- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2000

After years of facilitating and sponsoring terrorism throughout the Middle East, obstructing the region's peace process at nearly every turn, imposing his brutal control on neighboring Lebanon, participating in the global drug trade and humiliating U.S. diplomats, Syria's President Hafez Assad has dispatched his foreign minister to the United States to negotiate a peace settlement with Israel. Mr. Assad, who has run Syria as a totalitarian dictatorship since he seized power 30 years ago and who has never hesitated to turn the tanks of the Syrian army on his own people is hardly motivated by altruistic concerns in his pursuit of peace as mortality confronts him.

Two incentives dominate Mr. Assad's approach to the peace table. To be sure, Mr. Assad desperately wants to regain the Golan Heights, the strategic high ground Israel captured during the 1967 six-day Mideast war. The other goal arguably even more important is the preservation of his totalitarian regime, which he clearly intends to bequeath to his son, Bashar.

Considering the nearly bankrupt socialist economy he oversees, which is among the Third World's most tightly controlled and worst performing, Mr. Assad knows that the needed reforms would immediately reduce his regime's economic grip and, even worse, eventually lessen the regime's political monopoly. Since Syria's bankrupt economy and his totalitarian rule have left the dictator with no other alternative, he has decided to sell the one asset he has: the prospect of peace with Israel.

A little-asked question is how big will be the financial price, measured in terms of foreign aid extracted from U.S. taxpayers, Mr. Assad will audaciously demand for signing a peace agreement with Israel. (Historically, U.S. aid has flowed to Arab regimes Egypt and Jordan, for example that have signed peace agreements with Israel.) Given President Clinton's desperate pursuit of a legacy as a Middle East peacemaker, it's also worth asking how much foreign aid he is willing to commit to Syria to purchase peace. And under what conditions will this aid be offered? After all, foreign aid is generally banned for nations, such as Syria, that are identified by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism. Considering the funding battle between the president and Congress that followed the Wye River peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which involved a mere $1.8 billion, Congress needs to ask these questions sooner rather than later.

By all indications, the cost of an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty will be staggering. Israel has already presented its initial request for $25 billion to relocate its military bases and the 17,000 Israeli settlers from the Golan Heights and to compensate militarily for the loss of the strategic territory. Meanwhile, Mr. Assad is menacingly rattling his tin cup, as if he had all the leverage in his negotiations with the United States. Yet, it is Syria's economy that is teetering. It is Syria's military that is overwhelmingly inferior to Israel's. It is his regime that requires a cash infusion. And it is his health that has deteriorated so much, jeopardizing a smooth transfer of power amid intra-family quarreling that has already involved bloodshed.

The reality is that Mr. Assad's regime, whose Soviet-supplied weaponry proved to be completely inferior to Israel's U.S.-equipped military in 1982, poses no lethal threat to Israel's existence today. In fact, the Syrian dictator needs the cash as desperately as Bill Clinton needs a peacemaker's legacy. Congress must let Mr. Clinton know that the Syrian dictator will not get a dime in aid unless he pays a substantial geopolitical price, including ending state terrorism, terminating assistance to Hezbollah, the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization operating in Lebanon, and abandoning the strategic relationships he has pursued with other rogue states, such as North Korea and Iran. It is, of course, highly unlikely that Mr. Assad would agree to such conditions. That makes it all the more important for Congress to plug its ears to the siren song of false peace-making.

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