Probing Assad's Intentions

January 16, 1994

If President Clinton can broker an accommodation between Israel and Syria, he will have completed the circle of peace on Israel's borders and Israel's participation in the economic and civil life of the region. The possible gain from his meeting today in Geneva with President Hafez el Assad of Syria is very high.

The risk of failure is also considerable. Mr. Assad is a tricky character. He does not really welcome Palestinian autonomy under a PLO regime. He continues to allow groups that have conducted terrorism to operate in Syria and Lebanon. He has flirted with the peace process, beginning with the Madrid conference of October 1991, without either full participation or renunciation.

If the risk of failure is high, the cost would be minor. U.Sinterests are unfazed if this does not work and the status quo remains. The cost of never having tried would be much higher. That is why the Israeli government, if not the Israeli hawkish opposition, supports this meeting.

That the Golan Heights is Syrian is not in dispute. But from 1948 to 1967, Syrian artillery there rained terror intermittently on Israeli farming communities in the Galilee below. In the 1967 war, Israel seized the Golan Heights and established settlements to help hold it. In the 1973 war, Syria's surprise attack drove Israeli forces nearly off the heights, but the Israelis regrouped and were menacing Damascus at war's end.

In 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger brokered a disengagement of forces agreement under which Israel pulled back to hold less of the heights than in 1967 and United Nations peace-keepers were introduced. That regime remains in effect.

When President Anwar Sadat of Egypt began the peace process with Israel in 1977, President Assad of Syria sought leadership of the rejectionist front, and has been there ever since. He made common cause with the extremist regime of Iran because of mutual hostility toward Saddam Hussein of Iraq. He largely controls Lebanon and has allowed Iranian-backed terrorists to operate there.

The end of the Cold War and Soviet trouble-making in the Middle East isolated the Syrian dictatorship from any source of aid. This, rather than conversion to goodness, is the reason President Assad might join the Arab mainstream in making peace with Israel. He clearly would require credit from Washington for doing so, which makes President Clinton the only potential broker. The Clinton administration has made a judgment that he is willing. Israel tacitly supports that judgment.

What Syria wants is the Golan Heights back, every square inch of it. What Israel wants is peace and security, with no loopholes or ambiguity. Each knows what the other requires, but trust is nil. The broker's role would be an arduous one, but if Mr. Assad has made a genuine commitment in his own mind, it is do-able.

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