LONDON, Dec. 12 (JTA) — Syrian President Hafez Assad is a reluctant interview subject. So when he wants to speak to the world he uses proxies: the Syrian state media to communicate with the Arab world and British author and confidant Patrick Seale to communicate with the West.
It was through Seale that Assad warmly praised the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak earlier this year, signaling that after more than three years since talks broke off, he was ready to talk peace again.
And it was through Seale again that he sent a message last Friday, after President Clinton’s announcement about the resumption of talks in Washington, that “this is an important moment in the long, and often frustrating history of Middle East peacemaking.”
“For the first time, three leaders — Clinton, Assad and Barak — are serious about making peace,” Seale noted, echoing Assad’s voice in the London-based daily al-Hayat.
“For the first time,” he continued, “an Israeli leader is prepared to draw Israel’s final borders with the Arab world.”
But despite reports that many details in the dispute between Israel and Syria have already been resolved, Seale added a veiled warning: “The success or failure of this enterprise will determine Israel’s future relations with its neighbors. The stakes in the coming negotiations are very high indeed.”
Barak’s willingness to negotiate has very little to do with Assad’s calculations.
Both Barak and Clinton have their own, very different, reasons for concluding a deal with Syria, but the balance has shifted, and it is on Assad that history is pressing most heavily and most urgently.
In the past, analysts believed that the price of peace with Israel — normal relations, an exchange of ambassadors, open borders, free trade — was simply too high for the brilliant, despotic tactician in Damascus who exercises total control over his closed society.
Even when, as Assad claims, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin offered a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Assad had more to lose than to gain from making peace: his alliance with Iran, his control over Lebanon and the credibility of his regime, which has been constructed on the basis of hostility to Israel.
The assessment of Middle East analysts was that, with the collapse of his Soviet superpower patron, Assad was negotiating to placate Washington; that he was, in the words of one commentator, “traveling hopefully without any expectation of arriving.”
What, if anything, has changed? Four factors have entered the equation that were not present when Syrian and Israeli negotiators met in 1996.
First, the health of Assad, 70, is reported to have seriously deteriorated — he is known to suffer from cardiovascular disease and is said to be battling leukemia and diabetes. According to some reports, he is able to work no more than two hours a day.
Second, there are growing doubts within presidential circles that his son and heir, Bashar, a former ophthalmologist, will be either willing or able to succeed him, despite years of grooming.
Third, Barak has pledged to withdraw — unilaterally, if necessary — from Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon by next July, which would undercut Assad’s excuse for keeping some 40,000 troops in Lebanon, deprive him of his proxy war, via Hezbollah, against the Israeli presence, and thus remove a key negotiating card from his deck.
Fourth, Clinton’s presidency is nearing its end, and Assad must calculate that the outgoing American president, with nothing to lose and much to gain, will be prepared to pressure Israel to make the concessions in order to crown his Middle East diplomatic efforts.
As Seale noted last Friday, “Clinton is anxious to end his second term with a spectacular foreign policy success that will enhance the record of his eight-year presidency and erase the memory of the shameful Monica Lewinsky affair.”
All four elements have apparently combined to override Assad’s previous inhibitions and all four bear heavily on his decision to go for a deal now.
Above all, a senior Arab political source told JTA, as Assad’s powers wane, his attention is focused almost obsessively on the succession and on his desperate, seemingly losing battle to promote Bashar.
Having witnessed the seamless transition of power when Jordan’s young King Abdullah succeeded his late father, King Hussein, last February, Assad is now apparently banking on an alliance with Israel as a means of securing the Syrian succession for his son.
But it is uncertain whether Bashar has the natural authority or even the stomach for the job in a state where the cult of personality has been elevated to an art form.
There are constitutional obstacles to Bashar’s succession. He is 35 years old, and the constitution says that the president must be at least 40. Moreover, he holds no official position within either the ruling Ba’ath Party or the government.
Even if those formidable, but largely technical, problems can be overcome, there are other more difficult hurdles in front of Bashar.
After intensive efforts to prepare him for the presidency since the premature death of his brother, Basel, in a mysterious car crash five years ago, Bashar has yet to win the respect of the military, political and economic power centers in Damascus.
Waiting in the wings with increasing impatience is Assad’s 63-year-old brother, Rifa’at, a former Syrian vice president who was exiled in 1986 after an abortive coup but still commands widespread support among the Assad family’s minority Alawite sect in Syria.
Rifa’at, who is said to be enthusiastic for peace with Israel and to have held secret talks with Israeli officials, is so popular that Assad waited until February 1998 before formally stripping him of his post and expelling him from the party.
Those moves, however, failed to blunt his popularity. Rifa’at is said to have amassed a fortune from drug-smuggling in Lebanon and to divide his time between homes in Paris and the posh European resort of Marbella.
After rounding up some 1,000 of his supporters in September, Assad’s attempt to storm Rifa’at’s Syrian stronghold in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia — a 13,692-square-yard compound, complete with its own port — was thwarted by members of Rifa’at’s well-armed, well-trained private militia.
Last month, Assad made no mistake when a combined air, sea and ground operation succeeded in overcoming Rifa’at’s loyalists and destroying the compound in what was described as “a bloodbath.”
Still, Rifa’at retains substantial support and remains a potent challenger for succession when Assad leaves the scene: “The Alawites know that Bashar is not strong enough to protect them, and they are hoping Rifa’at will take over,” the Arab source told JTA.
“Despite the efforts of Hafez to put him down and show who’s boss,” the source added, “they know that Rifa’at is capable of taking care of their interests.”
Assad made important concessions that permitted Clinton, when announcing the resumption of talks, to fudge the issue of just where negotiations had reached when they were broken off in 1996.
Perhaps for health reasons, however, Assad is continuing to refuse to meet the Israeli leader face to face during negotiations: “He will wait until agreement is reached on a full peace package before shaking hands with Barak on the White House lawn,” Seale explained.
That moment, say Israeli and Syrian officials, may now be just a matter of months away.