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Assad May Drop Hezbollah Support for Peace with Israel, Observer Says

Syrian President Hafez Assad may be preparing to abandon his support for the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon just as he abandoned Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan, according to the editor of a leading London-based Arabic daily.

Writing in al-Quds al-Arabi on Monday, Abdelbari Atwan said Assad’s failure to condemn the airstrikes Israel launched on Beirut last week and his public flirtation with Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak reflect “internal political travails” that have produced diplomatic paralysis in Damascus.

It is difficult, Atwan wrote, to understand Syria’s response to the Israeli airstrikes — or its “premature” courting of Barak, as reflected in an interview last week with British journalist Patrick Seale in which Assad described the new Israeli premier as “strong and honest.”

Commenting on Assad’s possible thinking, Atwan wrote, “Over the past 30 years, we have been accustomed to Syria being more meticulous and cautious in formulating definitive positions in times of crises.

“It is noteworthy,” he continued, “that while Lebanese Prime Minister Selim Hoss held Barak fully responsible for the aggression, the Syrian government was exculpating him.

“It might be no exaggeration to say that Hezbollah will meet more or less the same fate as Ocalan,” he added.

Ocalan, who led the neo-Marxist Kurdish Workers Party in a protracted war of secession against Turkey, was ordered to leave his safe haven in Damascus last October after Turkey threatened military action against Syria.

He was eventually captured by a Turkish commando team in Kenya and flown back to Turkey, where he was sentenced to death Tuesday.

“The question is whether the Syrian government is suffering from fatigue and has therefore decided to drop its steadfast positions in order to enter into peace agreements with Israel, which would enable it to recover lost territory and concentrate on building the homefront.”

Such questions, Atwan wrote, are prompted by the “very significant signals” emerging from Damascus — such as its refusal to participate in a proposed five-way Arab summit to discuss peace moves in the wake of Barak’s election, its ambivalence toward Iraq, its lukewarm attitude to other Arab countries and its willingness to negotiate with Israel via media and business channels.

“Syrian diplomacy is paralyzed,” Atwan wrote, “otherwise, it would not have relied on British journalist Patrick Seale to carry complimentary messages to Barak, which no Arab leader has had the privilege of receiving” from Damascus.

Syria is currently going through “difficult internal travails” as Assad seeks to settle the succession in favor of his son, Bashar.

“This issue is taking precedence over all others and determines — perhaps explains — all other Syrian moves,” wrote Atwan, citing dismissals from the armed forces, the postponement of the appointment of ambassadors and the attempt to complete the peace process as quickly as possible.

A “new Syria” is in the making, he wrote, adding, “It is too early to pass final judgment or to predict whether the change will be for the better or the worse because Syria’s makeup, standing and location make it different from any other Arab state.

“All that can be said is that the Israeli blitz on Beirut ushers in a new era in Lebanon and Syria, one in which there might be no room for the Islamic Resistance, or any other resistance.”

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