Analysis: Assad's PR peace promise

His confirmation of Olmert's message is really not that hot of a news item.

assad 224.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
assad 224.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Some would call it ironic that on the very day the US Congress was hearing damning testimony about Damascus's nuclear collusion with North Korea, Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed Syrian press reports that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had declared a willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. Others would say this is less irony and more smart public relations on Assad's part, with the Syrian president trying to divert attention from the fallout expected to follow testimony about how close he has gotten to North Korea's dictator. For if Syria is indeed interested in gaining the favor of the West, that task is going to be made much more difficult by virtue of evidence presented to Congress on Thursday that Assad was chumming up with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Messages that a possible peace agreement with Israel is dangling out there just waiting to be plucked off the tree, Assad seems to be figuring, may be one way to control the damage. His confirmation of Olmert's message, moreover, is really not that hot of a news item, since three prime ministers - Yitzhak Rabin, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak - have made clear to the Syrians since 1993 that Israel would be willing to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for peace. Real "news" would be if the Syrian president had confirmed that in return he had passed on a message to Olmert that he was willing to end support for Hamas and close its offices in Damascus, stop backing Hizbullah and move Syria out of Iran's orbit. It is very doubtful that this is the message Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem brought to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday. In evaluating Syria's moves and intentions, it is important to note that Damascus is insisting on public - not secret - negotiations, with the US playing a full and active role in the process. Assad said so much in an interview published Thursday in Qatar's Al-Watan newspaper, saying direct negotiations needed a sponsor "and this can only be the United States." Israel, however, prefers more discreet talks, and the difference is not just over tactics. Syria wants the hullabaloo of the peace process more than the peace, hoping the process itself will help pave its way back into the good graces of the West. It wants credit for the process, even if nothing comes of it. Israel, for its part, is not interested in giving the Syrians a helping hand in gaining America's, or the West's, favor. While Olmert's alleged message to Assad lacked real drama, he has - over the past year - changed his view regarding engaging the Syrians. While in the past he said that Israel would not engage Syria until Damascus stopped supporting Hamas and Hizbullah and moved out of Iran's orbit, he has recently said that it would be worth engaging Assad in the hope that this itself would entice them to take those steps. This change of nuance is widely believed to have to do with the upcoming changes in the US administration. While President George W. Bush is adamantly opposed to engaging Syria, and Olmert last year did not want to go against Bush's policy on the matter, the current administration's days are numbered, and come January there may very well be a new administration that encourages such engagement. While some analysts say nothing is lost in testing Assad's intentions, others argue that even if he wanted to, Syria is so much an Iranian client - so heavily dependent on Teheran - that it would prove impossible for Assad to break away from Ahmadinejad. Furthermore, this could cause him great difficulties with a segment of his party's small ruling class, whom he depends on, which is believed to have become addicted to the Iranian connection and very much opposed to any split with Teheran.