WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (JTA) — For more than four years, the big question about Syria has been whether President Bashar Assad has the strength, and the will, to make peace with Israel. Yes, Syrian officials are saying emphatically. And they turn the question around: Do Israel and the United States have the will to seize the opportunity of a Syria that is eager and anxious to join the broadening pro-American circle in the Middle East? “Israel has an historical opportunity to reach peace with its neighbors. The neighbors are willing,” Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to the United States, told JTA. “We have profound doubts about whether the government of Ariel Sharon is interested in peace.” Moustapha and his boss, Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, are on a goodwill blitz, saying the Syrians are ready to trade full-fledged peace for the return of all the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in 1981. Israel and the United States treat such offers with profound skepticism. If the Assad regime is ready for peace, why does it still back Hezbollah, Israel’s terrorist nemesis in Lebanon? Why does it cozy up to Iran, the only regime Israel considers an existential threat? Why does it allow funding and movement of anti-American insurgents in Iraq? And why would anyone serious about peace simultaneously open talks with Russia about buying state-of-the-art missiles with only one conceivable target — Israel? “There’s no change,” an Israeli official told JTA about Syria’s intentions, citing Syrian support for anti-Israel terrorists. “If the Syrians want to prove their seriousness, they know exactly what they need to do.” So far the Israelis have a sympathetic American ear, as President Bush has threatened to expand his implementation of punitive measures included in the Syrian Accountability Act. Bush has limited the act’s sanctions to mostly cosmetic limitations on diplomatic travel and some trade, but even those have inhibited European investment in Syria. “I think the Syrian government is behaving in a way that could, unfortunately, lead to long-term bad relations with the United States,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month during her Senate confirmation hearings. Should Syria not become a “constructive force,” Rice said, the United States would have no choice but to mobilize stronger sanctions under the act. Some have argued that Assad might have the desire to make changes but simply lacks the internal strength to confront Syrian extremists. When he assumed power in 2000 at the tender age of 34, many assumed Assad lacked the credibility of his father, who had a military career. Bashar Assad, by contrast, was a London-educated ophthalmologist before he assumed power. Now, for the first time, Syrian officials are bluntly telling diplomats from other countries that Assad can deliver the goods. They say that if Syria wins all the Golan from Israel, it not only guarantees full fledged peace — as opposed to the no-ambassadors, no-tourists variety it offered in the 1990s — but that support for Hezbollah, the Palestinian terrorists and the cross-border incursions into Iraq will cease. Peace with Lebanon also is presented as part of the package. But recent reports that Syria is seeking to buy shoulder-launched missiles — which Israel fears could end up in the hands of Hezbollah terrorists aiming at Israeli population centers — lead many to question Assad’s sincerity. Russia has sent mixed signals about the rockets, apparently broached last month in a meeting between Assad and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. In a meeting last week with Jack Rosen, the American Jewish Congress chairman, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov assured him Russia would not sell offensive missiles to Syria. Around the same time, Putin told the Jerusalem Post that his country would sell only “defensive” missiles to the Syrians — though terrorists often present their attacks as “defensive” measures to counter past or future Israeli “aggression.” Syrian officials suggest the missiles are a card they must play to draw Israel into peace talks, as is the continued backing for Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. Israel’s leading Syria expert said that could well be the case. “This is their card. They will deliver once there is an agreement,” said Moshe Maoz, currently on a yearlong fellowship with the U.S. Institute of Peace. “There are no free lunches.” Maoz believes the younger Assad can deliver. “He is capable of doing it, and it’s in the Syrian interest,” he said. “He’s under siege, surrounded by pro-Western regimes. He wants the Golan back. The only option is to try and mend fences with the United States.” Still, continuing to back terrorists poses real risks. Ratcheting up sanctions could have a serious impact on Syria’s fledgling private economy. If the Syrians do not take such threats seriously, it may be because now it’s the Israelis and Americans who are sending mixed signals. Richard Armitage, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, said last month that the situation along Syria’s border with Iraq is “much better,” despite Rice’s testimony to the contrary. And just last week, William Burns, the State Department’s top envoy to the Middle East, who was in the region to prepare for Rice’s own visit next week, said the United States would welcome a Syrian role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On the Israeli side, Silvan Shalom, Israel’s foreign minister, keeps sending positive signals to the Syrians, apparently at odds with Sharon’s refusal to countenance talks now. In December, Shalom said peace overtures from Syria “cannot be ignored,” and last week told CNN that the return of the body of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy caught and hanged in Damascus in 1965, would convince Israel that Syria is serious. Another spur for Syria might be renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, since Assad does not want to be the last Israeli enemy standing. Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador, discounted such speculation. If anything, he said, Syria would draw reassurance from progress between Israel and the Palestinians. “Each track will enhance, it will not be detrimental to the other track,” he said. “The Syrians will be more comfortable when they see the Israelis are serious about peace with the Palestinians.”
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Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.