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US Troops Could Be Crucial on the Golan

If stationing American forces on the Israeli-Syrian border becomes the last prerequisite to peace, then the Clinton administration and the GOP Congress should seize the opportunity.

A COMPREHENSIVE peace between Israel and the Arab states can be achieved only with Syria's full participation.

Such a peace will considerably enhance regional stability, which in turn is in the best strategic interests of the United States. Thus, if stationing American troops on the Golan Heights to monitor the Israeli-Syrian borders becomes the only remaining prerequisite to peace, then the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress should accept this opportunity.

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Opponents of the idea to station American soldiers in what they term a ``high-risk area'' offer four reasons to support their argument:

First, they contend that US troops will become targets of terrorist attacks. This, clearly, would undermine the peace. They cite what happened to the US Marines in Lebanon as an example of the vulnerability of US troops.

But it is important to recognize that the two situations are different, both in substance and in objective. In the case of Lebanon, American troops were thrust into a raging civil war. Nearly all the warring factions opposed the American presence.

Syria, which was the main - though distant - player, wanted the American troops to leave. On the Golan Heights, however, the US troops would be monitoring the border following a peace agreement that will have been fully agreed upon by the combatants.

Syria's behavior since the 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel provides clear evidence of the capacity of its leaders to keep the borders peaceful and safe once they decide it is in their best interest.

Risks must be recognized

More important, a decision by the US to place troops on the Golan Heights is a strategic one. Again, it has to be calculated on the basis of what is in the best strategic interest of the US in the Middle East.

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The question of whether some Americans will risk their lives for their country while serving on the Golan Heights must be viewed as part and parcel of being a soldier on active duty.

The American people should be aware of the mission of their soldiers, the objective, and the risks involved. After all, what is the utility of American armed forces if they cannot be sent on any mission unless it is absolutely safe, even if national interest is at stake?

The US dispatched more than 500,000 soldiers to the Persian Gulf to protect our interests and those of our allies. It will take only a few thousand troops to serve the cause of a comprehensive peace that might have as much, if not more, of an impact on our overall strategic interests in the Middle East.

The second argument against the use of US troops suggests that placing them on the Golan will force the US to become neutral in lieu of continuing as Israel's ally.

But by what logic will the US-Israeli alliance be endangered? Stationing American troops in the Sinai following the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty did not undermine that alliance. As monitors, the American soldiers do not take sides; they simply report to their commanders any violations, which are subsequently taken up with the respective governments.

If anything has changed since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, it is that the US-Israel alliance has grown stronger. In fact, the US-Israeli strategic cooperation agreement was signed only a few years after the Camp David accord.

The Persian Gulf war provided further evidence of the US's ability to maintain close ties with and defend two countries - Israel and Saudi Arabia - even though the two were technically at war. The US was able to do that without compromising its commitment to either.

Syria has no illusions about the special relationship the US has with Israel. Syrian officials repeatedly told me when I visited there recently that they view the stationing of American troops on the Golan a concession to Israel. They did say, however, that they will entertain the idea should it become imperative for convincing the Israeli public to give up the Golan.

The third contention against US troops is that Israel's freedom to take unilateral action will be compromised, leaving Israel unable to initiate a preemptive strike without the US's permission. Under such conditions, the argument goes, Israel will lose one of the greatest advantages it has had over the years to keep its enemies at bay.

The inability of Israel to strike back at Iraq during the Gulf war is cited as evidence of future limitations in the Middle East. It should be noted that even today, as a result of the US interest in many Arab states, Israel is not totally free to strike at any Arab country at will. But when Israel's national security is clearly endangered, Israel never has and will not likely hesitate to strike.

Moreover, peace with Syria, and by extension with Lebanon, will dramatically diminish, if not eliminate, an Israeli need to strike at any targets in these two countries.

No treaty or alliance supersedes the right to self-defense, but if and when Israeli borders are violated, there at least would exist a third party who could mediate the conflict before it escalates.

US would only monitor

Finally, it is rather disingenuous to argue that the American admiration for Israel's military self-reliance will be replaced by resentment if US troops risk their lives protecting Israel's borders.

It should be noted that the mission of American troops is to monitor, not to defend, the borders.

The US-Israeli special relationship goes back to the day when Israel was created. Granted, there is the moral commitment to Israel's survival. There is also a Jewish lobby in the US. And, certainly, the ability of Israel to win stunning military victories has impressed the American public. But the special relationship is also sustained by a lesser-known factor, namely, Israel's critical role in US strategic calculations in the Middle East.

The US can rely on Israel as an ally. It is this factor that justifies American military and economic assistance to the tune of $3 billion annually.

This money is not given as a result of American admiration. As long as the US public understands and supports the limited nature -

as well as the far-reaching implications - of the mission, the US-Israel relationship will not improve nor worsen because an American soldier is hurt on the Golan Heights.

Israeli-Syrian peace will render a major blow to extremist Islamic fundamentalist groups; it will further isolate Iran; and it will stifle other left-wing rejectionist Arab factions who looked to Syria for support.

The result will be an appreciable enhancement of regional stability. It is that stability that will serve US strategic interests in the Middle East.

That alone must dictate whether American troops should be placed on the Golan. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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