Just How Serious Are the Syrians? : Response to Clinton’s call could be a tip-off

Syria’s government-controlled media have resumed sniping at Israel, claiming that after his deal with the Palestinians Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin no longer has any great interest in reaching a settlement with President Hafez Assad’s regime. The claim appears for now to be more for domestic effect than a signal that the U.S.-sponsored talks between the two countries are in danger of collapsing. In fact, the probable basic conditions of an Israel-Syria deal have been clear for some time.

Syria wants above all else to regain sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured by Israeli troops in the 1967 war. Israel’s primary interest is in being secure from any further Syrian attacks from the Golan. Additionally, Israel seeks all the trappings of a full peace, meaning such things as trade and diplomatic relations.

How to square a return of the Golan to Syria with Israel’s bottom-line demand that northern Israel must never again be menaced from the heights? Most practically and feasibly, by demilitarizing the territory and stationing a small international force there to keep everyone honest. In other words, do what was done in the Sinai Peninsula when Egypt and Israel made peace in 1979.

To be sure, peace would create not just opportunities but some immediate problems for both countries. Israel almost certainly would have to uproot and relocate thousands of settlers it had previously encouraged to go live on the Golan Heights, a costly and politically difficult process. But far more challenging, if Syria makes peace with Israel it would be hard pressed to continue justifying the iron grip over the country maintained by Assad and the Baath Party--the constitutionally identified “leading party in the state and society.”


If peace removes Israel from the top of Syria’s enemies list, then much of the rationale for maintaining a huge and repressive internal security system and for spending so much on the military is instantly deflated. Would Assad and the elite of the military and intelligence agencies--an elite heavily based on the tiny Alawi religious sect--risk that?

President Clinton, for one, is proceeding on the expectation that Syria is serious about making peace with Israel. In a telephone conversation with Assad this week he again pledged his commitment to having the Israel-Syria talks succeed. Of more immediate interest, he asked Assad to support the Israel-PLO peace pact, among other things by restricting the activities of the anti-peace Palestinian groups that are headquartered in Damascus. How Assad responds on that point could be the tip-off about his own intentions when it comes to pursuing peace with Israel.