Wild Card in Mideast Peace: Syria

Damascus puts a new spin on relations with US, Israel - even Iran and Iraq

Subtle messages have long served as political discourse in the Middle East, and the complexity of Syria's "dialogue" with Israel and the United States about the peace process is no different.

The current peace crisis has displayed the surprisingly wide range of political cards that Syria can play.

The authoritarian regime of President Hafez al-Assad is still technically at war with Israel over capture by the Jewish state in 1967 of the strategic Golan Heights. Return of that land - now annexed by Israel, and populated by right-wing Jewish settlers - is an article of faith here.

And Syria has, over the years, been the most strident in its anti-Israel rhetoric, despite the fact that US-brokered peace talks made significant progress before Israel broke them off in February 1996.

So consider these "messages" emerging from this tangled Mideast drama: After a botched Israeli commando raid in southern Lebanon earlier this month, guerrillas paraded the severed head of one Israeli, holding it aloft like a trophy. Photographs of this "triumph" were printed across the Arab and Islamic world. But Syria's press did not join in.

And footage of dead and wounded Israelis from a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Sept. 4 was the first ever shown on Syrian television. The attacks were not called "operations," in the parlance of the Palestinian Hamas militants who claimed responsibility, but simply "explosions."

"They [the Syrians] were one step away from expressing regret," says one Western diplomat here, because of the negative consequences the bombs would have on the peace process.

Both examples appeared designed to send a message of peace and moderation to Israel.

But there are signs that point another way: Just hours after the Jerusalem bombing, leaders of various hard-line Palestinian groups that oppose the peace process met in Damascus, the first time in months that such a meeting was permitted.

Hamas was congratulated by the others for its "good work" with the Jerusalem bombings.

The continued presence of these groups keeps Syria on the US State Department list of "terrorist" states, though no act of terror is believed to have come from Syria itself for more than a decade. Several months ago these groups were warned to keep a low profile, but those orders seem to have changed.

"These are all cards in the Syrian hands, with which they manage to give signals but not, at this point, to cause a rupture," says a Western source here. "They hope the US makes good on its commitment to bring peace."

Talks with Israel's previous left-wing government foundered on details of security arrangements that would accompany an Israeli pullout. But right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected a full withdrawal from the Golan - fearing that giving up this "strategic buffer" would jeopardize Israel's security - along with the US land-for-peace formula that underpins the peace process.

President Assad said on Friday that Mr. Netanyahu "closes the doors on all who are concerned with the peace process."

Syria's demands center on United Nations Security Council resolutions that require full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and from southern Lebanon.

Syrian and Western analysts note that Israel's settlement policies in the Golan also violate the fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits building on occupied territory. Israel counters that Syria does not want peace and is instead preparing for war. Western military analysts here discount such a threat.

But Syria has linked any comprehensive peace in southern Lebanon - the last "hot" front line in the Arab-Israeli conflict where Iran- and Syria-backed Hizbullah guerrillas battle occupying Israeli troops - to a Golan deal. Some 30,000 Syrian troops also remain in Lebanon after more than 20 years, making Damascus the recognized power broker in Lebanon. Without this card in Syrian hands, and in view of Israel's military superiority, observers note, Israel might have little reason to give up the Golan at all.

So Syria has lauded the "balanced" words of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during her first Mideast trip earlier this month. Western diplomats say that, in asking for US pressure on Israel, Assad told her: "We are the most disciplined follower of US policy [of land-for-peace], but what about you?"

"Syria considers that it is the only true follower of the American peace initiative," says a Western diplomat. Further afield, however, Syria is eyeing a new axis between Israel and Turkey with anxious suspicion. Joint naval exercises - which will include the US - are to be held in November, just 20 miles off the Syrian coast.

To pressure Turkey for water resources in the past, Syria has given sanctuary to militant Kurds of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who carry out armed attacks inside Turkey. But the PKK has been largely banished from Syria proper, and now operates out of Lebanon's Syria-controlled Bekaa Valley and Iran.

"Syria is doing nothing at all to antagonize Turkey now," says a Western diplomat. "They know where the balance of power lies, and have not moved one soldier to the border." Seeking to defuse the tension, Turkey has announced the exercises will only be search and rescue operations. But Syria sees them as a direct threat and has sought support outside the Western camp.

Assad - who rarely travels - visited Iran at the end of July to confer with top leaders of the Islamic republic and confirm close ties. This week, in a rare sign that Iran and Syria were in step, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami also spoke out against the planned joint exercises.

And Syria has begun improving ties with Iraq, an arch-enemy. A border crossing has been reopened after 17 years, and Syria has given $1 million worth of medicine to Iraqis hit by United Nations sanctions. Syrians also say they were shocked to see portraits of Assad and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein hanging side by side at a Damascus international fair.

Ties with Saudi Arabia have also improved, according to a Western news report. A key suspect in the bombing of US servicemen in Saudi Arabia in June 1996 was tracked down in Lebanon by the Syrians and handed over to Saudi Arabia.

"Everyone is feeling vulnerable, and that is why they want to get together," says a Syrian analyst.

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