'Lion' of the Mideast Prefers To Put Off Peace With Israel

Extremists' threat, personal honor keep Syria's Assad from table

Syria's President Hafez al-Assad - the man whose name means "lion" in Arabic - is a crucial player in the path to Mideast peace. Just six months ago he was so isolated from his Arab neighbors that it seemed inevitable he would have to begin making peace with Israel. But as Assad starts his 26th year of ruling supreme in Syria, he has recently clawed his way back from weakness to being prince of the realm.

His new power may enable him to put off the peace that could be so costly to his regime. In fact, last week Syria rebuffed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call to resume peace talks, which have been stalled for months.

It was a rebuff Syria wouldn't have made last year, when Assad was caught by "an encroaching peace process that threatened to force him into a corner if he didn't join in," says an East European diplomat accredited in Damascus. Now he has "the upper hand."

The turning point came during Israel's bloody but inconclusive bombing of Lebanon's Hizbullah guerrillas in April. This "Grapes of Wrath" operation - and especially the killing of 102 civilians in a UN compound at Qana - irked Arabs.

And as one of Israel's harshest critics, Assad has gained from Arab indignance at Mr. Netanyahu's slowing down of the peace process.

"He would like nothing more than to continue the state of no-war, no-peace that has prevailed with Israel for the past several years," adds the diplomat. A formal peace, could "endanger his regime." So, the slowdown of the peace process suits Assad well for following five reasons.

Free-market reforms threaten his fragile economic and political system.

Since taking power in 1970, Assad has brought order and stability to a long-unstable nation. Many appreciate this. "Assad is feared more than he is loved," says Murteda, a shopkeeper in the town of Aleppo. "But at least we have order."

But many yearn for freedom. Satellite dishes, for instance, have sprung up like mushrooms. Assad "can no longer hide the future from us with a bankrupt socialism and war-like rhetoric," says an engineering student afraid to give his name.

But Assad has been slow to reform the weak economy, however, because his supporters - the military, unions, and civil service - benefit from the bureaucracy. "He can't afford to embrace the free-market economy that peace will bring," says a French economist, "because his main supporters are too reliant on the public sector."

Peace could incite Islamic extremists.

Some observers say that to survive Assad must be the last Arab to make peace with Israel and then only after all outstanding issues - such as Jerusalem and Israeli settlements - are solved.

Because he belongs to a religious minority - the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam (8 percent of the population) - he can't antagonize the Sunni Muslim majority (60 percent), whose extremists could take advantage of a peace deal to stir opposition.

Critics say Assad doesn't really want to recover the Golan Heights from Israel - the professed goal of peace talks - because most of its residents don't support him.

The economy is stable enough.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Assad is probably not desperate to sign a peace deal to get foreign aid. As much as $1.5 billion a year flows from Lebanon, which Syria largely controls. And recent oil and natural gas discoveries near the Turkish-Iraqi border - worth some $500 million a year, according to some analysts - make the economy mostly self-sufficient. The aid he gets comes mostly from Saudi Arabia, which isn't likely to turn off the spigot, and won't make it contingent on peace with Israel.

Doesn't want to weaken military.

If Israel left the Golan, it would demand Syria's military be scaled down. Already the Army "can hardly get its trucks to run, let alone fight a war," says one Russian adviser. "Assad needs his Army to stay in power, not fight a war. He knows the threat of Scud missiles will make Israel think twice before attacking."

Honor is crucial in the Mideast.

"The Israelis like to make their adversaries grovel before coming to an agreement," says the son of a former Syrian Air Force general once close to Assad. A partial deal on the Golan - which some consider possible - wouldn't retain Assad's honor. As Syria's defense minister in the 1967 war and president in the 1973 war, Assad lost the Golan to Israel twice (it was initially recovered in the first days of the 1973 war). And as Syria is the last state bordering Israel to make peace, Assad can't afford to lose face again.

The writer, who requests anonymity, travels frequently to Syria.

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