When Clinton Meets Assad

Hopes rise that the two leaders will talk to each other, rather than at each other

WHEN Presidents Clinton and Hafez al-Assad meet on Sunday, a new chapter in Syrian-United States relations will begin.

For Mr. Clinton, the objective will be to steer the discussions toward bilateral relations, even on issues related to the Middle East peace process. Clinton will provide the inducement of improved relations with the US in return for Syria's commitment to achieve a full peace with Israel. Syria will have to end the Arab boycott, distance itself from its close association with Iran, and disengage from any commitment to activity that opposes the Palestine Liberation Organization-Israeli peace agreement. Moreover, Syria will be under increasing pressure to treat as separate issues its recovery of the Golan Heights and any commitment it has made to support Lebanon's insistence that Israel withdraw from the south of Lebanon in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 425. This will inevitably curtail support to the Lebanese resistance in the south - especially Hizbullah.

The US administration thus hopes that the Geneva meeting will give Mr. Assad the opportunity to restrict his role or ambition in the region to the recovery of the Golan Heights, or most of it. It is further expected that Clinton will seek to impress upon the Syrian president that the path to peace with Israel lies in pacifying Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Though Clinton might be swayed by some of Assad's views, overall US policy will likely remain unchanged because Congress will not accept any changes.

Assad's approach will be equally subtle. He is aware of the pro-Israel bias of the US in general and the Clinton administration in particular. He is equally aware of an altered global equation that reduces Syria's bargaining position. Assad realizes that the Middle East currently is the only arena in which the US can project visible power, and that any minor step he takes toward appeasing Israel can be amplified into a major leap toward a Middle East peace. Considering US failures in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia, as well as the continued rift within the US administration on how to respond to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, a seemingly flexible Syrian response would be marketed - wrongly in my view - as a ``breakthrough.''

Assad goes to Geneva knowing US objectives, which will enable him to convey realities that have for too long been excluded from US policymaking. Assad will seek to impress upon Clinton Syria's historical and actual role and responsibilities in the region. He will seek to convey that Syria's role as a pivotal player in the region has remained a constant throughout its history, rather than having been the result of his regime's ambitions, as some detractors claim.

The sum total of Assad's position is to convey to Clinton that he is dealing with a regional power, not a medium-size Arab state. Assad comes to Geneva in large part to seek respect before eliciting approval. Though he desires both, he will not accept approval at the expense of respect. It might, therefore, be appropriate for Clinton to listen carefully and deferentially to Assad's explanation of Syria's geopolitical concerns, and to his perception of inadequacies inherent in the Arab states' sovereignty. The US ought to realize that the Syrian president is not giving a history lesson unsuited to a rapidly unraveling world, but rather is explaining the elements that shape the current behavior of the major players in the Middle East.

IN essence, Assad will speak to Clinton as an Arab spokesman. Although there might be many in the Arab world who challenge this claim, it is a credible one. Egypt's peace treaty with Israel eliminated Cairo as a deterrent to Israel's strategic objectives. Iraq's role has diminished, at least temporarily, as a result of the Gulf war. And the Gulf countries are looking more inward at this time, as opposed to involving themselves in the dynamics of overarching Arab issues. Egypt's Camp David commitments have rendered it a barrier to the interaction of North African states with the Arab East. Amid this disarray, Assad considers assuming the mantle of Arab spokesman as both reasonable and justified, though perhaps overstretched and somewhat exaggerated.

If Clinton is to persuade the Syrian leader of the need to resume the peace process, he must respond to Syria's geopolitical concerns and commitment to a comprehensive peace, in addition to its aversion to unilateral agreements and separate deals.

Syria's role in Lebanon was ratified by the Arab League-brokered Taef Agreement in 1989. Although controversial, this agreement is the legal predicate of Lebanon's system and policies. It ratifies Syria's transitional role and renders the US policy of equating Israel's occupation in south Lebanon to Syria's presence in Lebanon insensitive, intrusive, and in violation of both the Taef Agreement and UN Security Council Resolution 425, which demands Israel's unconditional withdrawal, a position the US ostensibly sponsored. While there are reasonable objections to Syria's unilateral role, there must be an acknowledgment of its pivotal role. US sensitivity to this will help Lebanon more quickly regain its sovereignty and allow the US to exercise a healing, rather than a divisive, influence on Lebanon's future.

On the question of Palestine, Assad will undoubtedly convey his resentment of the PLO-Israeli peace agreement. He will point out the flaws and ambiguities that tend to erode Palestinian national rights. He will analyze the aftermath of the agreement, keeping in mind that the disparate Palestinian groups he supports and underwrites do not yet constitute a viable alternative to the PLO. This weakness of the Syrian-supported Palestinian groups will render Assad more amenable to resume the peace process in Washington. In the meantime, he will point out the strength of the arguments of Palestinian opposition.

Finally, Clinton is expected to indicate US opposition to Syria's alliance with Iran. He will emphasize that Iran is considered a threat to US strategic and economic interests in the Gulf region. Assad will reply that his alliance is tactical, caused by a power vacuum created by the dismantlement of the Arab state system and Israel's desire to fill the vacuum. Even so, the chances of loosening the relationship exist.

The outcome of the Clinton-Assad summit will be determined by their serious attempt to talk to each other. This, hopefully, will replace Syria and the US talking at each other. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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