Syria Leader Willing To Consider `Normal' Relations With Israel

MONTHS may pass before the outcome of more than five hours of talks here Sunday between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad becomes apparent.

No breakthroughs were expected, White House aides warned repeatedly before the meeting. If any were achieved, the two governments are not discussing them.

But both sides got some modest steps from the meeting that could move Middle East peace forward. Though the process the US is brokering is an arcane game of loaded words and significant body language, if it succeeds it could ultimately remove Syria as the last military threat to Israel in the region.

The long conversation produced the key buzzword that Israelis and Middle East watchers were listening for. Syria is negotiating toward the goal of ``normal, peaceful relations'' with its neighbors, said Mr. Assad after the meeting.

The word ``normal'' marked a step forward, signifying that Syria accepts the possibility of opening full, normal diplomatic relations with Israel. US officials also note that Assad explicitly endorsed, for the first time, the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the goal of comprehensive peace with Israel. In his statement after the meeting, Assad said: ``If the leaders of Israel have sufficient courage to respond to this kind of peace, a new era of security and stability with normal peaceful relations shall dawn.''

These are heavy - and positive - hints about what Assad has had in mind in recent months when he speaks about peace in the Middle East. Up to now, he has offered little about the nature of the peace he envisions or would accept.

But Assad got something from the meeting, too. Although Clinton says the substance of a peace negotiation between Syria and Israel was not discussed here, Assad established himself as a critical player in the game. Clinton told Assad, he said, that ``Syria is the key to the achievement of an enduring and comprehensive peace that finally will put an end to the conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors.''

``The meeting itself is important to Assad,'' says William Quandt of Brookings Institution. ``It helps his regional stature.''

What the leaders did not talk about, as far as outsiders know, is whether Syria will eventually agree to open borders, free trade, and other elements of full commerce with Israel. Nor is it apparent whether the US discussed any potential economic or trade incentives for Syria. Most important, the leaders made no public mention of the immediate issue between Syria and Israel - the Golan Heights, former Syrian territory occupied by Israel.

A few days before the Geneva meeting, Persian Gulf states met with Egypt in Damascus and, with Syria, endorsed the agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization as a first step toward peace. Assad is not the likeliest of leaders to lead this process. He is an old-style dictator with a reputation for brutality and the slaughter of civilians. In the Middle East, he is rivaled only by Iraq's Saddam Hussein. He remains firmly on the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Recently, Assad has made some small gestures. He has granted exit visas to Syrian Jews and agreed to cooperate with a US investigation of the remains of Israeli prisoners in Syria.

Clinton's detractions in his current role are minor in comparison. ``Arab leaders tend to regard him as neither interested in foreign policy nor good at it,'' says Michael Hudson, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Clinton is also seen as looking at the Middle East through an Israeli lens more often than George Bush did, he adds. ``I think the Syrians are still suspicious of the Clinton administration.''

But the Syrians could use a better international profile. The Syrian economy has experienced a minor boom recently, yet its former sponsors in the old Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia have dried up, notes Mr. Quandt. Assad could use outside investment to fund more growth.

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