Syrian Roulette

JERUSALEM: Parliamentary maneuvers in the Knesset and recent fighting in Lebanon put Syrian/Israeli peace talks in cold storage. Even Israeli’s unilateral pledge to pull its army out of south Lebanon this summer did not instantly rekindle them. But these ups and downs only indicate the difficulties involved. They also reflect the nature of the closed Syrian regime, which never underwent anything like a perestroika.

The most important new fact remains unchanged: after fifty years of enmity Syria has signaled its readiness to follow Egypt, Jordan and the PLO in seeking reconciliation with the Jewish state. So even the Lion of Damascus ("Assad" means lion in Arabic), it appears, is no longer willing to isolate himself from changes in the region.

Three causes push President Hafez al-Assad, ever so glacially, towards accepting the necessity of peace with Israel. First, disappearance of the Soviet bloc deprived Damascus of its Moscow-based strategic umbrella: if Syria finds itself at war with Israel and loses, as in the past, hundreds of tanks and aircraft, there will be no automatic resupply from Moscow. In short: Syria has no military option.

Secondly, Syria does not like feeling isolated – neither in the Arab world, nor on the international scene. With Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians at peace with Israel, the idea of being in the same category as Baghdad and Tripoli does not appeal to Assad. Moreover, all Arab regimes that made peace with Israel benefit from improved relations with the United States (i.e.: economic assistance), while Syria remains on the American list of terrorist states. Here again the disappearance of Soviet power brings our Syria’s vulnerability. When even Assad’s allies in Teheran talk about a "dialogue of civilizations" with the West, the chill felt in Damascus must be great.