Assad's Perch

September 19, 1993

Syrian President Hafez el Assad harbors Hezbollah in Lebanon, and such groups as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Damascus. The dictator endorsed the PLO agreement with Israel, while hosting groups have sworn to destroy it. He has been negotiating with Israel since 1991 on an exchange of recognition for the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Mr. Assad is a cautious despot. He is comfortable only with all options open. But he cannot go on that way.

Syria must fish or cut bait, go or get off, come down from the fence, bite the bullet, choose the road to take. Nothing is less in Mr. Assad's nature.

The United States has joined Israel in telling Mr. Assad's regime to shut down in Lebanon and Syria the groups that threaten Israel and Mr. Arafat. The State Department includes Syria on its list of states that have supported terrorism. Syria finds itself left out of the agreements between Israel and its neighbors. Although Mr. Assad might have been willing to cut a separate deal at the expense of the Palestinians, he is shocked that the PLO would do it at his expense.

Mr. Assad comes from a political ideology that began as modernist, secular, pan-Arab and anti-imperialist. He comes from the Alawite religious sect that is a small minority of Syria's Muslim population. He is, like most Arab rulers, unrepresentative of the people he rules, and unchosen by them. His own security in power is his highest priority.

Mr. Assad can get all the Golan Heights back (Israel still says some) but only in return for peace, true peace, recognition of Israel, exchange of ambassadors, open borders, trade and tourism. He has to shut down the 10 terrorist groups that have been identified as enjoying sanctuary in Lebanon and Syria. Now that Israel has recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, Mr. Assad has no more excuse for maintaining its rivals. No doubt he wants Israel to grant all that he requires before he gives up bargaining chips, and vice versa.

The Syria-Israel talks in Washington were suspended, while everyone catches his breath and digests what the PLO and Israel accomplished. But Syria and Israel know what their agreement must be. They reportedly were close to it. What remains is for Mr. Assad to pick the path of peace and respectability and repudiation of terrorism. Otherwise, Syria will forsake the Golan and live in the rejection front along with Libya, Iraq and Iran -- and bear the consequences of any terrorism. Mr. Assad can remain no longer on the fence. That fence disappeared.

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