Would Peace With Israel End Assad's Rule?

Outside Syria, it is widely believed by many analysts that President Hafez al-Assad wants to put off making peace with Israel. He is afraid, such outsiders speculate, that ties to the Jewish state and the West would bring openness to Syrian society - an openness that would undermine his authoritarian regime.

But inside Syria, that view is largely dismissed by academics and prominent Syrians who note that the limits of acceptable political discourse have slowly begun to ease.

Instead of raising questions about Mr. Assad's rule - which is bolstered by a large security and intelligence apparatus - the prospect of peace with Israel has sparked debate in Syria about how much Israel might dominate the Mideast and how much a peace will alter centuries-old Arab culture.

"Syria is making peace with Israel, not because it wants to, but because of force majeure [superior force] - and let the chips fall where they may," says one analyst.

"If the system opens more, so be it. It's not as though Assad sits there and weighs peace or opening up," he says, echoing the view of many Syrians that their leader of 27 years is concentrating on making a land-for-peace deal with Israel that preserves Syria's integrity.

"If peace means an opening, [Assad] will have to manage it," he continues. Since on-again, off-again peace talks began in 1991, economic reforms have paralleled political ones.

Israel broke off talks last February, but Syrians say their constant negotiating position - a full withdrawal of Israelis from the occupied Golan Heights, in exchange for a full peace - has often been misinterpreted as an unwillingness to make peace.

"Not everything is negotiable, because our sovereignty is not negotiable. It's not a question of anti-Semitism, but it is our land," says Muhammad Aziz Shukri, the head of the recently founded Center for Strategic Studies at Damascus University.

"What worries us is that the longer the delay, the more frustration we are suffering, and people are turning their back on the peace because they believe the other side does not want peace," he says.

Past closure of Syria has been easily justified by the state of emergency that has existed since 1967, when Israeli troops took control of the Golan Heights. So the growing readiness for peace has raised expectations.

"They feel that any stalemate in the peace process is dangerous for them, because it has given a prospect of change in the country," says a senior Western diplomat. "Many Syrians - especially businessmen - are looking for the kind of future which is not here without the prospect of peace."

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