusive arguments when, in fact, the mission is a combination of symbolism, monitoring and deterrence. The question again arises, if not Americans, then who? No other force has the credibility to satisfy all the elements of the mission.

Any military mission carries risks, and Americans are tempting targets for terrorists, but the threat to a Golan force suggested by the CSP is overblown. Syria has been careful not to allow terrorists to cross its border and risk provoking Israeli retaliation. Even before 1967, it was the regular army shelling the valley that threatened Israel, not terrorists. Syria has been even more careful to avoid directly attacking U.S. interests (though its proxies have been involved in terrorist acts). Syria or others could sponsor terrorist attacks originating from Lebanon, but this would not be as easy as the report suggests. Terrorists would have to penetrate both Israeli and American defenses. Also, a key element of a Syrian-Israeli agreement would be the cessation of terrorism sponsored by Damascus. Furthermore, the expectation is that a Syrian-Israeli treaty would be quickly followed by a Lebanese-Israeli agreement. The latter would also require terrorism to cease and would likely lead to southern Lebanon coming under the direct control of the Lebanese army.

The argument that the deployment would harm U.S. readiness is particularly hysterical. No one contemplates a force large enough to affect overall U.S. capabilities. Having a significant force on the Golan might actually be to America's advantage because it would put troops in the theater that could be rapidly deployed to other trouble spots in the region. The report suggests the possibility of the need to move the troops implies the commitment would be unreliable. But this is not necessarily the case. Adjustments might have to be made to meet contingencies, but this is true of any U.S. deployment. Even if as many as 5,000 troops were on the Golan, this is a fraction of the number in Korea. In addition, Israel would not be in danger unless Syria decided to attack when the U.S. was engaged elsewhere. This is possible, but unlikely without some warning that would give Israel (and the U.S.) a chance to prepare.

More important, American forces are meant to defend U.S. interests. In the post-Cold War era, nowhere are those interests at greater risk than in the Middle East. One of America's vital interests is the security of Israel and a commitment of troops to protect that interest is consistent with national security goals.

Disagreements would likely emerge between Israel and the United States over actions related to the deployment, but the two nations frequently disagree now over a range of issues. The argument that Syria is cleverly orchestrating the weakening of the U.S.-Israel relationship by agreeing to the deployment is fanciful. Does the CSP really believe Assad is so smart he's figured out that letting Americans aim guns at his troops from “his” Golan Heights will force the U.S. to act more evenhandedly? Nonsense. The only relevance of the troop issue to the grand Syrian design is that Assad understands stationing American troops on the Golan is probably the only way to achieve his objectives of getting the Israelis out of the territory and ingratiating himself with the United States. From the U.S. perspective, however, the troop issue has no impact on relations with Syria. If Syria makes peace with Israel, under whatever terms, it will reap the benefit of improved ties with the U.S. The danger I see to the whole peace process is that Syria will eventually get aid and arms from the United States, just as Egypt did after Camp David. That will effect the balance of power in the region and therefore is far more important than the presence or absence of Americans on the Golan Heights.

The CSP study is also wrong in saying the Golan Heights is completely different from Sinai and therefore the analogy of the observers there is irrelevant to the decision about deploying troops on the Golan. The geographical and strategic considerations are different in the Golan case, but the Sinai model has worked and it offers a precedent, however imperfect. One key to the success in Sinai, the CSP says, "was the profound shift in Egypt's strategic orientation." This is true, but in 1979 few Israelis were confident the change was real or would last. Assad has not gone nearly as far as Sadat in signaling either a desire for peace of for aligning himself with the West, but, again, he wants Syria to have the kind of relationship with the United States that Egypt has and that is a shift, albeit necessitated by the Soviet collapse.

Will peace be assured by deploying Americans on the Golan Heights?

Of course not.

Will Americans be at risk?


But the question is always whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Israel must make its own evaluation and if it concludes American troops would enhance the peace, then Americans should not question whether Israeli deterrence is going to be inhibited or its security compromised. Americans have an obligation to make their own calculation as to whether such a deployment is in the U.S. national interest.

If the sine qua non of an agreement to end a half century of conflict between Syria and Israel is the stationing of U.S. troops, can the U.S. afford to turn its back because the agreement could fail?

I don't think so.