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Syrian Dictator Remained Steadfast Israel Foe, Leaves Unfinished Legacy

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After U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated the cease-fire that ended the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he tried to set up a regional peace conference.

But Kissinger found that Syrian President Hafez Assad had no intention of taking part in a meeting on a comprehensive settlement with Israel.

It was not to be the last time that the United States and Israel had their hopes raised and then dashed by Assad, who died Saturday at the age of 69. Assad’s death leaves Israel and the Jewish world without its most elusive and implacable adversary, a dictator as respected for his political skills as he was opposed for his views.

It also marks the end of an era of secular Arab leaders whose careers were fueled by the military and financial support of the Soviet Union and shaped by the ideas of Arab nationalism and staunch anti-Zionism.

Indeed, one of Assad’s first goals when he came to power in a bloodless coup in 1970 was to erase the memory of the Arab world’s humiliating defeat to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Assad served as Syria’s minister of defense in that war, during which Israel captured Jerusalem, the Sinai Desert, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, which Syria had controlled.

Along with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had not yet become the peacemaker for which he is remembered, Assad used the Cold War to his country’s military advantage. He asked for, and received, military support and advice from the Soviet Union.

But Assad failed to achieve his aims in the 1973 war.

During the next quarter-century, as Sadat, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan reached agreements with Israel, Assad refused to do so.

As Assad tightly maintained his grip on power by running a police state, cracking down on dissidents and rivals for power with no concern for human rights, he also carved out a role as a major player in the Middle East, particularly in the areas of international terrorism and control over Lebanon.

After Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, Assad allied with the fundamentalist leaders of Iran in aiding international terrorists against Israel.

Syria, which is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, supported the Abu Nidal group. The group carried out a string of attacks in the 1980s, including attacks at El Al ticket counters in Rome and Vienna in 1985.

The Damascus-Tehran alliance also gave supplies and training to Hezbollah gunmen who fought to push Israel out of southern Lebanon. Assad lived just long enough to see success on the southern Lebanon front.

Syria views Lebanon as part of its country, unfairly separated by European colonists. It first intervened in 1975, during the beginning of a complicated and bloody civil war involving Lebanese Christians and several disparate Lebanese Muslim groups, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had set up headquarters there following the group’s expulsion from Jordan in 1970.

Assad, who believed that the Arab world needed to boost its military capability if it was ever to have a chance against Israel, did not respond when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978. In 1982, Israel again invaded its northern neighbor in an attempt to reduce Syrian influence and eliminate the PLO.

After Israel withdrew to a nine-mile security zone in southern Lebanon in 1985, Assad moved his troops in and again became the main power broker there.

In the early 1990s, Assad appeared to shift course.

After years of repression against the Syrian Jewish community, he opened the doors to secret Jewish emigration as long as the emigres did not go to Israel.

In the operation engineered by the Jewish Agency for Israel, about 1,300 Jews left Syria. Now, fewer than 200 Jews remain.

At the same time, Assad allowed for his country’s participation in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which marked the beginning of the current Middle East process.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria occurred during the reign of Yitzhak Rabin, with Israel allegedly agreeing to give up the Golan Heights in return for a full peace.

But negotiations broke off in 1996 after Syria refused to condemn a series of Hamas suicide bombings carried out in Israel.

As late as last year, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Assad exchanged mutual words of praise for each other, prospects for peace between Israel and Syria appeared bright. The recent round of talks, however, yielded no results and Assad was criticized for sending his foreign minister to negotiate with Israel, rather than going himself.

With his death, Assad’s legacy is unfinished.

He met Israel on the battlefield and more tentatively at the negotiating table. But he left the issue of peace for his son Bashar.

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