Syria's New Look

February 18, 1991

Syria is on a voyage in foreign policy. The direction is right, though the destination is not in view. The dictator Hafez el Assad was quicker than others to appreciate the sea change in Moscow's foreign policy: The end of Soviet support for Syria's four wars against Israel, for Syria's sponsorship of terrorism and for Syria's anti-Western rhetoric made that policy untenable. He would change it, coexist with the West and become a moderate.

Syria has ended hospitality for terrorists, who promptly removed to Baghdad. Syria has joined the coalition against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, not by opening a front on the Iraq border but by sending 15,000 Syrian troops to Saudi Arabia, the better to claim a role there.

And President Assad used the distraction to achieve Syrian objectives in Lebanon, backing a government with claims to the whole country. To that end, he tacitly cooperates with Israel, which launched strikes against PLO bases in southern Lebanon after PLO attacks on Israel. The army of Lebanon, supported by Syria, moved south where it had not ventured in 15 years. The possibility of confrontation between Israel's Lebanese surrogates and Syria's loomed, but meanwhile they are squeezing the PLO.

Now the German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, comes from a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Farouk al-Sharaa, and announces that "Syria realizes that the recognition of the right of self-determination for the Palestinians also means that the right for Israel to exist is recognized and assured." Is a trade-off of Syrian security guarantees to Israel in return for the Golan Heights in the offing? So the world would devoutly hope.

Caveats are required. This is a trial balloon, and nothing that Syria said for itself. Since the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat retrieved the Sinai from Israel through recognition in 1978-9, the way to repossess land occupied by Israel has been obvious to all other claimants. And spurned.

Israel, meanwhile, has become more intransigent. Some 10,000 Israelis were settled on the Golan Heights, the better to secure it, and constitute pressure for keeping it. In 1981, Israel extended Israeli law to the area, which is a half-step short of claiming to have annexed it. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who has always proclaimed a willingness to talk with Syria, responded to the Genscher statement by implying through a spokesman that Israel is on the Golan Heights to stay.

Still, the prospect of Syrian-Israeli cooperation is exciting. Governments are staking positions for the diplomacy that will break out after the Persian Gulf war. Any steps by Hafez el Assad in the right direction are better than no steps at all.

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