- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

NICOSIA, Cyprus Syrian President Hafez Assad, described by Arab diplomats as "completely disappointed" after his weekend summit with President Clinton, is looking to the European Union to play a greater role in the Middle East.

The Geneva meeting, Arab diplomats said, was "a total failure." Some quoted senior Syrian officials as saying the American president "was a prisoner of the Israeli lobby and the summit confirmed it."

Mr. Assad, called by his followers "the lion of Damascus," reportedly told aides that Mr. Clinton was incapable of viewing the Arab-Israeli problem objectively.

"If Europe steps in there will be real prospects of a partnership with Syria," wrote the Damascus daily newspaper Tishrin.

There were no immediate reports of any concrete Syrian proposals to the European Union after Sunday's summit, at which Mr. Assad refused to compromise on his demand for unconditional and total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Mr. Clinton's failure to revive Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations prompted war talk in Syrian and Israeli media yesterday as Israeli bombers pounded Lebanon for a second consecutive day.

Syria's official press accused Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak of deliberately blocking a resumption of peace talks and warned of a return to violence.

"[Mr. Barak] bears responsibility for the absence of peace opportunities and opening the region to dangerous possibilities, primarily the return to tension and escalation and re-entering the cycle of blood and bitter conflict for long decades," the al-Baath newspaper said.

In southern Lebanon, Israeli warplanes attacked targets associated with Syrian-backed guerrillas on the edge of Mansouri, a village southeast of Tyre.

In Washington, Mr. Clinton met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a close U.S. partner in Middle East peacemaking. Mr. Mubarak told reporters it would be wrong to regard the Geneva summit as a failure, even if there was no progress, because the United States was still working for peace.

Before the summit, diplomats claimed that differences between Israel and Syria were "relatively minor." But the meeting confirmed that the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 war, remained the main obstacle to a resumption of peace talks between the two rivals. Most Arab capitals appear convinced that the European Union at this stage is incapable of stepping into the minefield of Middle Eastern politics or of replacing the peacemaking role of the United States.

Nonetheless, for some time Syria has been making vague overtures to several European countries, including France and Italy, feeling that the United States is too committed to Israel to play an impartial role.

But according to European diplomats, Mr. Assad has no long-term strategy in his conflict with Israel except for reiterating his Golan Heights demand in a "no peace, no war" atmosphere.

Although some European capitals felt that the poor state of Syria's economy would induce Mr. Assad toward some form of compromise, such hopes now appear futile. Mr. Assad, according to one European diplomat, believes that he has created "a strong, independent and confident Syria."

And those familiar with the Syrian leader feel that a far-reaching compromise would damage that image of his country.

Diplomats point out that after years of depending on the Soviet Union and to some extent emulating its model, Mr. Assad is now at a loss. One report described him as "shattered" by Russia's current economic shambles.

That, they say, explains Syria's search for new allies, and the choice is Europe rather than the United States, which still describes Syria as a country that supports terrorism.

Of considerable importance in the Geneva summit's aftermath is Syrian insistence that Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister, gave pledges in 1993 and 1994 for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. They claim the pledge was repeated by his successor, Shimon Peres.

Patrick Seale, Mr. Assad's leading Western biographer, claimed last year that the pledge was so secret that Mr. Rabin had not informed his key ministers.

The Israelis formally deny any commitment on the territory but concede that it might have been "exploratory."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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