Syria Keeps Terrorists In Check to Smooth Path to Peace Talks

Though Syria is treading cautiously, it is discretely laying the groundwork - especially on issues of terrorism - for renewed peace talks with Israel.

President Hafez al-Assad has been wary of the peace process with Israel, allowing talks to drag on for five years and calculating that any "peace dividend" promised by Western nations and Israel would be slow to materialize.

Direct negotiations - once reported to be on the verge of a breakthrough - were suspended earlier this year because of elections in Israel. But the new Israeli leader, right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has changed Israel's stance and made proposals that are unacceptable to Syria.

Syria seems to be responding with a two-track policy. On the one hand, Syria points to Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, as a case in which an Arab nation rushed too fast to embrace an enemy and suffered for it.

On the other hand, extremist antipeace Palestinian groups and others considered in the West to be "terrorist" groups working out of Syria have been told to keep a low profile. At this moment of tension - with terrorism high on the international agenda after the bombing in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and the crash of TWA Flight 800 - Syria does not want to risk irritating the main sponsor of the peace process, the United States.

Bread riots in Jordan last week, sparked by a doubling of prices, were shown extensively on TV in Syria. But the reason for the unrest in Jordan goes beyond the price of bread alone. Widespread poverty is also to blame, coupled with a deep dissatisfaction that the peace dividend with Israel remains unseen. Jordanians were told to expect an improved economy following peace with Israel.

"We point to Jordan and say what they made was 'peace without justice,' " says one Syrian analyst. "We can learn from their mistakes and hold out for a better deal from the Israelis."

"People want peace in their own way," the Syrian analyst adds. "But here they say: 'Slowly, let's do it right.' "

Jordan is the example that "there is no miracle with peace," says a diplomatic source. "[The Syrians] have convinced themselves that the Arab man in the street admires Syria's toughness and does not like what other governments are doing with Israel."

Part of Syria's peace dividend could come from the nearly 40 percent of its annual budget spent on the military. That expenditure has created a military on the cold-war Soviet model that is also capable of offensive use.

But even with peace, military spending is not likely to be drastically cut. "Peace means compromise, so people will be disappointed anyway," says an Arab analyst.

Despite the current war of words between Israel and Syria, President Assad has indicated Syria wants to continue the negotiations. Israel says the same.

Arab sources report that the US has been working to facilitate secret, direct communication between the two, as a prelude to resuming talks. And there are other signs from Damascus that appear to show a willingness to reengage - or at least to not anger the US.

Though Syria remains on the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, American officials in Washington and the region say that there has been no hard evidence of direct Syrian involvement in any terrorist act for years.

"There is no doubt that Syria facilitates terror groups, but it does pay a heavy price for that support," says a diplomatic source who asked to not be further identified.

The antipeace Palestinian groups are kept in Syria as bargaining chips to pressure Israel, analysts say. But these groups are keeping quiet now. An example of Syria's intent was shown during its recent crackdown on more than a dozen Palestinians and "Afghans" - veterans from Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Sudan, and Syria of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

During the Arab summit in Cairo in June, Jordan's King Hussein was widely reported to have given Assad a file that detailed 56 incidents in which infiltrators crossed from Syria to carry out assassination attempts and undermine Jordan's stability because of its peace with Israel. Assad denied knowledge of the incursions, but immediately launched an investigation that found and arrested the culprits, according to Arab sources here.

Palestinian groups - even those not involved - were "shocked" at the strong Syrian reaction, one of the sources said, adding, "Syria is really serious about not trying to annoy the Americans."

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