Sunday, January 4, 2004

Having witnessed the demise of the Ba’athist dictator next door, Syrian President Bashar Assad clearly senses that he’s in trouble. Last spring, Secretary of State Colin Powell all but threatened military action against Mr. Assad’s regime if Syria was found to be harboring any of the 55 most wanted Iraqi war criminals sought by Washington. In October, after Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a terrorist group based in Syria, bombed a Haifa restaurant, killing 21 people, Israeli F-16s bombed a terrorist training camp near Damascus — the first Israeli airstrike on Syrian soil in 30 years. Recently, Mr. Assad received a reminder of his personal vulnerability when Israeli Air Force jets buzzed his palace. The Syrian strongman received yet another unwelcome message recently when Congress passed and President Bush signed into law legislation imposing comprehensive sanctions on Syria.

Mr. Assad’s reaction to all of this has been somewhatschizophrenic. In an interview published last month in the New York Times, Mr. Assad claimed that Syria was cooperating with the CIA in fighting terrorism. He said peace negotiations with Israel were 80 percent complete in 2000, right before he succeeded his father as ruler of Syria. (Those talks came to naught because Damascus demanded an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the entire Golan Heights and refused to discuss security guarantees with Israel.) Several weeks ago, Mr. Assad sent an envoy to meet with a senior Israeli diplomat in Paris, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently has indicated a willingness to hold high-level talks with Syria.

Should these talks take place, Mr. Sharon will press ahead with demands of his own — almost certainly with the strong support of the Bush administration. The Israeli leader will insist that Syria banish the terrorist group Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, and that it oust Iranian Revolutionary Guards who serve as a conduit between Iran and terrorist groups in Lebanon.

As yet, Mr. Assad has failed to demonstrate a willingness to end his support for terrorism. Four weeks ago, the Syrian air force raised its level of alert in preparation for an Israeli military strike after Israeli security forces foiled a plot by the PIJ to bomb a school. Had the bombing been successful, Israeli defense officials said, the military would have recommended that Mr. Sharon order another air strike against Syria. Just before Christmas, Israeli officials announced that they had broken up three major terrorist cells funded by Hamas operatives in Damascus. One of the cells planned to stage a road accident, ambush an Israeli military patrol that came upon the scene, and exchange the body parts of the soldiers for imprisoned terrorists.

Despite this disturbing picture, now could be a time where diplomacy may yield results with Syria.Over the past few years, Mr. Assad has watched as American power has brought down hostile dictatorships in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also witnessed Iran, thanks to intense pressure from Washington, opening its nuclear facilities to international inspectors, and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi vowing to end his weapons of mass destruction programs — in order to avoid meeting the same fate as Saddam Hussein.

The proper approach to this rapidly changing world order needs to be careful and judicious. It would be a mistake to dismiss out of hand the possibility that the rogue regime in Damascus wants to end its self-imposed isolation and could be prepared to negotiate seriously with Israel — or, for that matter, that it is prepared to give up its weapons of mass destruction programs, another U.S. goal. On the other hand, the fact that it is an election year does not mean that President Bush should be satisfied with anything less than solid agreements that bring about demonstrable changes in the behavior of rulers like Mr. Assad.

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