Why Syria, Next Link in Peace With Israel, Stalls

This 'frontline' Arab state, led by long-time ruler Haffez Assad, has many internal reasons not to conclude a peace deal while still negotiating.

HE'S an Arab leader who has been courted personally by President Clinton, tantalized by prospects of American largess, and tempted to shed the US label that he is a terrorist backer.

But for President Hafez Assad of Syria, making peace with Israel can wait, at least for now. Even the return of the Golan Heights, lost to Israel in 1967, seems less urgent.

Although billboards have sprouted on the Damascus airport road proclaiming peace is Syria's ''strategic choice,'' they seem more positioned for foreign visitors than the 13 million Syrians he rules.

After four years of low-level talks with Israel and strong US diplomacy this year, Mr. Assad remains as much the enigma of the Mideast as ever, ruling his Arab nation with an iron hand and a net of secrecy.

Yet, in Israeli and American eyes, Syria is the next big and necessary prize to keep a regional peace. In 1979, Egypt was the first ''front line'' state to make peace with Israel. Then the Palestinians signed the Oslo Pact in 1993, and Jordan climbed on board last year.

Assad's motives for letting negotiations with Israel apparently stall have become a topic of intense speculation among Damascus-based diplomats and other analysts.

Ultimately, they say, Assad may think that his negotiating position can only strengthen by doing nothing, while Israel's position can only weaken.

The Soviet-trained fighter pilot, who became president in 1970, may also believe he can reap more economic benefits simply by giving the impression he is willing to make peace rather than signing a deal.

Shoring up his support

At the moment, though, Assad appears more concerned with shoring up his family-run regime, his Baathist political party, and the Alawite minority sect of Shiite Islam to which he belongs. At present, he may need an external enemy, such as Israel.

''Staying in power is more important to Assad than any possible windfall from a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty,'' says one Syrian journalist who would only give his name as Abdo.

Some Damascus-based diplomats say that Assad's attempts to position his second son as his political heir have met with opposition within his Alawite clan.

Assad has worked assiduously to place members of his clan and the Baathist political party in strategic places of power - such as the secret police - to secure his position.

After his eldest son, Bassel, who was being groomed to take over, died in an automobile accident in 1994, Assad has tried to secure the position for his second son, Bashar.

But a Lebanese politician, who frequently meets with Syrian leaders, says that Air Force intelligence chief Mohammed Kholi, as well as other influential members of the Alawite sect, recently refused to endorse Bashar as heir. He is said to favor Assad's brother Rifaat, who battled to take control of the government when Assad became very ill in the mid-1980s.

Assad reportedly fears that if he doesn't name a successor, rival factions within the Army and secret police will clash to gain control after his death, and the ensuing battles might result in reprisals against his family and religious sect.

Many Alawites, who make up nearly 8 percent of Syria's population, fear reprisal from Syria's 60 percent Sunni Muslim majority should Assad's Alawite-dominated regime be toppled.

Incentives to keep talking

Despite being occupied with Syria's internal stability, Assad has ample economic motivation to continue peace talks without bringing them to any conclusion.

''The mere display of goodwill on Assad's part is enough to gain kudos from Western financial institutions,'' according to a professor of economics at the American University of Beirut, who requested anonymity.

If Syria were to make a deal with Israel over the Golan Heights on their mutual border, it would likely received large amounts of Western aid. And the US would likely remove Syria from its list of nations that sponsor terrorism. But any economic gain may be negated if the US then pushes Syria to end its hold on Lebanon.

Syria has maintained a force of some 35,000 soldiers in Lebanon ever since it intervened in that country's civil war in 1976. Among the economic benefits, Syria receives remittances from more than 1.5 million Syrians working there. (See story, right.)

So far, the US has backed off from pressuring Syria to leave neighboring Lebanon.

''Syria stands to lose a lot if her preponderance in Lebanon is called into question,'' explains one prominent banker with the British Bank of the Middle East. ''Damascus earns at least $1.5 billion yearly from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley alone.''

Many Lebanese leader quietly complain that the US is prepared to sacrifice Lebanon's sovereignty to achieve a peace between Israel and Syria.

A student of history

Assad's hesitation in striking a deal with Israel may also be due to his patience and his prediction of trends in the Mideast.

Assad lost valuable Soviet military and economic aid after 1991. But he could still hope that the changing geopolitical equation in the Mideast could evolve in his favor if negotiations with Israel remain stalled.

A veteran of passive resistance to American initiatives not to his liking, Assad weathered the storm of the Israeli-Egypt peace in 1979 and a hapless 1983 treaty between Lebanon and Israel.

''From Assad's vantage point,'' says one Lebanese journalist and political commentator, ''an American-based world order born of the [1991] Gulf war can only weaken with time, and contrary forces, such as Islamic fundamentalism, more precise ballistic missiles, or a resurgence of Russian influence, could sweep it aside.''

As a student of history, Assad recalls that the Arabs chased the Crusaders from the Mideast, but not before 200 years of struggle. The parallel with Israel may not be lost on the Syrian leader.

In the short term, Assad might envisage internal strife within Palestinian ranks that would remove Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yassar Arafat. That would leave Assad in charge of the only Palestinian alternative, the Damascus-based opposition he has sought to cultivate.

As well as arming the fundamentalist Hizbullah group in Lebanon, which regularly launches attacks on Israel, Syria has sponsored Palestinian groups opposing Arafat's pact with Israel.

Assad might also see that the Israel ''island'' of 4 million people remains vulnerable, surrounded by 250 million Arabs.

Finally, warn foreign diplomats in Damascus, Assad may not yet see any deal with Israel that would not appear to to humiliate him. Among Arab leaders, the appearance of power and respect often counts more than having real power.

* The writer, who requests anonymity, travels frequently to Damascus.

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