JERUSALEM -- Time is catching up to two of the Middle East's most tenacious survivors.
Syrian President Hafez el Assad and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are both about 70. Neither is in good health. Each has a long-standing goal to fulfill before he passes from the scene.
Longtime regional rivals with good reason to distrust each other, they are locked in the same pursuit: getting land back from Israel. How one fares will inevitably affect the other.
Assad was air force commander and acting defense minister during the 1967 war when Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel in a humiliating 30-hour battle. Since grasping power in a coup three years later, Assad has kept the dream of reclaiming the strategic 400-square-mile plateau at the top of his agenda, perhaps second only to protecting his hold on power.
To have let three decades pass before entering high-level peace talks with Israel takes enormous patience, but Assad has raised waiting to a strategic art form. While a succession of high-level envoys left lengthy meetings in Damascus in frustration, Assad avoided acting until he had to and only when he thought he could get what he wanted.
Born in a village near the Mediterranean coast and a member of the minority Alawite ethnic group, Assad has had to use every ounce of his guile to stay on top in a fractious country with a Sunni Muslim majority.
The population is held in check by a powerful army and security apparatus dominated by fellow Alawites who don't flinch from occasional brutal acts of suppression.
After being the target for several years of threats to himself and his government from the Muslim Brotherhood, including a 1980 assassination attempt, Assad unleashed a bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood stronghold of Hama. An estimated 20,000 people died out of a population of 180,000 as sections of the city were reduced to rubble.
Syria continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners in jail, according to human-rights groups.
Sharing power with Sunni
While keeping loyal Alawites at the government's core, Assad has allowed other groups a share of economic and political power, including a prosperous merchant class. The bulk of the Cabinet and Parliament are Sunni.
Assad, who is 69, has used similar cunning to keep Syria playing a pivotal role in the region out of all proportion to its size. Even after losing a superpower sponsor with the collapse of the Soviet Union, he remained a leader of regional forces opposing peace with Israel.
Frozen out of good relations with Washington because of his Soviet ties and Syria's hostility toward Israel, Assad won President Ronald Reagan's appreciation in helping to secure the release of U.S. hostages held by Lebanese guerrillas.
The United States came courting again when President George Bush needed to mobilize Arab support to oust Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1990 and 1991. It suited Assad to go after his archrival Hussein, and when the war was over, the West did nothing to stop Syria from effectively taking over neighboring Lebanon.
It is with Israel, though, that Assad is most adroit, exploiting Syria's position as the only militarily powerful neighbor remaining in a formal state of war with the Jewish state.
Since the two nations' disengagement agreement after the 1973 October war, Syria has kept the peace along their shared border on the Golan Heights. But Assad found other ways of bringing military pressure.
Lebanon has been his main platform. Until it was ousted in 1982, Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization used the country as a base for attacks against Israel. More recently, Hezbollah guerrillas have waged a war of rockets against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon and occasionally threatened residents of northern Israel.
Terrorist groups have received sanctuary or help from Damascus over the years.
Assad's message has been consistent: If Israel wanted real security, it would have to give back the Golan Heights, not just part of it.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu negotiated with Assad last year through secret emissaries, but Assad cut off the channel after Netanyahu proved unable or unwilling to provide him with maps of proposed new borders.
Finally, the Israeli leadership and much of the public are prepared for a withdrawal from the Golan, although they might have to be content with a cold peace at first.
A slow thaw expected
"I think Assad feels assured he will not have to take Israeli tourists around the souks of Damascus. If there is a warm peace, it will come slowly," said Sir Roger Tomkys, British ambassador to Damascus from 1984 to 1986.
From two other standpoints, the timing is propitious for Assad: Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak, is publicly committed to nailing down a deal, and President Clinton is eager to shore up his legacy with a comprehensive Mideast peace.
Pressure is building on Assad, too. He had a serious health crisis in 1984, which regional intelligence sources think was a heart attack.