Syrians fear impact of peace with Israel

August 24, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

QUNEITRA, Syria -- The skulls in open, looted coffins lay gaping at the sun, left just as Syria says it found them 20 years ago after withdrawing Israeli forces demolished the vacated city.

The Syrians have not reburied the bones, nor rebuilt any of the city, captured by Israel in 1967 and returned -- crushed -- in 1974. They keep Quneitra as a macabre monument to what they say is Israeli brutality.

It is just as much a monument to Syrian fears of Israel.

Syria, the most steadfast of Israel's enemies in the Middle East, is grappling with those anxieties as it inches ever so slowly to what observers here say is an inevitable peace with its foe.

This year or next, Syria is expected to come to some sort of terms and open its doors -- perhaps ever so slightly -- to neighbors long castigated as warmongering, aggressive and untrustworthy -- which is just about the way the Israelis view the Syrians.

The regime here has been slowly preparing its people for that day for more than two years. But many Syrians are jittery about the prospects. They fear that the Israelis will dominate them in peace instead of war.

"We fear an invasion. We fear an economic invasion, an invasion of the media, an invasion of culture, an invasion of tourism," said a Syrian architect. Like others who spoke privately, he dared not be identified.

"They will try to dictate from Israel," he continued. "They are like a monster, an octopus. You don't know the Zionists."

Such nervousness is common here, where Israel has been vilified daily in the official media for four decades. In this closed regime, few Syrians have much contact with the outside to temper the steady diet of propaganda.

Syrian President Hafez el Assad still has total control to make a peace deal. But the reservations of his people may serve as a caution light for him, if he does not want to get too far ahead of popular sentiment.

"People were suffering here for 40 years on the principle that we have to fight and stand against Israel," said an author in Damascus. "Now to be told that it was a mistake all those years? People are not going to be happy about this peace."

"It could be very dangerous for Assad," added a Syrian businessman. "It lets the genie out of the bottle. The whole

foundation of this regime's temple -- fighting Israel-- is suddenly gone."

"I want peace," said a pharmacist. "But I don't want Israel to take advantage of us. They are good business people. They have a lot of power because of America. They might take over the economy and make us dependent on them."

To be sure, some are looking forward to the advantages of peace.

About 10 miles north of Quneitra, Suliman Mustafa stands on a dusty bluff opposite Majdal Shams, a hillside town within the Israeli lines of the Golan Heights. With a bullhorn, he shouts across 250 yards to his mother and father, who reply by yelling.

Families split

Families were split when Israel captured the Golan Heights in TTC 1967, and permission to cross the lines is rare. Mr. Mustafa's six ++ children have never met their grandmother, aunts or uncles. There is no telephone communication or mail between Israel and Syria, still formally at war.

"My father is preparing to have a medical operation, and we're asking about it," said Mr. Mustafa, who brought his family 35 miles from Damascus to carry on this open-air, shouted dialog. "It's a terrible way to talk. But there is no other way."

If there is a peace agreement, Syria will insist that Israel return the captured Golan Heights, and then families such as Mr. Mustafa's may be reunited.

Syrians say that only then might they rebuild Quneitra. The small city of nearly 50,000 was captured by Israel in the 1967 war, and the population fled. Israel returned it as part of the cease-fire after the 1973 war, with nearly every one of its thousands of concrete buildings demolished. It remains a large park of flattened structures.

Israel said much of the damage was done by the Arab side in the fighting. But a United Nations investigating committee found that Israel deliberately crushed the city, and the organization condemned Israel for a "grave breach of the Geneva convention."

Israel and Syria began peace talks in October 1991 in Madrid, Spain. Last January in Geneva, Mr. Assad obliquely pledged himself to an agreement.

Progress toward that has moved at a glacial pace. But then the Palestinians and the Jordanians made pacts with Israel, leaving Syria the focus of pressure to sign a similar pact.

Ostensibly, the problem is how to come to terms over the Golan Heights. Syria wants Israel to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights, a plateau about 12 miles wide and 40 miles long that separates the two countries.

Israel wants Syria to agree first to a "full peace" of open borders, diplomatic relations, unimpeded commerce and tourism.

The problem for both sides

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