Syrians Worry Peace Prospects Are Fading

Optimism over Baker diplomacy falters over what is seen as US reluctance to press Israel

A SENSE of impending anticlimax is creeping up on Syrian officials. For the past six months, since joining the United States-led coalition against Iraq, Damascus has been expressing its confidence that the resolution of the Gulf crisis offered a real opportunity to seal a wider Middle East peace.

Today, as the Syrians prepare to greet US Secretary of State James Baker III on his newest peacemaking visit, they are less sure that he will be able to pull it off.

"Even though current American moves give the impression that [President] Bush is committed" to the peace process, "this element of optimism would be rooted in reality only if Israel stopped undermining every step towards peace," argues Syrian Information Minister Muhammad Salman.

"The United States is capable of playing a more effective role in making Israel commit itself to implementing United Nations resolutions," the minister adds. "But the US administration is not saying it will put real pressure on Israel at all."

Despite this note of caution, Syria seems willing to see how far the Baker initiative will go, foreign observers here say. "The tactic is to appear as helpful and as constructive as possible without giving away points of major importance, in the hope the process can go forward," says a European diplomat.

"But what President [Hafez] al-Assad is banking on," adds another Western diplomatic envoy, "is that if the initiative fails, the blame will fall on Israel for its intransigence."

Damascus insists that any peace conference Baker manages to convene must aim for the comprehensive settlement Syria has always demanded, involving an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, especially the Golan Heights, and a resolution of the Palestinian question.

This, officials explain, is why Syria is adamant that peace talks be based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, including the land-for-peace formula - an approach that President Bush has espoused but that Israel rejects.

Syria's refusal to enter direct peace talks with Israel outside the context of an international conference, officials and diplomats say, derives from its reluctance to do anything that smacks of a separate deal with the Israelis over the Golan, independent of the Palestinian issue. Having made the Palestinian cause a central plank in Syrian domestic and international policy for the past 20 years, diplomats say, Mr. Assad could scarcely abandon it now.

"Assad feels he is the custodian of Arab virtue on Palestine," says the European diplomat. "Just getting your bit of the Golan back is not a worthy goal for a great Arab leader. Getting what the Palestinians want would really mark him out."

At the same time, Syrian analysts point out, the hierarchy of the government's objective, as measured by its public pronouncements, appears to have changed since the Palestine Liberation Organization and the majority of Palestinians sided with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"Before, official speeches would mention the Palestinian cause first and then the Golan," says a local observer. "Now, it's the other way around."

In private, says a particularly well-connected diplomat, "the Syrians say that the Palestinians put their own interests above wider Arab interests during the Gulf crisis, so Syria is entitled to do the same now.

But in a retreat from earlier optimism, doubts are growing in Damascus that issues such as the Golan and the Palestinians' future would actually be negotiated anytime soon.

In the immediate aftermath of the Gulf war, says Elias Najmeh, a parliamentary member of the ruling Baath Party, Syria was hopeful that Washington's attitude on the Middle East was changing.

"Israel used to be seen as the West's only ally in the Middle East, a bridgehead that could defend Western interests," says Mr. Najmeh. "The war showed that was not the case."

At the same time, he says, government strategists in Damascus were confident that a strong Bush would be in a better position than his predecessors to stand up to the pro-Israeli lobby in the US.

But Baker's apparent inability or unwillingness to force concessions from Israel on the modalities of the conference has made Syria think again, officials say.

"Without US arms, US economic aid, US political support, could Israel do what is has done?" Najmeh wonders. "At the end of the day, the United States is not ready to withdraw that backing, and [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir is sure of it."

"The United States has all the means to change Israel's mind," adds Muhammad Heir al-Wadi, editor of the government daily Tishreen. "And if they want to be respected here, they will use the tools they have. It is not easy for us to have faith in America. They tell us they are serious, but how sincere they are only events will show."

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