All Writings
September 4, 2000

Syria’s Turn

On the surface, the Camp David summit between President Clinton, Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat failed to achieve its intended goal–a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The summit, however, has dramatically changed the political dynamic in the region, offering a new opportunity for an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement while considerably advancing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a final accord. In light of that, the summit was a significant success.

The fact that the most sensitive issues, particularly the final status of Jerusalem and a solution to the Palestinian refugees, have been placed on the table indicates how far the Israelis and Palestinians have come in their search for a permanent solution. Arafat's resistance to American pressure to compromise on east Jerusalem has achieved its main objective: it forced Barak to deviate from the Israeli position on Jerusalem (united, indivisible, the eternal capital of Israel), a move which was considered taboo only a few months ago. Barak's flexibility, though limited, has opened up new possibilities for the future status of Jerusalem. It has also persuaded leaders across the Arab world, especially in Saudi Arabia, that the final status of east Jerusalem is not cast in stone and that there must be some room for a mutual accommodation, a condition that did not exist before Camp David.

Both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, understand that the alternative to failed negotiations is more negotiations until an agreement is reached. In view of that, they have consented to resume negotiations, albeit at a lower level, while Syria seems to ready itself to resume talks with Israel. Although Syrian officials fully supported Arafat's demand for control over east Jerusalem, they would not hesitate to sting him for what they term "his betrayal" — when he signed the Oslo One Accord in 1993 while keeping the late President Hafez el-Asad in the dark. Syria's new President Bashar el-Asad seems anxious to resume negotiations, provided that Israel withdraws to the 4 June 1967 line, and would rejoice at pushing the Palestinian track to the back burner. Nevertheless, President Bashar will continue to be guided by his father's three-tire legacies while carefully gaging his public's pulse:


The peaceful transfer of power and the fact that Syria's military, the ruling Ba'ath Party and all other elements of government have coalesced around Asad's choice, demonstrate that the country has no stomach for instability and turmoil. Syria is in dire need of economic growth and social progress. The public looks up to Bashar now to fulfill the long held promise of peace and prosperity. For President Bashar's peace with Israel on Syrian terms will provide him the both the psychological and practical conditions from which to pursue his national agenda of social, political and economic reforms. The key phrase, however, is "Syrian terms," specifically in connection with the final borders.

Bashar knows that, before he can initiate any type of far reaching reforms, he must consolidate his power base. He is facing daunting domestic problems that make his task extremely difficult unless peace with Israel becomes a reality. Peace would remove the central issue that preoccupied his father and subordinated all other problems facing his nation, including the economy and the general welfare of the Syrian public.

While Bashar transition to power was well orchestrated, like his father before him, he must continue to rely on the Alawite sect which represents a little more than 10 percent of the Syrian population. The Alawite elite continue to control the military, the secret police and the Republican guards. The question is, how much longer will Syria's Sunni majority (more than 70 percent) tolerate limited representation in key military, government, and Ba'ath party posts when corruption and socio-economic hardship continue to unsettle the Syrian public? If Bashar proceeds with his forceful campaign to eradicate corruption among the Alawite elite, he risks shaking the very foundation on which his power rests. Yet, if he ends or even reduces his anti-corruption fight, he will risk further public alienation.

Although the late President Asad took important steps towards economic reform, allowing Syrian businessmen more flexibility in trading and in monetary policies, Bashar is keenly aware of the dismal economic picture of the country as a whole. In his inaugural speech, the new President spoke bluntly about the need for economic , political and social reforms as well as Syria's need to enter the Internet age.


His specific goals on these fronts will remain elusive as long as Israeli occupation of the Golan continues to occupy the national psyche, creating pressure to maintain a state of military readiness estimated to cost between 45 and 55 percent of Syria's budget. Although Bashar has made peace, like his father before him, a strategic choice, and a military option against Israel does not realistically exist, the military expenditure continues to sap the country's financial resources, which are badly needed for social and economic programs. In any event, considering Syria's financial limitations, it is impossible to pursue military buildup and economic reform simultaneously, as the late President Asad periodically contemplated.

The pressure on Syrian leadership to embrace peace has also been coming from other, unintended quarters. Since the death of Hafez el-Asad, the heads of other Arab states, notably Saudi-Arabia and Jordan, have been more forthcoming with Syria on the question of peace with Israel. For these states, unless Syria makes peace with Israel, the region remains subject to a turmoil that affects the economic outlook and future prosperity of the entire Middle East. On his recent visit to Damascus, Saudi-Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, with a promise of greater Saudi financial support, strongly urged President Bashar to focus on peace.

The late President Asad objected to Israel's unilateral decision to evacuate the Lebanese territory, fearing that he would lose an important lever to pressure Israel. However, the actual withdrawal improved the prospect of an agreement between Israel and Syria, and has considerably reduced the tension on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Even though Israel withdrew under pressure, it was Barak's decision to leave Lebanon, demonstrating that Israel has no territorial ambition there. President Bashar seems extremely keen on keeping the Israeli-Lebanese border peaceful and preventing Israeli provocation by a deliberate or inadvertent Hizballah attack. He dispatched Syrian intelligence officers, ostensibly to prevent Hizballah's retribution against the families of the Southern Lebanese Army who collaborated with Israel, but in reality, to monitor Hizballah and keep a lid on their activities along the border with Israel. The fact that Syria has accepted the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon as full offers further indication of Syria's intentions in this regard.


  Clinton - Barak
First, Ideologically, the late Asad championed the Arab cause. More than any other Arab leader, he fought with conviction to preserve Arab integrity and rights as he saw them. He was the foremost Arab nationalist and the last Arab leader to concede, and only grudgingly, to a peaceful resolution with Israel. He was fanatical about recovering every single inch of territory lost in the 1967 Six Day War and chose to be remembered as the leader who died resisting any territorial compromises rather than the leader who had forsaken even a small part of what he termed "the national matrimony" to make peace. Based on what is known of Bashar, he would preserve his father's public legacy in this respect, but he may deviate slightly depending on the changing dynamic of negotiations with Israel. Once the negotiations resume, an agreement can definitely be achieved — especially since, according to a Syrian source who was involved in the latest round of negotiations, nearly 90 percent of all issues have been resolved.

The second aspect of the last Asad's legacy was his personal integrity. He was a man of his word, who often went to great lengths to demonstrate his trustworthiness. He delivered what he promised and maintained the same position throughout his struggle with Israel. However ruthlessly he might have pursued his objectives, Asad was a man of principle. Historically, he adhered to all provisions in any agreement he made, notably the 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel and others. Those who know Bashar believe that he will be even more obsessive about his personal credibility than his father. Bashar understands that he is an unknown quantity and that much of his success in the diplomatic arena will depend on how he is perceived by both friends and foes. In any event, future agreements with Israel will not be based on trust, regardless of how trustworthy Bashar is and he knows that only too well.