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Coming Soon From Syria: Peace With Israel : Mideast: Assad may seem reluctant, but without a deal with Rabin, he’d be isolated with nowhere else to turn.

The Israeli-Jordanian peace accord raises a critical question: Will it persuade the Syrian regime to be more flexible and reach a settlement with Israel?

The key to a Syria-Israel peace breakthrough lies in Washington. An effective U.S. approach toward Syrian-Israeli peace must focus on economic and political dimensions as much as on territorial concessions. Syria’s cooperation depends not only on Israel’s willingness to give up the Golan Heights, but also on a U.S. commitment to improve relations with Damascus.

Syria’s President Hafez Assad will not sign a peace agreement with Israel as long as Syria is subject to economic sanctions because the State Department lists it among the countries supporting terrorism. To Assad, the normalization of U.S.-Syrian relations, along with the recovery of the Golan--which Israel captured in 1967 when Assad was defense minister--is a prerequisite for a breakthrough in negotiations. As Assad put it, achieving peace “requires a qualitative move” in the relations between Washington and Damascus.

Like their Egyptian, Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian counterparts, the Syrian leaders hope to receive considerable economic aid directly from the United States and indirectly through multinational channels, as a reward for a bold move toward peace. To the Syrians, economic security is as important as strategic security. The Assad regime urgently needs Western aid since the demise of its superpower patron, the Soviet Union, and the drying up of migrant remittances and financial assistance from the oil-producing Gulf states. Hence the promise of U.S. financial rewards will reinforce the perceptions and beliefs of the Syrian ruling coalition that it must make peace with Israel.

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Apart from the need to reap the benefits of peace, Assad is not constrained by internal political considerations. Unlike PLO chairman Yasser Arafat or Jordan’s King Hussein, the Syrian leader does not face any credible domestic opposition to peace. The bloody 1982 suppression of Islamists in the city of Hama silenced Assad’s main opponents and consolidated his political authority. With the Palestinian and Jordanian breakthroughs, Syria is isolated; Assad can no longer pose as the representative of a united Arab front. Although he might give the impression that he is in no rush for an “incomplete” peace, he is fully aware of the new realities of Middle Eastern politics and his dwindling options.

By dragging his feet and sticking with his hard-bargaining strategy, Assad is playing hard to get, hoping to win further concessions from Israel and induce the United States to recognize the strategic role of Syria in regional security and stability.

But the Syrian leader cannot afford a return to the status quo that would pit him against a new alliance of Israel, Turkey, the United States and most of the Arab states. Assad is also conscious of the intricacies of Israeli domestic politics: Collapse of Syrian-Israeli peace talks would bring to power a far less accommodating Likud-led government; that prospect should give both Assad and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin an incentive to compromise. A number of developments suggest that the Syrian regime is moving slowly but steadily toward closing the final bloody chapter in Arab-Israeli hostilities:

* Assad has embraced the formula “full withdrawal for full peace.”

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* A Syrian official has confirmed that indirect contacts with Israel have been established.

* The Syrian government has undertaken a deliberate effort to prepare the public for peace.

* Assad has shown restraint and moderation by not opposing the Palestinian and Jordanian accords with Israel.

Although no breakthrough has yet occurred, the effort has produced significant progress: Assad and Rabin both now accept the basis for a settlement--territory for peace--and Rabin seems to be edging toward accepting Assad’s “full withdrawal for full peace” formula. Hence the deadlock in Syrian-Israeli peace talks is more tactical than strategic and will yield to U.S. intervention and tangible assistance to the socioeconomic and political development of the area .

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The Clinton Administration is clearly courting Assad, coaxing him to make a deal. The President has gone out of his way to reassure Assad that he is “personally committed to the objective of a comprehensive peace” and recognizes that “Syria is the key to the achievement” of this goal. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has been shuttling between Damascus and Jerusalem, committing the political weight and prestige of U.S. diplomacy to the attainment of a treaty between the two sides.

For all these reasons, a breakthrough in the Syrian-Israeli peace talks is imminent.


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