A New Status for Syria
When President Clinton meets with President Hafez Assad in Geneva mid-January, he should use the occasion to announce the removal of Syria from the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
Why? Because the State Department hasn't provided any evidence, at least since 1989, that the Syrian regime has played a direct or indirect role in any terrorist activity.
This change of policy should not be construed as a reward for Assad or an appeasement for Syria; it should only reflect the changing role that Syria has and must now continue to play in the pursuit of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
This will be the first time the two presidents meet. The Israeli and Syrian delegates will also meet in Washington in February to resume their talks, which Syria suspended in early September in the wake of the Israel-PLO agreement.
Were Clinton to make an announcement at this particular time, it would have a tremendously positive effect on the peace process, which needs a dramatic boost to restore public confidence and help produce important Israeli and Syrian concessions.
There is a paradox: The US is trying to woo Syria into supporting the Israel-PLO agreement and advancing its peace negotiations with Israel, but at the same time, it has been treating the Syrian government like a pariah. It no longer makes any political sense to maintain this demeaning status, expecting Syria to behave as if there were no connection between its international standing and the peace negotiations.
True, Syria offers refuge to many extremist terrorist organizations that oppose the Israel-PLO agreement. The question, however, isn't whether these groups exist in Syria, but whether the government of Syria is engaged in state terrorism.
It has been argued that Assad could, at will, expel these groups to other countries like Iraq, Libya and the Sudan. But wouldn't the US prefer that they remain in Syria on a very short leash rather than operate freely from different countries with which the US has virtually no relations?
Israeli officials insist it would be premature to remove Syria's name from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism as long as Assad refuses to endorse the Israeli-PLO agreement. Assad's refusal, they argue, encourages the opposition of these terrorist groups.
But Assad justly feels deceived by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who deliberately lied about his secret negotiations with Israel when the two met in Damascus in April with other Arab foreign ministers to "coordinate" their negotiating strategy with Israel. Since the signing of the Israel-PLO agreement, Assad could have "unleashed" these terrorist groups to torpedo it, but he hasn't.
Assad certainly understands that these factions constitute a political liability. But this must be weighed against his overall strategy in the peace process and his standing as leader of Syria's diverse constituencies, including 400,000 Palestinians, and often contradictory interests.
It is this position that would give Assad the leverage to pressure or persuade these groups to change course once they become a real hindrance to his concept of a comprehensive peace.
Continuing to list Syria as a state that sponsors terrorism lost what was left of its political luster once the US recognized the PLO.
The irony is that many of the extremist factions which have found harbor in Syria, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the PFLP-General Command, belong to the PLO umbrella organization and have permanent representation at the Palestine National Council.
Syria is still best equipped and most adept politically to contain the movements of these groups. And having given them sanctuary, Syria must assume responsibility for their future behavior. It would be in Syria's best interests to live up to American expectations in this respect once it has normalized its relations with the US.
For Syria's sagging economy, removal from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism means more than international political rehabilitation.
It would translate into Syrian eligibility for American investments, loans and loan guarantees at lower interest rates, and allow for the transfer of advanced technologies and direct American aid. It would also encourage the European community to have direct and open financial dealings with Syria, which could mean an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars into the Syrian economy.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara said Syria views peace with Israel as a strategic asset; this significant shift of attitude warrants consideration.
This would be the time for President Clinton to remove the sensitive issue of the listing from the equation, thereby infusing new vitality into the Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
In return, Assad would be expected to show not only more flexibility in his bilateral negotiations with Israel, but to declare open support for the Israel-PLO agreement. Such a gesture would go a long way toward a comprehensive peace.