As Secretary of State Warren Christopher turns his focus to negotiations between Israel and Syria, one enduring myth needs to be dispatched: the notion that while Syria's President Hafez Assad is a nasty man, he does keep his promises. No less an authority than the head of Israel Defense Forces' Intelligence Branch, Uri Sagi, recently asserted that "if and when he signs an agreement, [Mr. Assad] will keep his word." But the
Syrian dictator actually has a long and unpleasant record of breaking his solemn promises, a pattern of activity that Israeli diplomats would be wise to remember during the weeks ahead.
Mr. Assad gained his enviable reputation of trustworthiness by virtue of maintaining for 20 years his May 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement with Israel. In it, the two sides pledged they "will scrupulously observe the ceasefire on land, sea and air and will refrain from all military action against each other." Indeed, according to Ze'ev Schiff, the doyen of Israeli military correspondents, "Both sides have adhered to the Separation of Forces Agreement since it was first reached, and violations have been negligible."
But focusing only on the 1974 agreement ignores the many agreements Mr. Assad has broken with several governments, including those of Israel, Lebanon and turkey. It even ignores some serious breaches of that 1974 agreement. Let's look at the particulars of four cases.
The "red-line" understanding. The Syrian and Israeli authorities reached an unwritten understanding in April 1976 by which the Israelis acquiesced to Syrian forces entering Lebanon so long as they didn't cross several "red lines." Among other provisions, Mr. Assad agreed not to send more than a brigade into Lebanon, nor to use aircraft, nor to deploy surface-to-air missiles.
Damascus breached all three of these understandings. It ferried troops by helicopter and deployed surface-to-air missiles in the Zahle area of Lebanon in 1981, an act Israelis are acutely aware of. Writing in his private capacity, Itamar Rabinovich (currently, Israel's ambassador to the United States) termed these actions, respectively, an "infringement" and an "unequivocal violation" of the 1976 agreement. Nor were these merely technical issues; the Syrian missiles amounted to "a serious threat" against Israeli interests.
Worse, Mr. Assad violated the red line agreement by sending far more than one brigade into Lebanon; over the years, some 10 brigades have regularly been stationed there. In short, he sought not just to tip the balance of power in Lebanon but to control the whole country. Yair Evron of Tel Aviv University writes that Damascus thereby "overstepped" and "transgress[ed]" its 1976 understanding.
Ta'if Accord. To win Lebanese Christian support for a 1989 revision of the Lebanese government structure (the Ta'if Accord), Mr. Assad accepted a provision that
Syrian troops be redeployed from their positions in Beirut to the Bekaa Valley by September 1992. That date came and went; the troops remain in Beirut. (Indeed, if you arrive by plane in Beirut, you'll encounter them right in the airport.)
PKK camps. Already in 1992, Damascus told the Turkish authorities it had shut down installation of the PKK, an anti-Turkish group of Kurds. Prime Minister Suleyman
Demirel asserted at that time that the PKK's headquarters in Syria "no longer exists." In fact, it did then, and it does now, for Syrian authorities still host the PKK and allow it to base its terrorist operations in Syria and Lebanon. According to a Turkish press report in late 1993, "Syria does everything to meet the PKK's losses in terms of men, arms, and cash."
Golan disengagement. Even Mr. Assad's reputation for having fulfilled his 1974 agreement with Israel is not accurate. First, with reference to the areas evacuated by Israeli forces, Mr. Assad agreed that "Syrian civilians will return to this territory." thus assuring Jerusalem of his non-belligerent intentions. In fact, no civilians have moved into the area.
Second, the Syrians breached the demilitarized zone they agreed to maintain under the terms of the 1974 agreement. In 1992 they moved commandos into Qunaytra and heavy artillery elsewhere in the demilitarized zone. In the "thin-out" strip within 25 kilometers of the border, they illegally placed 21 surface-to-air missiles and eight missile launchers. But these violations received no attention, for Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin apparently decided (and this is the amazing part) to ignore reports about them by the United Nations observer force.
This 20-year pattern of behavior establishes two points. Typical of a despot, Mr. Assad keeps his word when he finds it convenient and breaks it when he does not; clearly, he is not to be trusted. And it shows that, like Britain when faced with Nazi violations of accords in the 1930s, the Israeli government does what democracies typically do. It avoids facing the evil bf a totalitarian opponent by trying to overlook his trespasses.
Of course, ignoring a problem won't make it go away. Israelis ought to face up to the fact that Mr. Assad is not just nasty, but also regularly breaks his promises.