- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

The presidents of the United States and Syria are scheduled to meet in Geneva on Sunday. I have some suggestions for Bill Clinton about how he could make the trip more useful for their countries and the Middle East.

Readers will remember my suggestions for a fascinating tour of Damascus when he journeyed there in 1994 to meet President Hafez al-Assad. I suggested a quick tour of Mr. Assad's finest suite of torture chambers, Saha al-T'dhib, only an hour from the capital.

Mr. Clinton could have seen the best apparatus in the Mideast: specially designed fingernail pullers, tools for the forced insertion of objects into the rectum, electric shock equipment, harnesses for hanging prisoners from the ceiling while beaten, chairs that bend backward to asphyxiate the prisoner or just crack his spine, plus some nasty stuff.

My thought was that he might take pictures and give them to family and friends as White House souvenirs. Or, he could give interviews that might persuade Mr. Assad to close a chamber or two. But he did not go to the chambers even though my details came from State Department reports. Ah, well, I can understand why he did not carry out my suggestions. Presidents are always busy, busy.

So, for Geneva, I suggest something that would take less of Mr. Clinton's time. The Syrian and American presidents enter the meeting chamber, shake hands, sit down, chat a moment or two and Mr. Clinton takes an envelope out of his jacket pocket. He hands it to Mr. Assad, who pulls out two papers, one in English, one in Arabic. Surprise, says Mr. Clinton.

They are notices that the United States is asking the international crimes court to indict the Syrian for murdering 15,000 countrymen in the city of Hama in 1982 because he did not like them. Mr. Clinton says the arrest warrant will be served in Damascus any day now. Bye until the Hague.

I suppose Mr. Clinton won't take that suggestion, either. Pity; it might help Americans understand that Mr. Assad, like all dictators, is a mass murderer, not just an ordinary torturer. His career kill total in his three decades in power is a good 50,000, 60,000. That does not include Israelis murdered by his terrorists and Syrian-supported Hezbollah, but I don't want to become part of Zionist propaganda.

Anyway, if the court tries to arrest Mr. Assad, picky critics would ask Mr. Clinton how about the presidents of China, Cuba, Iraq, so on. God knows how many each of them killed; He does, He does.

But so the trip should not be a loss, what the president will tell Mr. Assad is that he has listened to him and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barach for hours on the phone and now will tell them what their best interests are. That is how a VIP adviser of his described the presidential strategy.

I haven't heard such stirring here-boy colonialist talk since, in India, I dined in the British-only club in Poona.

He will instruct Syria it has to straighten up and allow the Israelis to return the Golan Heights, from which Syrian soldiers fired down at Israeli villagers, until the dunces lost it by attacking Israel in 1967. Syria must take it back, no nonsense; Israel insists.

Israel, eager to give away its trump card, which it should keep, just like a big boy, can't expect too much. Syria will recognize Israel's existence, thanks, but it but will not plug up its anti-Jew hate sewer. For protection against further Syrian duncery, Israel now is supposed to count on early warning systems. Yes, that is worrisome, since for 30 years every Israeli general said the Golan itself was essential to Israeli defenses. Then generals began getting elected Labor prime ministers and hunting for some kind of peace plus maybe a little less security. That would be their legacy. Suddenly the Golan didn't seem all that important to them.

If they make the deal, Syria gets off America's terrorist-nation list, which will open trade and loans with the United States, gets billions to develop its armed forces and Golan of course. Israel gets billions too and claps on the back to take to the bank. This idea is bruited: send American troops to protect the Golan from both of them.

But the next president might have other ideas, particularly on the troop business. Or Americans might not understand why they should pay to make Syria stronger, for getting the Golan back, and pay Israel for giving away what it says it does not need any more.

It is all puzzling except Mr. Assad's real slick fingernail pincers.



A.M. Rosenthal is the former executive editor of the New York Times.

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