BY focusing primarily on Israel and the Palestinians in its strategy for peace in the Middle East, the Bush administration is ignoring a third essential player - Syria. Secretary of State James Baker's call on Israel to ``lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of greater Israel and forswear annexation,'' and his equally blunt call to the Palestinians ``to speak in one voice ... and amend the Palestinian Liberation Organization covenant and resort to a dialogue of politics and diplomacy'' was certainly courageous, balanced, and overdue. Peace will not be achieved, however, without Syria's ultimate cooperation.
Syrian President Hafez Assad's self-imposed mission to shape the Arab agenda on the Palestinian and Lebanese issues has often strained his relationships with his fellow Arab leaders and further complicated the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Syria opposes any solution that excludes it from the peace process. President Assad insists that the return of the Golan Heights to Syria is a prerequisite to any settlement of the Arab-Israeli crisis. Hence, he opposes any deal the PLO might cut with Israel.
To that end, Assad has pursued dual strategies. He has provided logistical and financial support to the two extremist PLO factions - the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine - which remain committed to armed struggle against Israel and undermining PLO chief Yasser Arafat's efforts to negotiate a settlement. In addition, he has pursued military parity with Israel by undertaking a massive rearmament program. Syria's current weaponry levels by far exceed pre-1982 numbers and have been augmented by the introduction of missiles with chemical and biological warheads.
On the Lebanese front, Syria's objectives are rooted in history. The Syrians never accepted Lebanon as a separate nation and, thus, have sought to influence events there. Although Assad does not seek to rule Lebanon directly, he wants to insure that Lebanon is not governed by a radical group, be it Muslim or Christian. This explains why Syria shifts in supporting various factions and why Assad seeks a compliant Lebanese government that accepts Syria's preeminence. Recent devastating artillery exchanges between the army of Michel Aoun, the interim Christian leader, and the Syria-backed Muslim militia was a reminder of how far Syria will go to protect its interests.
Although the majority of the Arab heads of state would like to replace Syrian troops in Lebanon with Arab League forces, and restore some form of power-sharing between Christians and Muslims, Assad will reject any proposal that does not fully recognize Syria's preeminent role and responsibility in Lebanon. Moreover, Assad would not contemplate the withdrawal of Syrian troops as long as Israeli soldiers continue to occupy some 500 square miles of southern Lebanon. The Israelis, on the other hand, will not leave southern Lebanon without iron-clad security guarantees which only a comprehensive peace, which must include Syria, can provide.
It is clear to both Syrian and Israeli military strategists that Syria alone cannot dislodge the Israelis from the Golan Heights nor force Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon. Syria, however, is in a perfect position to spoil any efforts by Arab moderates and the PLO to reach an agreement with Israel. The Soviet Union, which has been encouraging both the PLO and the Syrians to negotiate with Israel, is likely to continue to support both parties' positions, even though, at present, the two are incompatible.
It took 10 years for Assad to acquiesce to Egypt's formal readmittance to the Arab League. The Egyptian-Israeli peace, which was predicated on the exchange of territory for peace, set a critical precedent. Since Egypt has now been readmitted to the Arab League, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is expected to play a greater role and project a moderating voice, which can go a long way toward the establishment of a new consensus for peace by the Arab leaders who met recently in Casablanca, Morocco. Syria is being challenged by Egypt to enter the peace process.
Now that the US has established the parameters for peace between Israel and the Palestinians - the core of which, territory for peace, strengthens the hands of the moderates - Syria might be induced to enter the process. The next move is for the US and the Soviet Union to nudge Assad toward accommodation. If Assad is left to his own devices, peace between Israel and the Palestinians will remain elusive.