Facing Up to Syria

December 08, 1993

Since President Hafez el Assad of Syria cannot go first in making peace with Israel, his choice is between going last or not at all. He is making the most of it.

Mr. Assad joined the formal Middle East peace negotiations but denounced the secret agreement between Israel and the PLO and the talks between Israel and Jordan. Now, those who want the process completed must go to Mr. Assad, as must those who want it thwarted.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher has made the journey, and orchestrated a series of gestures by Syria toward Israel and by the United States toward Syria that prepare the way for a serious negotiation. He has taken the offer of Syria-Israel talks about the Golan Heights to Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Mr. Christopher's aides denied a Syrian newspaper story that he had brought an Israeli offer of a deal that Mr. Assad rejected. Mr. Christopher, who played no role in the Israel-PLO breakthrough, is practicing shuttle diplomacy here. No one else could. Mr. Assad would insist that the U.S. persuade him.

What Mr. Assad must consider is whether he is capable of playing the role that rejectionists want of him. Syria may not be able to wreck the momentum between Israel and the Palestinians, no matter how many of PLO leader Yasser Arafat's lieutenants are assassinated or how inept Mr. Arafat proves to be. Mr. Assad is a cautious man, who does not want to be on the losing side of history. His own countrymen despise him, and only his army can keep him in power.

Mr. Assad wants to be catered to, which is being done. Syrian agreement would close the circle of peace between Israel and all its immediate neighbors. The major elements required are no secret. It would return most or all of the Golan to Syria in return for iron-clad security for Israel.

An agreement would run hard against the Greater Syria ideology, which seeks Damascus hegemony over not only Lebanon but also Israel, Palestine and Jordan. By embracing the Israel-PLO agreement and making its own peace, Syria would sign away such pretensions.

Many Israelis distrust Syria most of all their enemies. Any negotiation would need to address this. Mr. Rabin has adopted a PLO-first strategy, content to talk to Syria after more of the Arab world has made peace.

But Mr. Christopher is right to try to bring Syria in, now. If he succeeds, Mr. Rabin could not refuse. The risk of failure is Mr. Christopher's. The challenge is to convince Mr. Assad of his inability to halt the peace process. If Syria's options are only to get on that particular bus, or get run over by it, his choice will be clear. As will be his desire to get the most out of it.

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