Skepticism on Syria-Israel talks

With the resumption yesterday of the Syrian-Israeli track of negotiations, there's a near consensus that a treaty is almost in hand. As a longtime Syria watcher, I have some reflections to offer.

*Syria's economy has fallen apart in ways that echo what's been taking place in Iraq. In both places, a totalitarian ruler sacrifices the welfare of his people to ensure that he stays in power.

In a recent Middle East Quarterly article, economist Steven Plaut, ticks off the indicators of that sacrifice: The proportion of Syrian babies born in health facilities is only 37 percent, one of the lowest rates in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa. Syria has fewer tractors per capita than Cuba. At last count, there were 5,000 fax machines in the whole country. The entire Syrian college library system contains as many volumes as a good-size bookstore in the West.

Because this economic collapse translates into military weakness, one has to wonder why Israel is so keen on a deal with a regime whose base has so significantly eroded.

As Mr. Plaut suggests, "a rush by Israel to reach agreement with [Syria's President Hafez al-] Assad makes about as much sense as the US rushing in 1989 to reach agreements with the Soviet Union." Why not sit back and wait for an even more weakened Syria? Maybe even a post-Assad regime?

*There is another parallel with Iraq. Like Saddam Hussein, Mr. Assad has a history of signing international agreements when these are useful to him, then ignoring them when they no longer serve his purposes.

He promised three times to remove his troops from Lebanon, in 1976, 1982, and 1989; 35,000 of them still occupy that country. He promised 18 times to help end the terrorism by the Kurdish group PKK against Turkey, but each and every time broke his word.

So too with Israel, most notably concerning the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement, Assad promised Jerusalem that "Syrian civilians will return" to territory evacuated by Israeli forces in 1974, as a signal of his peaceful intentions, but they never did; only soldiers are there. He allowed terrorist operations across the Golan Heights against Israel in the 1970s. In 1992, he moved commandos and heavy artillery into the demilitarized zone between his territory and Israel's.

Why should anyone believe that Assad, anymore than Saddam, will keep his word?

*Like all bullies, Assad understands only the language of force and backs down in the face of opposition. This was spectacularly demonstrated last year when the Turkish government and society, in an act of wall-to-wall solidarity and willfulness, demanded the expulsion of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, from Syria. As Turkish politicians lobbed thinly veiled warnings to Damascus and the Turkish media bristled with talk of military action, the Assad regime swiftly capitulated.

This episode suggests that if Israel also wants to get its way (say, the halt of Hizbullah attacks from Lebanon), it should threaten rather than cajole.

*The protocol of diplomacy requires that heads of government only deal with their counterparts, while foreign ministers, ambassadors, and the like, also work with their equals.

And so, it's striking - and symbolic - that Ehud Barak, the leader of Israel, has settled to meet with Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa, who has effectively no power in Syria. Syria is a one-man show, with Assad making every key decision and people like Mr. Sharaa merely acting as advisers, spokesmen, and executors of his wishes.

That the Israeli side consents to this unequal format suggests it is quasi-desperate for a deal with Damascus - obviously not a great bargaining position.

*A review of Syrian-Israeli negotiations since 1991 reveals Assad's extreme reluctance to talk to Israelis, much less to reach any sort of agreement with them. Time and again, he manufactures a pretext to either stay away from the table or stall the negotiations.

One can only speculate about his reasons for doing this - I think he fears an agreement with Israel would signal to the Syrian population an opening to the West and an end to totalitarian rule, which in turn would cause him (or his successor) to lose control of the country.

Whatever the reasons for this persistent behavior, the record suggests that Damascus will once again concoct a reason to abort this round of negotiations well short of a signed agreement.

Because of an unreliable Syrian regime and an unstrategic Israeli leadership, no deal is imminent.

*Daniel Pipes is director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum and author of three books on Syria.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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