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News Analysis: Assad Extends No Olive Branch to Arafat in His Peace Campaign

Syrian President Hafez Assad has evidently concluded that openness is an essential ingredient in his diplomatic engagement with Israel.

And his spin doctors have been working overtime in recent weeks to open a small gap in the veil that perpetually shrouds the opaque regime in Damascus.

Through British-based journalist Patrick Seale, who is regarded as Assad’s unofficial spokesman in the West, the world recently learned of the Syrian leader’s high regard for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and of his hopes for a swift deal with Israel.

And through Syrian commentator Ghassan al-Imam, word emerged — via the London- based Arabic media — that Syria is putting the squeeze on the Islamic extremist Hezbollah movement in southern Lebanon and on Damascus-based Palestinian groups that oppose Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s attempts to forge peace with Israel.

But Assad is clearly anxious to point out that this does not indicate any diminution in his contempt for Arafat, who was recently told he would not be welcome in Damascus, either as president of a Palestinian state or simply as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Imam has explained Assad’s position in a critique of the Palestinian leader that was published in the Arabic-language Asharq al-Awsat.

There is, Imam noted bluntly, virtually no chance of a rapprochement between Assad and Arafat.

Arafat, who fears that a separate Israeli-Syrian deal will leave him marginalized and isolated, is belatedly seeking to cooperate and coordinate with Assad, but Imam insisted that his efforts are too little, too late. There is simply too much — in substance and in style — that divides the two men.

The Syrian commentator said Damascus believes that profound damage was caused to Syria’s negotiating position by Arafat’s independent brand of diplomacy, which not only produced the Oslo accords but also presaged a full-blown peace treaty between Jordan and Israel.

Nor is it only the deep tactical differences that keep Arafat and Assad apart: Personal and psychological differences, noted Imam, make “a healthy relationship impossible to establish.”

“Assad,” he wrote, “is a meticulous, organized, cautious and serene person. While his Ba’ath-style rhetoric may be boring, monotonous and have more than one meaning, at least he is serious and keeps his word.

“Arafat, on the other hand, is more modest and likeable, but he is a political featherweight. He is less cautious and more prone to political U-turns – – characteristics of his stormy career.”

Imam added that Palestinian “chauvinism and independent-mindedness” led to catastrophes in two Arab states — Jordan and Lebanon — where Palestinian insistence on bearing arms resulted in bloody confrontations with the governments of these states.

Jordan resolved the issue of an armed Palestinian presence quickly and decisively in 1970-71, but Lebanon — weak and riven by sectarianism — was unable to withstand “armed chauvinist Palestinian transgressions on its territory,” and the country degenerated into civil war.

Arafat aide Salah Khalaf — better known as Abu Iyad, the PLO’s intelligence head who was assassinated in Iraq in January 1991 — even conspired to overthrow the Lebanese government, Imam wrote.

“I witnessed first-hand the tragedy experienced by Lebanese civilians over many years as Palestinian militias played havoc with their security, dignity and freedom in their towns and villages,” wrote Imam.

“As a Syrian, I was not proud to see Syrian troops enter Lebanon in 1976,” he wrote. “But for practical and realistic reasons, Assad saw no alternative to shooting his way into Lebanon.”

The Syrians, he wrote, entered Lebanon to restore cohesion to the sectarian Lebanese social fabric, “as well as to stop chauvinistic Palestinian transgressions that had reached intolerable levels.”

According to Imam, Assad is still smarting from what he sees as Arafat’s betrayal in signing the Oslo accords.

Syria, he continued, is still suffering the negative side effects of that deal, which, he said, have included accelerated Jewish settlement activity and a halt to Israeli talks with Syria and Lebanon. And while he allowed that circumstances may yet force Arafat and Assad into a tactical reconciliation, “a genuine friendship and a strategic partnership between the two remain within the realm of fantasy.”

This new openness from Damascus — and it is considered inconceivable that a senior Syrian journalist would express himself so openly without an official imprimatur — is clearly intended to impress Washington and Jerusalem.

Such a departure is an essential element in winning the confidence of Israelis and persuading them that they can trust Syria when the time comes to take risks — including withdrawal from the strategically sensitive Golan Heights — in the search for peace.

In the absence of direct contacts between Jerusalem and Damascus, the Syrian leader is likely to continue establishing his pre-negotiating positions through the London-based media, the traditional clearinghouse for Arab-Israeli contacts.

Parallel with its territorial demands, it is emerging that Syria’s negotiating agenda is likely to include a far-reaching comprehensive strategic package that transcends the more limited tactical agreements that will compensate Israel for its Golan withdrawal.

In practical terms, Syrian negotiators will be setting their sights on persuading Israel to dismantle its nuclear weapons in exchange for a Syrian agreement to decommission its chemical and biological weapons.

Western intelligence agencies believe that Israel has up to 200 nuclear warheads that can be deployed on Jericho ballistic missiles or on its F-151 jet aircraft, while the Syrians are believed to have accumulated a significant stockpile of chemical and biological weapons that can be deployed on Scud- C missiles.

The apparent Syrian determination to broaden the talks to include Israel’s nuclear weapons is worrying Israeli analysts, according to the London Sunday Times.

“If this is the Syrian demand, it will be a bad sign, because Syria knows this is a non-starter for Israel,” said Uzi Arad, political advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently said he had conducted back-channel negotiations with the Syrians.

The London paper quoted Israeli security sources as saying they understood Syrian concerns.

“It is right for us to protect ourselves against a Syrian blitz tank attack on the Golan, but it is equally reasonable for the Syrians to ask for the dismantling of our strategic arm,” said a senior defense source.

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