Syria Reported Ready to Offer Demilitarization of Its Border

Syrian President Hafez Assad reportedly has agreed to a demilitarization of his border with Israel, provided Syria gets back the Golan Heights.

But on the question of allowing Syrian Jews to emigrate, he has shown little inclination toward flexibility.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv ran a banner headline Tuesday with a report that Syria would sit down at the proposed Middle East peace conference with an offer to demilitarize both sides of the Syrian-Israeli border — after getting the Golan Heights back.

The newspaper report cited remarks Assad made last week to a senior European diplomat who visited Damascus.

The paper quoted Assad as telling the diplomat: “We relate to Israel as an established fact in the region and, therefore, we are ready to negotiate with it.”

Assad’s reported willingness to consider a demilitarized zone in Syria is seen as a recognition that Israel will need significant security guarantees if it is to be persuaded to give back all or part of the Golan Heights.

According to Ma’ariv, Bush administration officials in Washington are already drafting a security plan based on the assumption that Israel will have to withdraw from at least part of the Golan Heights.

Under the plan, Israel reportedly would be offered the option of having either American troops or some other international force serve as a buffer in any evacuated territory between the Syrian army and the Israel Defense Force.

Currently, UNDOF, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, patrols a no man’s land between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syrian army positions.

SILENT ABOUT SYRIAN JEWS

In his talks with Assad, the European diplomat raised the question of the fate of Syrian Jewry, at the request of Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy.

Assad reportedly was silent, refusing to make any commitment on allowing the country’s estimated 4,000 Jews to emigrate. At least one other Syrian official explained this by saying that “the Jews are essential to the Syrian economy.”

Foreign Minister Farouk a-Sharaa was quoted as saying, “If only Israel dealt with the Palestinians as we deal with the Jews here.”

Ma’ariv also quoted a classified report as indicating that Assad did not like the praise he received from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir after agreeing to take part in peace talks with Israel.

The Syrian leader reportedly expressed particular displeasure with Shamir’s contention that he had changed his policy.

The Syrian president was said to be searching elsewhere for compliments, especially from nationalist elements in the Arab world.

Assad was quoted as telling the European diplomat that he believed the proposed peace conference would be convened. But he expressed doubt about its chances for success.

He was also evasive on whether Syria would be prepared to recognize Israel formally. He said recognition would be a bargaining chip, which must be held until the talks.

The European diplomat reportedly asked Assad and Foreign Minister Sharaa about Syria’s relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization. They were not reserved in their criticism of PLO chief Yasir Arafat.

“He is making every possible mistake,” Assad is said to have told the diplomat.

“It would be good if the Palestinians would replace Arafat with another leader,” Sharaa reportedly said.

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