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News Analysis: Assad on Board the Peace Train Because Time is Right, Experts Say

July 7, 1999
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Syrian leader Hafez Assad, who has constructed his regime based on hostility to Israel, now says he is interested in talking about peace.

However, the overtures raise many questions about Assad, long the most dangerous and obdurate of Israel’s neighbors, and how serious he really is about making peace. Among them:

Will he risk the economic, political and strategic benefits of his 20-year alliance with Iran and abandon his proxy Hezbollah force against Israel in southern Lebanon?

Is he prepared for full normalization of relations with Israel, opening his tightly sealed borders to the free flow of goods and people?

Will he agree to an exchange of ambassadors and permit an Israeli flag to fly over Damascus?

Will he agree to the tough security measures — early warning stations, a reduction of forces and partial demilitarization — that Israel will inevitably demand in exchange for withdrawal from the Golan Heights?

As Assad changes course, his credibility will rest on his ability to convince his political foes and his own long-suffering population that Israel is not, after all, the “spawn of the devil.”

While he was apparently unable to bring himself to make these commitments to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was prepared to hand back the strategically important Golan in a peace treaty, Assad now appears to believe he has more to gain than lose by making peace with Israel.

In a carefully calibrated interview with British journalist and Syria specialist Patrick Seale, Assad spoke with unprecedented warmth and enthusiasm about new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“He seems to be a strong and honest man,” Assad said about Barak. “As the election results show, he evidently has wide support. It is clear that he wants to achieve peace with Syria. He is moving forward at a well-studied plan.”

Barak, he added “is a leader who, I feel sure, can accomplish whatever he decides to do.”

Writing in the London-based al-Hayat, Seale, who is regarded as Assad’s unofficial spokesman in the West, said he had gained the “overwhelming impression that a genuine will for peace exists on both sides.

“Never before have Israel and Syria been so ready for a settlement,” he said.

“It would seem that the present situation offers more than a mere `window of opportunity.’ It is a door which, with real goodwill, could be opened wide, allowing these two adversaries to walk through together — and together put an end to this ancient conflict for the benefit of the whole region.”

Assad’s determination appeared to have been reinforced by a senior Syrian commentator, who, like Seale, used the Arabic media in London — the clearinghouse of Arab-Israeli exchanges — to send a thinly disguised message from Damascus to Jerusalem.

Writing in the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat last week, Ghassan al-Imam launched a scathing attack on Iran, accusing it of attempting to sabotage the nascent Israeli-Syrian peace prospects by ordering last month’s Hezbollah bombardment on northern Israel.

Not only did Imam pin the blame for the assault on Iran but he also went out of his way to clear Syria of any complicity in the Hezbollah offensive.

He also threw down a challenge to Tehran: If, in the context of peace with Israel, Iran is unable to move from a military to a moral, spiritual posture in Lebanon, Tehran will find itself in conflict with Damascus.

If Imam’s charges presage the beginning of a rift in the 20-year-old alliance between secular, Arab Syria and Islamic, non-Arab Iran, analysts believe this could produce a seismic shift in the geopolitical and geostrategic dispositions of several states in the region, including Israel.

Imam said there was no doubt that the Hezbollah attack on Israel was “prompted by the Iranian leadership — most probably without prior consultation with either the Lebanese or the Syrians.”

The Iranians, he noted, might find it easy to order the bombardment of northern Israel, “but they still have some way to go before mastering the art of politics — particularly as far as Lebanon is concerned.

“In the past,” he wrote, “Syria turned a blind eye to Iranian-sponsored military activity in Lebanon, primarily because it served its own interests in undermining Israeli occupation of the south.

Not anymore, apparently.

What has caused Assad to change his mind and risk so much for a peace deal with Israel?

First, said one senior Western diplomatic source, Assad has witnessed the peace treaties between Israel and Egypt, Israel and Jordan, and now the prospect of a final settlement with the Palestinians.

“Quite simply, he does not want to be left out,” said the source.

Second, without a replacement for his old Soviet patron, he recognizes that the days of closed, controlled societies are over and that Syria’s survival depends on integration into the global marketplace — economically, politically and diplomatically.

Third, he wants to improve Syria’s strategic relationship with the West, rehabilitate his country and abandon bad old habits, like sponsoring international terrorism.

“He cannot afford to go on being a pariah,” said the source.

Fourth, he wants not only to retrieve the Golan Heights but also to win de jure recognition from the United States and Israel for Syria’s continued domination of Lebanon, where some 40,000 Syrian troops are deployed and about 1 million Syrian citizens now live.

Not least, said the source, Assad is ailing and wants to move quickly now to establish peace with Israel as an accomplished fact that he can leave to his son and heir-apparent, Bashar.

Assad is aware that Bashar’s succession is not certain. By all accounts, the former ophthalmologist is a quick study, but he does not have his father’s natural authority. He is still considered to lack the necessary political, economic and military skills, and, perhaps most important, a solid power base in the military.

Assad, says the source, has seen the peaceful succession of Jordan’s King Abdullah following Hussein’s death and is thought to ascribe at least some of the durability of the Hashemite throne to its powerful strategic ties to Israel.

A senior Israeli military official says the turning point for both Israel and Syria came with the realization that, ultimately, neither side can prevail militarily.

“We reached the view almost simultaneously that the military option is not decisive.

“We cannot defeat each other,” he says, “and unfortunately, it took 20 years to realize it, but I believe there is a new chance now.”

But the official, who is likely to play a key role in talks with Syria, is not euphoric about the prospects. A peace agreement between Damascus and Jerusalem, he says, “will not be a romantic marriage. It will be more like a wedding ceremony between two elderly people.”

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