Frederic C. Hof, the American diplomat, was "living the dream" between 2009 and 2011 of achieving peace between Syria and Israel. The idea first occurred to him when he visited Damascus as an exchange student when he was 16. Forty-five years later, he had the opportunity to turn the idea in a reality. But like all other lost chances for peace, he soon reached a failure that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Hof details the peak of optimism and the slide towards the abyss of disappointment in his latest book, "Reaching for the Heights: The Inside Story of a Secret Attempt to Reach a Syrian-Israeli Peace", which was published by the United States Institute of Peace Press.
Hof had kicked of his peace mediation during the term of former President Barack Obama. His mediation differed from others that were based on "land for peace", meaning Israel would return the occupied Golan Heights to Syria, in exchange for Damascus normalizing ties with Israel.
Hof's approach was based on a different exchange: Restoring land in exchange for strategic positioning. What does that mean? Tel Aviv would return the Golan, while Damascus would abandon its alliances and military ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
This was at the heart of secret American talks between 2009 and 2011.
Hof was among the first officials to suggest adopting the June 4, 1967 line for peace between Syria and Israel. He often wonders if Syrian President Bashar Assad truly wanted the "Golan - strategic positioning" peace deal, especially after he consolidated his alliance with Tehran and Hezbollah in wake of the 2011 Syria protests.
Eleven years after the eruption of the protests, Syria is now divided into three zones of influence, Iran and Russia are heavily involved in the country, and Israel strikes "Iranian positions" with Moscow's silent approval. The United States and Turkey boast military presence in other parts of the country.
Several secret and open initiatives and steps towards normalization with Damascus have been proposed in exchange for it to abandon its ties with Iran and Hezbollah. Several lessons can be derived from Hof's efforts over a decade ago.
The peace process was launched from Madrid in 1991. Soon after, several secret and declared Syrian-Israeli negotiations were held. In 1993, then US President Bill Clinton received a pledge from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that Israel would fully withdraw from the Golan in exchange for establishing peaceful relations and making security arrangements. This was known as Rabin's "deposit".
Ensuing American efforts led nowhere until 2000 when Syria and Israel were on the verge of signing a deal. But disputes over the withdrawal line in the Golan led to their collapse.
Efforts were revived with Assad's arrival to power. Turkey led a mediation in 2007 and 2009. Damascus wanted Israel to withdraw to the June 4 line. Discussions also tackled security relations and attempts at normalizing ties. Ankara even proposed a direct meeting between Assad and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The efforts ultimately collapsed when Israel launched an offensive against Gaza without informing Ankara.
Hof joined the US State Department in 2009. That same year, he traveled to Damascus and Tel Aviv to test whether the negotiations could resume. In 2010, he made progress in persuading Israeli leaders of the security benefits of achieving peace with Syria, a shift from the previous "land for peace approach."
The efforts continued with an air of optimism. In 2011, Hof pressed for then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold a direct meeting with Assad. In February of that year, Assad informed visiting American senators that peace with Israel must be based on "specific references" that cover land and security issues. Hof and US envoy Dennis Ross then set about drafting these references.
On February 28, 2011, Assad met with Hof in Damascus. He agreed to the "specific references related to security", which entail ending Syrian activities and relations that pose a security threat to Israel, said the envoy. Assad also stressed that Lebanon, Iran and Hezbollah would commit to the peace treaty between Syria and Israel. Assad's demand that Israel withdraw to the June 4 line remained a central issue throughout the talks.
On March 2, Hof relayed the details of his talks with Assad to Netanyahu, who expressed his satisfaction with them, declaring that the mediation and opportunity for peace were "real."
The Syrian protests erupted in mid-March and Syrian security forces reacted violently to protesters in Daraa. The mediation was consequently suspended due to the "official chaos" in Syria. Hof sought to visit Damascus, but the White House barred him from talking with Assad given the regime's brutal crackdown on the protests.
Soon after, American officials started to call on Assad to step down and clear the way for democracy in Syria.
As Syria plunged into war, former US President Donald Trump officially recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in March 2019, dashing the previous peace efforts.
Draft peace agreement
Prior to the eruption of the war in Syria, the series of talks between Damascus, Tel Aviv and Washington had led to a draft Syrian-Israeli peace agreement. Key among its articles was for Damascus to distance itself from Iran and Hezbollah.
The deal would end the state of war between Syria and Israel and lead to peace. The fulfilment of the agreement demanded actions from both parties. Diplomatic relations would also be established.
No party would threaten the other and they must abide by international laws and the UN Charter to that end. They must also cease supporting any efforts or plans by a party, representing another state, aimed at threatening Syria or Israel.
The agreement would see Syria and Israel resolving disputes through peaceful means. They would end and bar any activity on their territories that would help regular or non-regular forces that are seeking to harm another country.
No party would transfer weapons or military equipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon or allow for operations to be carried out from its territories. Syria must also cease its military assistance to Hamas and other Palestinian groups.
Syria and Israel would commit to achieving Arab-Israeli peace, while realizing that that would entail peace between the Palestinians and Israelis and Lebanon and Israel. Syria and Israel would exert their utmost efforts to achieve these goals, said the draft treaty.
To that end, Syria would be demanded to sever its relations with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, including its Quds Force.
Hof presented the draft agreement to Assad in Damascus in February 2011. The American official spoke of his keenness on achieving peace between Syria and Israel and establishing amicable formal relations between Damascus and Washington. Assad reacted positively to his proposal, wrote Hof in his book.
Hof handed Assad the draft agreement. The Syrian leader noted that many of the points related to Lebanon, with one explicitly mentioning it. He wondered if it would be appropriate to mention Lebanon in a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement. That was his only reservation, recalled Hof.
On the points related to Hezbollah, Assad told Hof that everyone will be surprised with how quickly the party's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, would commit to the rules once Syria and Israel declare that they have reached peace. Hof said that he would be the first to be surprised. Assad then explained to him that Nasrallah was Arab, not Persian. Moreover, he said that Nasrallah would no longer be able to retain his position as "resistance" leader if peace is established. Assad even described Hezbollah as the only real Lebanese political party.
Hof expected the meeting with Assad to take hours as he mulled the treaty, but the Syrian president "eagerly" agreed to it with the talks lasting no more than 50 minutes.