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Changing horses

SYRIA'S STRENGTH WOULD SOON BE undermined by an event beyond Assad’s control — the decline and fall of his critical Soviet ally. Gorbachev turned down his request for arms to achieve strategic parity with Israel. Moscow was fading and this called for some regional insurance. Syria therefore supported a rapprochement with Egypt allowing Cairo to resume active membership in the Arab League.

Assad also had to grapple with the failure of his socialist-style economics. Syria worked, if it worked at all, through a thriving black market, and drug trade in Lebanon. Lebanon also offered an outlet for Syrian workers, a rare case when the conquered became the employers of the conquerors. Assad’s slow turn toward the pro-American Arab states, such as Egypt, and his economic need — both born of Soviet weakness — formed the necessary backdrop to understanding his role in the Gulf War.

Assad hated Saddam and Saddam’s Iraq. It was the only other Baathi regime, far more powerful than Syria, and just as ambitious. During the Iran-Iraq War, Assad’s pan-Arab ideology did not inhibit an alliance with the Ayatollah Khomeini. The two shared a common interest in hurting Saddam and wounding Israel through the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Saddam’s seizure of Kuwait in August 1990 suddenly offered Assad the way to dismount the dying Soviet horse and, if possible, to mount the American one. By joining the American-led coalition in making war on his Iraqi enemy, the Syrian leader found a way to Washington and to the coffers of the Persian Gulf. Once again, he portrayed himself as the key to wider Arab acceptance of American ideas on an Arab-Israeli agreement. Assad could claim rightly that he made the Madrid Peace Conference of September 1991 possible.

First or second?

Thus, ten years after Sadat’s murder, Assad also arrived under the canopy of a U.S.-sponsored direct Arab-Israeli negotiation. But Assad had no intentions of dealing with Israel alone, preferring an updated version of the Kissinger shuttle. His method was slow and painful. Get something for nothing if you can and if not, give as little as possible; use the Americans as intermediaries and get them to do the heavy lifting; break off from negotiations in order to resume them later on; never negotiate even from the appearance of weakness; and therefore, never be second. Finally, carefully controlled blood-spilling on the Lebanese border gives Israel an incentive to settle.

Both the U.S. and Israel wanted badly to do a deal with Syria. Syria not only offered the final blessing on the peace process, it was also Israel’s most dangerous immediate neighbor by virtue of its missiles, tanks, and tough infantry. But there was always a difficulty with Assad: if you treated him as the “key,” he felt justified in raising his price; and if you put him in second place, he fomented violence while refusing to negotiate seriously at all.

Still, the Syrian leader had reasons of his own to act. The Americans could “crown” him as a leader of the Arabs by making him the crucial peacemaker. He could put U.S. pressure on his enemies, especially Arafat, to achieve a veto over the entire diplomacy. He needed the money, and he needed the prestige.

Assad got the prestige, thanks to the willingness of American presidents and secretaries of state to indulge him with futile meetings. Several Israeli prime ministers put great stock in his views. Over the years, Western interlocutors found him highly intelligent and disciplined, possessing what Kissinger called “a wicked sense of humor,” careful to implicate his ministers in his decisions and capable of keeping deals in his own interest — a trait not always found in Middle East leaders.

Assad retained a strong curiosity about the United States. He cultivated an unusual range of contacts, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Senator Arlen Specter, and his ambassador in Washington paid plenty of attention to American Jewish groups. These strengths kept diplomatic hopes alive. But beyond declaring his “strategic decision for peace” and for “a peace of the brave,” he would take no further risks, certainly none that Sadat had taken. Moreover, Syria wanted not only what Sadat got — the international border demarcated during the imperial era — but also the June 4, 1967 line, which in the Golan case, would put Syria back on Israel’s most important fresh water resource, the Sea of Galilee.

Syrian flexibility on Golan security arrangements sometimes encouraged great expectations. When the Israelis talked about a three-year withdrawal akin to Sinai, Assad would say, “It took them only six days to get in, why do they need years to get out,” but he agreed to the phasing concept. We do not know whether the sudden quickening of the Israeli-Syrian track in early 1993 persuaded Arafat of the need to beat Assad to the post, but we do know that as the Oslo agreement loomed, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin gambled on a breakthrough with Damascus. The so-called Rabin “deposit,” conveyed through U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, asked what Syria would give in the way of peace if Israel agreed to leave the Golan.

Assad’s answer did not impress Rabin, who then reached the Oslo Agreement with Arafat. But the Syrian leader did pocket the deposit, treating Rabin’s question as a promise graven in stone, the starting point on any subsequent negotiation.

Arafat’s betrayal, followed by King Hussein’s peace treaty in 1994, effectively dismantled Assad’s pretensions to be “first” or to control an “eastern front.” He was left not with an Arab coalition, but with the purely Syrian cause, a geography not an ideology. Not first, not second, but third!

Waiting it out

Assad’s notorious contempt for Arafat and the Palestinian cause, which in his view should have relied on Syria, may explain his confidence in 1994-95 that he need only wait for the Israeli-PLO agreement to implode, leaving him even stronger than before. There were plenty of crises, including Rabin’s murder, followed by Prime Minister Peres’ urgent push for agreement on the Syrian track. And indeed the parties, negotiating under U.S. auspices at Wye Plantation in early 1996, did grapple at last with the security issues. But Peres judged that he could not risk a long inconclusive process with Assad. Worse, when Palestinian terrorism hurt Peres politically, Assad approved. Israel angrily broke off the talks.

A most remarkable chapter then ensued. Despite Syrian rhetoric reviling Peres’ successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, Assad allowed a secret channel to develop in 1998 through Ronald Lauder, a wealthy American Jewish businessman and former diplomat. Perhaps he thought that the Israeli leader, embroiled with Arafat and in trouble with Washington, was ready to make concessions.The details of the Lauder negotiations remain controversial, but the fact that they were held at all, in a channel secret from the U.S., suggested change afoot in Damascus.

Syria also suffered a serious setback when Turkey, whose growing alliance with Israel rattled him, threatened him with war in 1998 unless he expelled the PKK terrorists operating under his protection. Faced by a choice of fronts, he chose to mollify the Turks. Once again, an isolated Syria was vulnerable.

Another turn had begun. Assad had married well and among his five children he had chosen his eldest son, Basil, as heir. But in 1994 Basil died in an automobile crash. The remaining son, Bashar, a physician, was only 28, entirely inexperienced, and not ambitious to rule. This would take time, effort, and broken heads to arrange. The money had also run out. Damascus could not count on a failure of the Palestinian track. Clinton’s term was approaching its end. And Assad’s health, never robust after 1984, had begun to fail. When King Hussein of Jordan died, the Syrian leader made a rare visit outside Damascus. He was visibly worn and weak.

Rabin’s disciple, Ehud Barak, became premier of Israel in May 1999 with a promise to accelerate both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks and to withdraw from Lebanon, preferably as part of an agreement with Syria. Barak’s approach buoyed Assad. In December, to the obvious gratification of Barak and Clinton, both of whom had praised his leadership for months, Assad sent his foreign minister to Shepherdstown.

The Syrian position at these talks, revealed when Israel leaked a summary authored by the Americans, showed new flexibility on some of the security and so-called normalization issues. But Barak had not written down the Rabin deposit. As Damascus saw it, Barak, like Peres, had “used” Assad’s readiness to negotiate without paying the price. So Assad called off the talks and stimulated some violence in Lebanon. Barak responded slowly and then, his broad coalition shaken by budget and religious issues, “discovered” that his predecessors had all been willing to leave the Golan under the right conditions.

Barak’s willingness to suffer political damage over withdrawal indicated the Israeli leader’s serious intent. But it may have encouraged the ailing Assad to convince himself that a sign of accommodation was a sign of weakness, and weakness meant no need to compromise.

On March 27, 2000, President Clinton put Barak’s final offer to Assad at Geneva. This included an exchange of territory near the Sea of Galilee that would give Assad not the June 4th line, but enough of it for Syria to portray it as such. By one account, Assad interrupted Clinton’s exposition of the Israeli position on Golan security issues by reiterating his non-negotiable demand for the Sea where, so he said, he had once bathed, admired the girls, and barbecued. Clinton was nonplussed, whereupon Assad criticized his foreign minister for misleading the American leader about Syria’s flexibility on the issue. The meeting was over.

NEXT: Denouement


Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is the editor of Peacefacts, FPRI’s bulletin on the Arab-Israeli peace process, Dr. Sicherman has also written profiles of the late King Hussein of Jordan (February 1999) and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (November 1995).

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