- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2000

Though the recent meeting in Geneva between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad ended in abject failure, there are now indications that Mr. Clinton and perhaps also Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak who is visiting Washington this week may make another attempt to reach a deal with the Syrian dictator. They shouldn't.

The basic issues of Syrian-Israeli peace didn't change over the years, nor did Syria's intransigent positions on them be it security, water, the nature of a future, peaceful relationship between the two countries and most importantly on the territorial aspects, i.e., the location of the borders, and the future status of the Golan Heights which till 1967 had served as a "launching-pad" for incessant attacks on Israeli farmers in the valley below.

American diplomats, over the years, have been active in trying to forge an Israeli-Syrian agreement in spite of the obvious difficulties. These efforts intensified after the failure of the Shepherdstown conference in January. America's interest in establishing Israeli-Syrian peace, in addition to its commendable commitment to peace for its own sake, is to create a greater measure of pro-Western stability in the region as a whole, but whether this expectation, given the nature of the present Syrian regime, is based on solid ground, is questionable.

For its part, the Syrian regime sees a peace agreement with Israel as a way to enhance its own military prowess, not least against America's ally, Israel. Though it is difficult to imagine a responsible American administration, let alone Congress, granting military aid to Hafez Assad's Syria, money as James Baker used to say is fungible, and there are plenty of other arms-suppliers, Russia and France, to mention just two, who would be only too happy to sell Damascus whatever it wants for good old American dollars. None of America's well-intentioned efforts have worked so far though successive Israeli governments had given more than one indication of being ready for far-reaching compromise.

Peace with Syria is definitely in Israel's interest, and all Israeli governments have been willing to make important concessions, including extensive changes in the present delineation of the borders but there is no more reason to reward Syrian aggression against Israel than there was in the case of Iraq's aggression against Kuwait. To make matters worse, the Syrians, in demanding an Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 armistice line, covet not only the whole of the Golan, but also integral parts of Israel proper including the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee which they had seized by force in 1948-49 and held onto illegally till being driven out by Israel in the Six Day War.

Syria's attitude, to say the least, is puzzling. Objectively speaking, time has not worked in Syria's favor. Syria could probably have had an agreement with Israel during the Rabin-Peres governments, but then as now it couldn't make up its mind. In the 22 years since, to Syria's consternation, Egypt made peace with Israel. Things have not gone well for Damascus, Syria having become a failed and regressive country in most respects: 1) It no longer has the Soviet Union to lend it military or political clout. 2) It is technologically backward and its economy is in dire straits and were it not for the ill-gotten gains it derives from its control over Lebanon, it would even be worse

Syria's one important other source of revenue is oil and that, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy is going to run out within 5-10 years. All in all, Mr. Assad certainly isn't the world's blue-eyed boy and with good reason. Moreover, if 20 or even five years ago one could still argue that without Syria there could be no peace between Israel and other Arab or Muslim countries, the fact is that Israel has by now de facto and often de jure relations with many Arab and Muslim countries throughout the world.

The question, therefore, arises what possible motive is there for Mr. Assad's intransigent, and basically self-defeating, position? Maybe it is the hope that the Barak government in Israel will, after all, accept his unrealistic conditions? Or, is it that he believes that America could be persuaded to back Syria on the border issue?

In the past, there was Syria's leverage on Israel in connection with the terrorist activities of its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah but after Mr. Barak's militarily debatable, but politically astute, decision to withdraw, if need be, unilaterally, from Israel's security-zone in southern Lebanon in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 425, that leverage no longer exists.

Actually, Syria is now facing a new dilemma in addition to the one it already has, i.e., its military dictatorship being far from certain whether it can actually afford to make peace with Israel and still hold on to power while, on the other hand, given Syria's appalling economic situation being just as uncertain if it can afford not to make peace. But now the Syrian leadership also has to come to a decision whether to rein in the Hezbollah even without an agreement with Israel on the Golan or, conversely, to whip up terrorist attacks against Israel and risk Israeli reprisals of a magnitude and direction it hadn't experienced before. There is an additional factor: If the reports about Mr. Assad's declining health are correct, it would certainly be wiser for Israel and America to see how things in Syria unfold in the post-Assad era before making irretrievable decisions.

Taking all this into consideration, Israel has no real motive to rush into an agreement with Syria, certainly not on Syria's terms nor would there be a reason for the United States to urge Israel into that direction.

Zalman Shoval is former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

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