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Talks About Syria’s Future Show Differences Between Israel, U.S.

December 7, 2005
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When it comes to Syria today, Israel and the United States agree that President Bashar Assad is bad news. The subject of Syria tomorrow, however, exposes differences between the allies.

The United States already is thinking about a post-Assad Syria as a building block in its efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East. But Israel fears Assad’s departure could make the situation even worse.

Israel does not regard the differences with the United States as urgent, since it doesn’t believe Assad is going anywhere soon. But the Bush administration’s hard line is jarring enough that the Israelis now raise the issue in the U.S.-Israel dialogue.

Israel raised three possible post-Assad scenarios at a strategic dialogue session with the United States last week, none of them good: chaos, an Islamist regime or another strongman from Assad’s minority Alawite sect who might roll back the few civil rights and economic reforms Assad has allowed.

The Americans at the meeting, led by Nicholas Burns, an undersecretary of state, dismissed the notions of an Islamist regime or chaos, according to various sources familiar with the meeting.

Instead, Burns said Assad’s departure could be “transformative.” He suggested it could even lead to elections, as happened in Lebanon when Syria finally ended its three-decade occupation earlier this year.

If another strongman takes Assad’s place, the Americans said they would regard it as just a temporary step until democracy comes about.

Burns’ comments were of a piece with recent hints that the administration could ratchet up pressure on Syria, including new sanctions. President Bush also has called on Syria to unconditionally release political prisoners.

“The Syrian government must cease its harassment of Syrians peacefully seeking to bring democratic reform to their country,” Bush said last month, language stronger than the more polite hints he has issued to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both U.S. allies, to do the same.

The pressure has rattled the Syrians.

“The Syrian people and the Syrian government are very worried because of the intransigent attitude of the United States administration toward Syria,” Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador, said last month on PBS’ “One on One” with John McLaughlin.

Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University scholar considered Israel’s foremost Syria expert, marveled at the American confidence about a peaceful post-Assad Syria. Even if democracy does rise in Syria, there’s no way of predicting which party would emerge triumphant, Maoz said, considering how opaque Syrian society is and how fluid the situation would become.

“Who’s going to run for elections? Do they know?” he asked. “The question ‘what does America want from Syria,’ it’s not very clear.”

The Israelis are profoundly unhappy with Assad’s continued backing of Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and his headquartering of Palestinian terrorist groups in Damascus. But some Israeli analysts have suggested that the government prefers to have Assad in power because of his rogue status: If he were replaced by a more moderate leader, the thinking goes, Israel might be pressured to resume peace talks with Syria and return the Golan Heights, which Israel conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel also recognizes that Assad does give in under intense pressure, as evidenced by the Lebanon withdrawal.

Assad also has increased patrols along the Syria-Iraq border under threat of further sanctions, and this week allowed five top Syrian officials to cooperate with the U.N. investigation into the murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister.

Assad could do more, Maoz said, but it makes sense for him not to give up everything immediately.

Holding back on concessions “is a card in his hands; he cannot give up his cards,” Maoz said. “There are no free lunches.”

What concerns Israelis is that nothing Assad does appears to dent the Bush administration’s determination to keep up the pressure. Asked by JTA about Syria, a State Department spokeswoman would only repeat months-old talking points: “Their cooperation is crucial with the U.N. investigation, they must take action on any use of their territory by the insurgency in Iraq.”

When it was noted that Syria now was cooperating with the U.N. inquiry and had taken some measures to secure the border with Iraq, the spokeswoman refused to comment further.

Another sign of Bush’s seriousness is his signing last month of a bill extending to Syria sanctions currently in place on Iran.

Bush has yet to fully use potential sanctions he has at hand from the 2003 Syria Accountability Act, and he might delay using the new sanctions. But their severity is an unmistakable signal: The new bill targets third parties and nations that deal with Syria, which could force countries to choose between the Syrian and U.S. economies, hardly a dilemma.

Maoz suggests a carrot-and-stick approach; Assad already has survived for five years, since his father died, which could mean he’s entrenched for the long run, Maoz said.

“There is always the possibility of changing the behavior of Bashar,” Maoz said. “Show him they mean business, bribe him, induce him.”

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