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by Harvey Sicherman*

 

 
Denouement

WAS THIS SIMPLY ANOTHER Assad stage-show intended to panic Clinton and extract more from Barak, or just another way to put off an agreement he never wanted?

Some have argued that Assad feared peace with Israel because it would reduce him to an Alawite prince, no longer a would-be Arab leader, while opening Syria to outside influence. Yet, eight years after Madrid, Syria could not gain much from the mere diplomatic process; it remained on the U.S. terrorism list and was bereft of international aid and investment. The alternative was for Assad to beat Arafat to a peace treaty, damaging the Palestinian leverage while giving the U.S. and Israel a stake in the survival of the Alawite regime and his son, Bashar.

Perhaps Assad’s action at Geneva was not strategic at all, but a dying man’s unwillingness to break with the negotiating habits of a lifetime, to prove he had done better than Sadat and Hussein, that he would get at least as much as they got from Israel or more, while giving less.

In any event, it did not work. Clinton had had enough. Barak withdrew from Lebanon without an agreement and threatened that Syrian complicity in cross-border attacks would lead to war. Damascus recoiled, hinting to Washington not to give up. Meanwhile, Assad hurried forward with preparations to anoint Bashar as his successor.

On June 10, Saturday morning, Assad was engaged in a favorite activity, managing the affairs of his neighbor through a telephone conversation with Emile Lahoud, President of Lebanon. According to Lahoud, Assad said, “our destiny is to build a better future for our states,” and then suddenly stopped. The President of Syria was dead, after nearly thirty years of rule.

Not given to fancy food, dress, women, or palaces, Assad’s lifelong interest was power. He left his son an elaborate structure of parliament, party groupings, a constitution, and 99 percent voting victories, a facade for the Alawi generals and the army — all instruments of the maximum leader. But unlike his rival, King Hussein of Jordan, he did not leave his successor international allies with a stake in the regime’s survival.

Will it still work? “Dr. Bashar,” as he is called, promises change, but at what pace? His father had always been ready to regroup in the face of superior force and ever ready to switch partners if the dance lost its purpose. But he was slow, primarily because he did not really want to get there, hoping always to revert to his original objectives. He was slow in 1974, and Sadat got to Washington first. He was slow again in 1978, and Sadat got to Jerusalem first. He was slow yet again in 1993, and Arafat got to Oslo first. Finally, he was slow in 2000, and death got there first.

By macabre coincidence, two dates governed his life. His official birth date was October 6, the high water mark when in 1973, he and Anwar Sadat bloodied Israel. It was also the day of Sadat’s murder in 1981, fit punishment in Assad’s view for betraying the Arab cause. And then there was June 10, when in 1967, Israel conquered the Golan. It also turned out to be the date of his death thirty-three years later.

In his last phase, Assad had tweaked the Americans, exposing their awkward courtship, and humbled the Israelis, falsifying their hopes. Not giving, he also made it harder for Arafat to give. On his own ledger, no doubt, Assad had done better than Sadat, sacrificing neither his pride nor his life. But had he done the best for Syria?  

 

Published by permission from Foreign Policy Research Institute, Peacefacts, “A Briefing on the Middle East Peace Process,” Volume 7, Number 1, July 2000. FPRI, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102-3684. Tel. (215) 732-3774.

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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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