- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2000

On March 26, President Clinton met with President Hafez Assad of Syria for the fifth time in Geneva and suffered his fifth setback in seven years of trying to lure the rigid Mr. Assad into making an honest peace with Israel.
Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Mr. Assad 23 times to no avail. Jane Perlez in the March 28 New York Times correctly reported that Mr. Assad was "immovable," and above all "appeared to have come to Geneva with the misconception that Mr. Clinton was in a position to give him what he wanted from Israel." The peripatetic dictator of Syria, the aging, rigid, Mr. Assad, has once again defied the American president. How many more times will the leader of the Free World, the only superpower, implore the anachronistic petty dictator of a minor and strategically insignificant country called Syria?
Mr. Assad is not satisfied with Israel's withdrawal from the Golan. He wants Syrian control of part of the Galilee shoreline and, to paraphrase Israeli diplomats, to wet his feet in the Sea of Galilee. This is chutzpah of the highest order.
Here is the military dictator responsible for the Syrian 1973 war against Israel, in which he lost the Golan territory, now wanting, without any prior negotiations, an Israeli commitment to withdraw from what is most significant to Israel, the waters of Lake Kinneret. This lake of Galilee is Israel's major water source. Under no condition, even with the most dovish and concessionist government in Israel, will Mr. Assad obtain access to Israel's precious water resources.
The question must be asked, what are Mr. Assad's purposes? He does not want peace with Israel. He wants peace with the United States and economic and military resuscitation of his aging military machine. Mr. Assad says he does not want a peace treaty in which he receives any less than Anwar Sadat did territorially. But he does not behave like Sadat, who went to Jerusalem in 1977 without any territorial precondition. In fact, Sadat was not even sure the Israelis were ready to withdraw from all of Sinai. His trip to Jerusalem was a psychological revolution in the minds of Israelis, who embraced President Sadat most affectionately.
In contrast, the dour, ruthless Mr. Assad, instead of endearing himself with Israelis, has enhanced his propaganda warfare against Israel after collapse of the Shepherdstown, W.Va., meeting, while comparing the Israelis to Nazis after Israel's retaliation against terrorist activities in Southern Lebanon that were encouraged by Mr. Assad. He prefers negotiation, if this is the case, mixed with threats, insults and bloodshed.
It is clear he is only interested in the process, and not in peace. Mr. Assad seeks to trap Israel. In the opinion of Israel's most important defense analyst, Ze'ev Schiff of Ha'aretz, Mr. Assad's tactics are linked to the referendum to be held in Israel on the agreement if there is one. In this way, Mr. Assad hopes to create a win-win situation. If Israel gives in to his territorial demands, the Syrians will get more territory than the Jordanians did in their agreement with Israel.
This would certainly guarantee Israel's rejection of the referendum. Mr. Schiff writes, "it is reasonable to ask whether that wasn't the Syrian intention from the outset," which would force Ehud Barak into a domestic crisis. Mr. Assad's obstinacy is hardly an argument for accommodation, concession and peaceful relationships. The Washington Times on March 29 reported Mr. Assad is seeking European Union intervention in the peace process. This is tantamount to saying he no longer considers President Clinton as a mediator. In fact, he is reported to have said Mr. Clinton is pro-Israeli. Then why did he invite the president to meet him in Geneva? Mr. Assad is more concerned with the security of his authoritarian regime. Peace could open Syria to American and Israeli E-commerce. The police state would melt down and with it his 30-year tyranny.
Mr. Assad does not care about the Golan territory as Sadat cared for Sinai. Clearly, Mr. Assad has no interest in peace with Israel.
Mr. Assad is more interested in dominating Lebanon than liberating the Golan. A peace with Israel, as the negotiations already demonstrate, will challenge and erode his dominance over Lebanon. The Lebanese press calls for the withdrawal of 35,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon simultaneously with an Israeli withdrawal from the south. In fact, an Arab summit in Beirut proclaimed the independence of Lebanon. Mr. Assad's Arab brethren will not tolerate his domination of Lebanon after Israel withdraws.
The argument by some pessimists in Israel and the United States is that an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in July promises instability, a Hezbollah-Israeli war that could lead to a confrontation with Syria, followed by another Israeli-Syrian war as Mr. Clinton's term comes to an end.
This domino theory has little foundation. An Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and the Golan, followed by a Hezbollah attack after the Israeli withdrawal, will leave Israel politically and internationally free to deal with Mr. Assad. Mr. Assad will be isolated in the Arab world, Europe and the United States, and this will free Israel to take the necessary military action in response to unprovoked action from Lebanese territory.
The United States and the E.U. would be in no position to condemn an Israeli response to such events. The scenario that the Hezbollah would attack the Galilee goes contrary to its own aspirations. Now a political force in Lebanon, it prefers to play politics in a free Lebanon rather than continue a war with Israel once Israel has withdrawn.
Some analysts have argued in recent months that peace between Israel and Syria could be achieved after Mr. Assad. A new generation of Syrians who seek to enter the global economy, who are no longer chained to Mr. Assad's anachronistic pan-Arabism, would be in a better position to negotiate with Israel. Why should President Clinton participate in legitimizing Mr. Assad's inflexible regime when it would be more profitable to remunerate the next generation of Syrians with American largess?


Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

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