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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
July 17

HEADLINE: Unexpected News From Syria


Syrian President Bashar Assad's reported willingness to resume peace talks and also enter into negotiations over the return of missing Israelis is as surprising as it is unexpected.

After consistently denigrating Israel and US policies in the Middle East since taking over the reins of power following the death of his father, Assad now appears to be doing an about-face.

Some 1,000 Syrian troops, out of the estimated 20,000 remaining in Lebanon, were pulled out of positions in various parts of the country earlier this week, following highly public US criticism of what Washington described as Syria's "illegal presence almost as an occupying force" there.

Furthermore, Syria, which remains the controlling power in Lebanon, appears to have been successfully restraining Hizbullah from doing anything to heat up the northern border. Hizbullah has confined virtually all of its military activities in the past few months to the firing of anti-aircraft shells over the Galilee.

According to Prof. Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of the University of Haifa's National Security Studies Center, all these moves, coupled with Assad's reported comments, fit the analysis that the Syrian president is trying to adjust to the new rules of the game in the region.

"He appears to understand that the future of Middle East politics in the next few months is likely to involve negotiations and diplomatic momentum. Bashar would like Syria to be involved in this process and not become irrelevant or forgotten at a time when the map of the Middle East might be shaped anew," he said.

According to an article in Ma'ariv, Assad has expressed his willingness to resume direct talks with Israel and enter negotiations over a prisoner exchange in a recent meeting with UN Middle East envoy Terje Larsen.

Ben-Dor said Assad's reported comments, coinciding with similar messages emanating from Damascus recently, are "significant, bordering on the dramatic" in light of his attitude until now.

"This is an unpredictable move by Bashar, especially as he has not been known as a courageous or creative leader," he said. "He has, however, been in power for three years now and has learned a great deal and perhaps has overcome his earlier romantic notions of a protracted struggle against Israel as a solution to the problems of the Middle East."

Other observers said Assad's declarations could just be another ploy to buy time and appear to be paying lip service to the Americans rather than a sign of new-found maturity.

Ben-Dor agreed that the nature of the Syrian regime makes it extremely difficult to assess its real intentions.

"We don't know what the people around Bashar are thinking the security services, the military, and senior members of the Ba'ath Party," he said. "We don't know, for instance, how they interpret the lessons of the war in Iraq and whether they still view Hizbullah as a major strategic asset or if it has been downgraded.

"The Syrians are very cautious tacticians and they may be playing a sophisticated game. They have initiated the first moves rather than waiting for the US or Israel, although this is still a much more dynamic game than we have witnessed in the past."

Nevertheless, he maintained that Assad's reference to Israeli hostages and MIAs indicates he is aware that he will have to do something for Israel to get the process going.

Furthermore, Assad was aware that his comments would be reported in the international and regional arena and would be picked up by the Syrian public making it difficult for him to backtrack.

"It should also be noted that Syria considers itself as a major Arab power, and it could be that these latest moves are designed to test the waters in the region to see if they will mobilize diplomatic, political, and economic support," he said.

"The latter is particularly important to the regime in Damascus, given the extremely dire straits of the Syrian economy and the effect this has on the population."

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