Air Force One to Damascus

October 27, 1994

Syria is a tougher nut to crack than Jordan. President Hafez el Assad may need to prove that, but President Clinton never doubted it. Hence the White House efforts to lower expectations for the Clinton visit to Damascus today.

Nonetheless, coming from meetings with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein, the American president brings prestige and power to bear on the Syrian dictator to make peace with Israel.

Unlike the PLO and Jordan, Mr. Assad was always going to involve the United States if he was going to make peace. All sides have understood that. He wants to get something out of it, as King Hussein got U.S. debt forgiveness, a closed book on 1990 support for Iraq, and the prospect of lucrative joint Israeli-Jordanian ventures.

What Mr. Assad, an unloved dictator from a minority sect, really wants is security for his regime. His powerful influence over Lebanon furthering the dream of a Greater Syria and his insistent demands for return of all the Golan Heights from Israel are expressions of Syrian patriotism meant to shore up his domestic position.

The United States cannot guarantee Mr. Assad anything along that line. What it can do is confer respectability and economic benefits. Its real strength is the end of the Soviet empire. Mr. Assad has nowhere else to go. Except for his intermittent alliance with Iran, he is out there alone.

Mr. Assad knows that the United States requires him to end support of terrorism that included Hezbollah mortars raining on Israel from Lebanon while the Israel-Jordan treaty was being signed. He knows that Israel requires a complete peace with diplomatic recognition, open borders, tourism and trade. He wants to obtain the most possible for these concessions. But the question remains whether he is prepared to go the whole way. That he must signify, and should during this first visit by an American president in 20 years.

President Clinton, for his part, is the domestic affairs president who has suddenly put foreign policy on the front burner. Because he is persona non grata in the campaigns of some Democratic lawmakers he wants to help win re-election, his three-day trip to the Middle East, going from Syria to Israel today and touching Kuwait and Saudi Arabia tomorrow is convenient politically. He is reasserting American leadership in the Middle East and asserting his own deep involvement. So far, he has brought it off extremely well. It's not as though no American voters will notice.

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