Assad Seems in Mood for Peace, Albright Says


The last time Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh met an Israeli prime minister, he brandished a half-century-old British “wanted” poster accusing the Israeli, Yitzhak Shamir, of murder.

Needless to say, that confrontation, at a 1991 peace conference in Madrid, did not lead to an Israeli-Syrian accord.

But next week, hopes for Middle East peace will be riding on talks between Shareh and another Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak. And the U.S. officials who will play host to the talks are optimistic that things may go better this time.


Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters Thursday on her flight home from Egypt, the last stop on a four-day Middle East tour, that Syrian President Hafez Assad appears genuinely interested in moving toward a deal with Israel, perhaps for the first time.

“In the past, Assad seemed to be satisfied with the status quo,” Albright said, pointing out that previously the Syrian president had recited a “mantra” of Syrian demands and made it clear that he wouldn’t settle for less.

“This time, I had the sense that he was impatient with the status quo and wanted to see things move,” she said.

Of course, an entire generation of U.S. Middle East experts has tried, with no particular success, to read the intentions of Assad, a wily autocrat who has made all of the important decisions in Syria for more than a quarter of a century. Only time will tell if Albright will prove more effective in judging his mood.

Nevertheless, there are some promising signs. The most obvious and perhaps the most important is that Assad has agreed to negotiate at an extremely high diplomatic level. By sending Shareh to meet Barak--with President Clinton and Albright looking on--Assad has raised the profile of the negotiations to a point where failure would be embarrassing.

The talks will begin in Washington next week and then move to a still-unidentified Middle East location. The talks, set into motion by the 1991 Madrid conference, will be the second round of face-to-face negotiations between Israel and Syria, which have been formally at war since Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.


Although Shareh far outranks the officials Syria sent to the earlier talks, at Maryland’s Wye Plantation in late 1995 and early 1996, Middle East experts say he too will have little latitude to engage in give-and-take bargaining. These experts say there is no question that Assad will continue to call the shots.

On Thursday, Albright stopped in Sharm el Sheik, the Egyptian Red Sea resort, for talks with President Hosni Mubarak and his foreign minister, Amr Moussa.

Although nothing has been said in public, Egypt is eager to play host to the Israeli-Syrian talks when they return to the Middle East. Egypt and Jordan are the most likely candidates because they are the only countries in the region that have diplomatic relations with both Israel and Syria.