News Analysis: Syria Sending Conflicting Signals About Commitment to Peace Process

Syrian President Hafez Assad, his views and his opinions, have been among the major question marks hanging over the future of the Middle East peace process.

Now that Israel has signed accords with both the Palestine Liberation Organization and Jordan, the pressure for progress has shifted to the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track, which has been stalemated for months over definitions of peace and withdrawal.

Assad this past week has embarked on his version of an American media blitz, offering a rare interview to public television’s “MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour” and allowing his foreign minister to travel to Washington for a rare consultation at the State Department with Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

But despite the relative access in recent days to Assad’s thought processes, it still remains unclear exactly what he plans to do.

The Syrians, blindsided by the secret Israeli-PLO deal, are concerned they are being left behind in the talks, in which Israel is also negotiating with the Palestinians, Jordan and Lebanon.

Because of the strong Syrian influence over the Lebanese government, it is assumed that Lebanon will follow Syria’s lead, and that once Assad decides to move, progress will occur on both the Syrian and Lebanese tracks.

Syria is continuing to stress the “comprehensive” nature of the talks, and is arguing that Israel and the Palestinians jumped ahead of the game.

“Nobody expects us to raise banners of happiness and pleasure with such a clandestine agreement held behind our backs,” Assad said on the MacNeil/Lehrer program last Friday night.

FIRST SUCH MEETING SINCE 1974

In addition, Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa have criticized Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for remarks suggesting that Israel may focus on the Palestinians for a few months before making major progress with Damascus.

“There is no basis for what the Israelis are talking about — today is specialized for such and such a country, and tomorrow is for such and such a country,” Assad said in the interview.

The United States, desperately seeking to keep the momentum going in the talks, has been taking a middle course in its dealings with Syria.

On the one hand, President Clinton has made an effort in recent weeks to keep in touch with Assad. And Christopher held a meeting here with Sharaa on Tuesday. It was the first time a Syrian foreign minister had visited the State Department since 1974.

But at the same time, the State Department is keeping Syria on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, where Syria is in the dubious company of such countries as Libya, Iran and Iraq — nations whose foreign ministers are certainly not welcome in Washington.

Assad has been saying that he will not act to block the Israeli-PLO deal, but adds at the same time that he will not rein in Damascus-based Palestinian groups that reject the accord.

There is concern among supporters of the accord that radical Palestinian rejectionists will use violence to stop the accord from being implemented, and some feel that Assad could be helpful in curbing those rejectionists.

U.S. BACKS ‘COMPREHENSIVE’ DEAL

The Syrian leader’s response to such suggestions is to say that Rabin does not attempt to silence his Knesset opponents, who also reject the accord, so why should he, Assad, try to silence the Palestinians?

The United States, along with Egypt, has been trying to suggest ways for Assad and the Israelis to get over their negotiating impasse so that the Syrian track — once viewed as the most promising — can move forward along with the Palestinians and Jordanians.

For months now, Israel and Syria have been locked into a stalemate as they meet for their negotiating rounds at the State Department.

Israel has been waiting for Syria to define what it means by “full peace,” which Syria has promised in exchange for “full withdrawal” by Israel from the Golan Heights. Syria, in turn, has been waiting for Israel to spell out its plans for such a withdrawal.

At a photo opportunity for reporters before Tuesday’s meeting with Sharaa, Christopher was clearly trying to soothe the Syrian foreign minister’s concerns.

The secretary of state said that one of the purposes of the meeting was to assure Sharaa that the United States is committed to a “comprehensive” peace in the Middle East. Sharaa, in turn, told reporters that Syria, too, is committed to a comprehensive peace.

The meeting between Christopher and Sharaa lasted about 90 minutes and focused on the peace process, as well as bilateral issues concerning the United States and Syria.

But State Department spokesman Mike McCurry had no immediate information as to whether the issue of Syrian Jews had come up at the meeting. The United States has been pushing Assad to honor his pledge to allow free travel for Syrian Jews.

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