Assad's charm offensive

Is Assad's talk of peace with Israel merely a way to end his isolation?

assad 63 (photo credit:)
assad 63
(photo credit: )
Something is afoot in Syria, though to judge its significance is a matter of no small complexity. Yesterday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Damascus on the first visit by a Western leader to Syria since the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. He is joined there today by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa for a summit meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Sarkozy's visit comes on the heels of Damascus's declared intention to open an embassy in Beirut for the first time, thereby recognizing Lebanon as something other than Greater Syria. The summit also comes after news that another round of indirect talks between Israel and Syria is set to begin on Sunday. In an interview on Tuesday with France-3 television, meanwhile, Assad declared that the indirect negotiations with Israel have brought "the possibility of peace," although the two countries still have quite a way to go toward that goal. "Today, we can only say that we have opened the door to peace," he said. IT IS IN Israel's long-term interest to have a peace treaty with Syria - but not at any price. The extent of any withdrawal must parallel the depth of the peace offered. Yet we can't help but ponder why Assad's rhetoric veers so unsteadily between belligerence and conciliation. Israel must be clear-eyed, first of all, on the nature of the Syrian regime, which happens to be engaged in brisk military build-up and procurement. According to Military Intelligence's head of research, Brig.- Gen. Yossi Baidatz, as of June 2007, Syria was "accelerating military acquisition." In late 2006, the US State Department's assistant secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, John C. Rood, testified that Syria was engaged in research and development for an offensive biological warfare program. Damascus is also a long-standing state sponsor of terrorism, hosting Hamas and other extremist Palestinian organizations. It has not only shipped Iranian weapons to Hizbullah but also supplied it with Russian-made military equipment such as the Kornet anti-tank missile and its own 220mm anti-personnel rockets. Syria has also played a key role as the source of foreign fighters and insurgents infiltrating Iraq. Although a Kuwaiti newspaper reported this week that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal had left Damascus for Sudan because of Syria's interest in moving along the diplomatic talks with Israel, Jerusalem officials have challenged the claim. If Assad is making conciliatory sounds now, therefore, perhaps it's not because he has abandoned a belligerent posture, but because it serves his interests and deflects pressure. This, indeed, is a long-established pattern. In 2004, after the UN passed Security Council Resolution 1559 calling for Syrian departure from Lebanon, the Damascus leadership mentioned the possibility of negotiations with Israel. The next year, just after the Hariri assassination, as the US and France, among others, severed diplomatic ties with Damascus, Assad once again brought up peace with Israel. Now Assad is once more under intense pressure. Some of it is economic, stemming from a growing fiscal deficit, rising food prices and the ongoing depletion of oil reserves. In April, budgetary problems forced the country to end its traditional gasoline subsidies. Some of the pressure on Assad comes from human rights groups appalled by the increased repression in Syria. Twelve activists, including Riad Seif, a former member of parliament, are currently on trial for attending a meeting of opposition groups last December. An independent press remains nonexistent. Most significant of all, however, are the increased political pressures on Syria's Alawite ruling clique. After suffering the great embarrassments of Israel's bombing of an alleged North Korean-supplied nuclear facility in September 2007 and the assassination - five months later, and still unexplained - in Damascus of Hizbullah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh, Assad's regime now fears the international tribunal tasked with prosecuting Hariri's murderers. Could it be that Assad is once again dangling the possibility of peace with Israel as a way to renew contacts with Washington and Paris and end his international isolation? Then again, he may be sincere. If so, he should come to Jerusalem, or invite our premier to Damascus, and lay out his peace vision.