Assad’s Offer on Syrian Jews Prompts Pleasure, Skepticism

A Syrian pledge to grant exit visas to Syrian Jews is being greeted with pleasure but a good deal of skepticism by American Jewish groups.

Syrian President Hafez Assad has promised that the roughly 1,200 Jews remaining in Syria will be allowed to travel by the end of the month, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said after meeting with Assad in Damascus on Sunday.

Assad also agreed to allow a U.S. congres- sional mission to investigate the fate of missing Israeli servicemen, including navigator Ron Arad.

In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called the developments an important step forward and a hopeful sign.

The New York-based Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews said in a statement that it was pleased by the promise that travel rights would be restored to Syrian Jews, but it is awaiting evidence that the promise will be put into action.

“Given numerous pledges previously made by Syrian authorities, however, the council’s optimism concerning the announcement from Damascus is muted with considerable caution,” said the statement.

After decades in which Syrian Jews were barred from traveling abroad unless they left behind family members to ensure their return, the Syrian government declared a policy of free travel in April 1992. Between April and October 1992, 2,500 Syrian Jews emigrated, most of them to Brooklyn.

But on the eve of the 1992 American presidential elections, Syrian officials stopped issuing visas en masse. Since then, at most a few visas have been issued each week.

Christopher raised the issue when he visited Damascus in February, and he received assurances at the time that Syria had not reversed its policy of free travel.

Daniel Pipes, an analyst with the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, predicted that Syria will indeed resume granting visas to Jews — but not fully.

Just as the previous promise of free travel was only partly fulfilled, “this will be partially done,” said Pipes. “He doles it out in small amounts, no more.”

Assad wants to keep open the options of both war and peace, Pipes said. Syria is maintaining close ties with “rogue” states such as Libya and Iran and is supporting radical terrorist groups.

ASSAD HAS RENEGED ON PROMISES

At the same time, with the demise of its one-time patron, the Soviet Union, Syria is courting the West. Releasing Jews serves as an easy gesture of good will to the United States.

“From his point of view, it is much better than actually having free elections in Syria,” said Pipes.

The activities of the American Jewish community, such as a rally held at the United Nations on Sunday, have been crucial in getting the issue of Syrian Jews on the American diplomatic agenda, Pipes said.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who organized a letter signed by 57 members of Congress asking Christopher to raise the issue of Syrian Jewry, said he was “just absolutely delighted that progress seems to have been made.”

“However, when dealing with Assad, you need to temper your delight, because the man has promised things and reneged,” he said.

Nonetheless, Engel is hopeful.

“At this juncture of the negotiations in the Middle East,” Engel said, “I don’t think Assad would want to publicly take a position and then renege, which would undermine whatever credibility he has.”

Advocates of the missing Israeli soldiers were similarly mixed in their reviews of Assad’s invitation of congressional investigators.

In a statement, Kent Schiner, international president of B’nai B’rith, urged immediate action on behalf of the missing soldiers.

“President Assad should use his influence and have them released now without a moment of further suffering,” he said.

MIA’S DOG TAGS RETURNED

But Betty Ehrenberg, director of public affairs at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, called the commitment to allow the investigators “a real coup for Secretary of State Christopher.”

“We think it was time that Syrians did own up for some form of responsibility for the MIAs,” she said.

Three Israelis — Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz — were reportedly captured by Syrian forces. A total of seven Israeli soldiers are missing.

Christopher was scheduled to meet with the families of some of the soldiers Tuesday in Jerusalem.

The Israeli government believes that not all the soldiers are alive, but that some are being held by Iran, or by Iranian-backed forces in Lebanon.

Early last month, a top official of the Palestine Liberation Organization said that Arad was being held by the Syrians, and that Baumel, Feldman and Katz were dead and buried in a Syrian cemetery.

Israeli officials and families of some of the soldiers have dismissed those claims.

More recently, the PLO turned over Baumel’s Israeli army dog tags to his family.

Ehrenberg said that, as far as she knew, this was the first Syrian acknowledgement of responsibility for the MIAs.

In Washington, one congressional aide said the details of any congressional investigation into the fate of the MIAs were unclear. He said the Foreign Affairs Committee, which had discussed the idea, was surprised that it was accepted by the Syrians.

“There are some who assume this is part of the quid pro quo” for American permission to Kuwait to sell Boeing 727 aircraft to Syria, said the aide.

The danger in that sale, the aide said, is not so much that the aircraft are useful and dangerous — he described them as “rickety” — but the sale could undermine American efforts to isolate Syria.

Among those efforts are congressional measures urging the European Parliament not to approve a proposed $180 million aid package to Damascus.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Cynthia Mann in Jerusalem.)

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