Sharon Cool on Assad Peace Offer

Once upon a time, a Syrian president calling for peace talks would have been met by Israeli leaders rolling out the red carpet.

But Bashar Assad’s recent overtures toward Israel, first made in an interview with The New York Times, have failed to excite Israeli decision-makers.

The chief of Israel’s military intelligence branch, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash Ze’evi, says Assad is serious and should be put to the test, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon doubts the Syrian leader’s sincerity and questions whether giving up the strategic Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria is as much in Israel’s interest as it once was.

At the same time, right-wingers in Sharon’s Likud Party who fear the prime minister may be sucked into negotiations against his better judgment are doing what they can to prevent talks with the Syrians.

As Israeli leaders weigh the pros and cons of reopening negotiations with Damascus, Ze’evi and other generals make a strong case for taking up Assad on his offer to negotiate.

They say Israel should exploit favorable geopolitical conditions that may not recur to get a good deal from a weak and isolated Damascus: America is in Iraq, Iran is being cautious and there is a lot of international pressure on Syria, especially from the United States.

Together, the factors add up to a window of opportunity that shouldn’t be missed, the generals say.

If Assad is not serious about peace, they say, negotiations will soon expose his insincerity — so Israel has nothing to lose.

The generals also argue that if the Palestinians aren’t ready for peace moves and Sharon instead opts for "unilateral disengagement," negotiations with Syria could soften the expected international criticism.

But Sharon and most of his Cabinet have doubts about the wisdom of renewing a peace process with Syria. The prime minister doesn’t think Assad is serious about peace, and even if he were, the price — the return of the Golan — is too high.

In recent Cabinet meetings, Sharon has made plain his reservations. When Ze’evi reported that Assad was serious, Sharon asked him caustically whether the Syrian president is still backing the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Palestinian terrorists in Damascus. Ze’evi acknowledged that Assad was.

Sharon also told his ministers that he rejected Assad’s contention that "80 percent" of the disputed issues already had been already resolved in prior rounds of negotiations between Israel and Assad’s late father, Hafez Assad. Those talks foundered on Syria’s demand that it be allowed to retain land at the foothills of the Golan, which it conquered in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence but which Israel took back in the June 1967 Six-Day War.

If talks with Syria are renewed, Sharon said, they must begin from scratch.

Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, was even more blunt. He argued that since his secret negotiations in the late 1990s with Hafez Assad, the "world had changed," and Netanyahu’s offer to cede the Golan in return for peace — an offer later repeated by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — was no longer valid.

Netanyahu spelled out why: After the American war in Iraq, he said, Syria had become an insignificant and isolated backwater, on the verge of expulsion from the international community. Thus, Netanyahu said, there’s no reason to make a deal that entails major Israeli concessions.

The argument was similar to that of the generals — but the conclusion was reversed.

There are other reasons for the government’s lack of enthusiasm. Government officials claim that it would be difficult domestically for Israel to negotiate concessions simultaneously on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks. Advocates of a Syrian move counter that the Palestinian process is not currently going anywhere.

More importantly, Syria today has considerably less to offer than it did in the talks with Barak four years ago at Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

At the time, the thinking was that peace with Syria would bring peace with the entire Arab world. That made sense because Israel and the Palestinians were going through a quiet phase and looking ahead to final status negotiations of their own. The general mood was one of imminent accommodation.

Now that Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a violent struggle, however, there is no way Syria could presume to deliver the Arab world.

Moreover, peace with Syria in 2000 would have nullified the dreaded "eastern front" and the prospect of a major land war against both Syria and Iraq. Now that Iraq has been taken out of the equation, Syria is in no position to launch such an attack on its own.

That means that Sharon has less incentive to give up strategic assets for a peace agreement.

Such dilemmas, though, are still a way off, since Sharon suspects Assad’s statements are aimed primarily at improving his image in Washington — and Sharon doesn’t want to be duped into helping him.

Assad, the theory goes, has been shaken by the proximity of U.S. forces in Iraq and by the Syria Accountability Act that President Bush recently signed into law, which provides for more sanctions against Damascus if it continues to support terrorism.

Assad’s peace talk is meant simply to get Washington to ease up, Sharon believes.

That reading is, to a large extent, shared by the United States. In late December, U.S. State Department official David Satterfield told a senior official in Israel’s U.S. embassy that Washington believed Assad simply is trying to influence U.S. and international opinion. Satterfield said that if Assad were serious, he would have taken steps like clamping down on terrorist groups based in Damascus.

Still, Israel continues to explore the issue, and it has asked U.S. and European diplomats visiting Damascus to relay their impressions. A Likud legislator, Majallie Whbee, also is due to meet Assad soon.

Whbee, a Druse who has played the go-between with other Arab governments before, is close to Sharon, but Sharon denies that Whbee is an official emissary.

Nevertheless, Likud right-wingers are worried. Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz’s much publicized announcement of new projects and settlements on the Golan clearly was designed to nip in the bud any chance of talks with Syria.

Sharon insists that Katz’s announcement was not coordinated with the government and was inaccurate, and he says it gravely harmed Israel’s image abroad.

Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, insists that no new settlements will be built on the heights, which Israel annexed more than two decades ago, and that the budgets Katz mentioned are intended to develop tourism on the Golan, not to stifle possible negotiations.

So where do things stand? Sharon says he wants tangible indications from Assad that he really wants to make peace, such as a crackdown on Damascus-based terrorist groups and an end the arms flow from Iran through Damascus to Hezbollah.

If Assad meets those conditions, Sharon will be on the spot — forced to make a major strategic decision, one way or another.

Fearful Assad Places a Risky Bet on Saddam

Syrian President Bashar Assad has inherited much of his late
father’s parochial paranoia, Israeli analysts argue — but little of his astute
political judgment.

In the first Persian Gulf War, the wily Hafez Assad lined up
on the side of the U.S.-led coalition, the analysts note, while in the second,
Bashar Assad seems to be doing all he can to bait the U.S. superpower.

It could end up costing him dearly.

Judging from his public statements, Assad seems convinced
that the Bush administration will not stop at Iraq, and that after a U.S.
victory in Baghdad, he could be next on the regime-change agenda.

Therefore, when Assad vilifies the United States and openly
aids the Iraqi war effort, he believes he is fighting for his life. In late
March, buoyed by what he saw as initial Iraqi success in resisting the U.S.-led
invasion, Assad explained the basis of his thinking in a fierce diatribe
against Israel and the United States.

The war in Iraq, he told the Lebanese newspaper, As-Safir,
was an Israeli-American conspiracy “designed to redraw the political map of the
Middle East.” In Assad’s view, the United States would take Iraq’s oil, and
Israel would become the dominant regional power.

“After Iraq, it will be the turn of other Arab countries,
and I don’t rule out the possibility of an American attempt to attack Syria,
inspired by Israel,” he declared.

When Assad took power in the summer of 2000, analysts
pointed to his Western education — he studied opthamology in England — as a
sign that he would be more modern and liberal than his authoritarian father. He
would open up Syria’s economic and political system, they predicted, and would
recognize the benefit of peace with Israel.

But such optimists have been sorely disappointed. An initial
political opening has been stifled, and the younger Assad seems even less
inclined to contemplate peace with the Jewish State than was his father, who at
least entertained negotiations.

Analysts speculate that that’s because Hafez Assad had
firsthand experience of Israel’s military might from the 1967 and 1973 wars,
while his son’s formative experiences — such as Israel’s response to the first
intifada in the early 1990s and its flight from southern Lebanon in 2000 — have
been of an Israel unwilling to risk its prosperity in military confrontations
and willing to retreat in the face even of light casualties.

Assad clearly sees the U.S. war against Iraq and the
Arab-Israeli conflict as part of the same apocalyptic struggle: It is, in his
view, a zero-sum game that will benefit either Syria or Israel.

As long as Israel exists, he said in the As-Safir interview,
Syria is under threat. He would never be able to trust Israel, he added,
“because it was treacherous by nature.”

But there’s more: Since “Israel controlled the United States
through its Jewish lobby,” Assad presumably can’t trust the United States

Given this worldview, it’s not surprising that Assad has
decided to gamble on Saddam Hussein. In helping the Iraqi war effort, he
apparently is hoping that the Americans will be stopped in their tracks and
will never reach Baghdad, let alone Damascus.

So Assad has kept Syria’s border with Iraq open, making
Syria the only country to allow volunteers and war materiel through to help

By late March, thousands of Arab — mainly Syrian —
volunteers were streaming across the open border to the Mosul and Kirkuk regions
of northern Iraq. Syria also sent some military equipment — night-vision
goggles, according to the Pentagon — to the Iraqi forces. Before that, in the
run-up to war, Syria reportedly purchased tank engines and aircraft for Iraq in
Eastern Europe.

Moreover, Assad is thought to be hiding illegal Iraqi
weapons that were spirited across the border to Syria before the fighting
erupted. In testimony to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in
late March, Yossi Kupferwasser, the intelligence research chief of the Israel
Defense Forces, claimed that Saddam may have transferred Scud missiles and
biological and chemical weapons to Syria before the outbreak of war.

In late March, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
warned the Syrians that the United States would not tolerate much more. He
called the Syrian shipment of night-vision goggles a “hostile act,” for which
the United States would hold Damascus accountable.

A few days later, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell
indicated that Syria would have to make a “critical choice” about whose side it
is on.

“Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and
the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more
hopeful course,” Powell told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on
March 30. “Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices and for
the consequences.”

Syria is not only proving to be Iraq’s closest supporter in
the war, it is also on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist states
and, according to Israeli intelligence sources, has by far the biggest
stockpile of chemical weapons of any Middle Eastern country. It produces
chemical warheads, as well as the Scud missiles to deliver them.

The terrorist organizations Syria hosts claim to have sent
hundreds of suicide bombers to Iraq to attack U.S. troops. Ramadan Shalah, the
Damascus-based commander of Islamic Jihad — which claimed responsibility for
the March 30 suicide bombing in Netanya — declared that the bombing was his
organization’s “gift to the Iraqi people” and that hundreds of his followers
were already in Iraq to fight “the murderer Bush.”

“This excessive self-confidence could not exist without the
approval of the Jihad’s landlord, the Syrian regime,” as one Israeli analyst

By far the biggest and most potent terrorist organization
Syria backs is the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah, which has an estimated 10,000
Katyusha rockets trained on targets in Israel and which has a proven
operational capacity all over the world.

Some U.S. defense analysts see Hezbollah as the foremost
terrorist organization in the world, more dangerous even than Al Qaeda.

To deal with Syria after the war in Iraq, one idea the Bush
administration apparently is contemplating is a U.S.-imposed land, sea and air
blockade of Syria until it dismantles its weapons of mass destruction, expels
terrorist organizations from Damascus and disarms Hezbollah.

Assad seems to be hoping that a U.S. imbroglio in Iraq will
save his regime, but he also has taken out some insurance against a United
States that emerges from the war as the undisputed power broker in the Middle

So far, Syria has helped keep Hezbollah in check during the
war and has relayed information to U.S. intelligence on the whereabouts of some
Al Qaeda operatives.

Assad could go further in search of U.S. approval by
introducing a degree of democratization. But he seems to fear that step as
opening a Pandora’s box that he can’t control, Israeli analysts say.

Assad’s Alawite sect, which rules Syria, constitutes only
about 13 percent of the country’s population. Exposing Syrian society to the
winds of change, he fears, might end up sweeping away his regime.

Assad’s father had similar fears. In his day, Syrian
dissidents compared Hafez Assad’s regime to Romania under Nicolae Ceaucescu,
dubbing him “Assadescu.”

Between U.S. wrath and the risk of liberalization in Syria,
Bashar Assad seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Â

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.