Does Hafez Assad want a peace treaty with Israel? Just about everyone says yes - that the all-powerful president of Syria hopes to wind down hostilities with his lifelong enemy.
They offer different reasons for this change. Assad wants to jump-start the decrepit Syrian economy. He wants the return of the Golan Heights (which many Arabs still blame him for losing in 1967). He hopes to make himself acceptable to the West. He is taking care of unfinished business for his successor, perhaps worrying that that successor will not hold out for a good enough deal.
This last theory is especially popular at present, imbuing a sense of urgency to the talks with Israel. Former secretary of state James Baker said, after meeting with Assad in June that "a window of opportunity now" exists but warned that it might not last long.
Whatever Assad's precise reason might be, all these analyses assume that some years ago - 1988 according to Moshe Ma'oz, an Israeli scholar - Assad made a strategic decision for peace. At that time, he resolved to forgo war against Israel and bargain his way to a settlement. His subsequent military buildup serves mainly to position Syria for an acceptable deal.
It sounds good. But there's one problem: If Assad 10 or so years ago decided to wind down the conflict Israel, how come nothing has happened?
Negotiations began at the Madrid Conference in late 1991 and, it is fair to say, have gone just about nowhere until now. Hypothetical questions were discussed but nothing was fully resolved. Every time a breakthrough shimmered on the horizon, Assad took a step that derailed it.
Now, diplomacy takes time, lots of it. But the pace of these negotiations is more reminiscent of Waiting for Godot and the theater of the absurd than of a powerful state resolved to make a deal.
What explains the torpid pace? Proponents of the conventional wisdom have no reply. For example, in his book on this subject, Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's chief negotiator with the Syrians, repeatedly throws up his hands in incomprehension at Assad's actions.
There might be a simple answer: Change assumptions. If one figures that Assad does not really want a deal, things fall into place.
There is one major reason to think this is in fact Assad's outlook - his fear that the Syrian population sees a treaty with Israel as not some technical arrangement with a neighbor but as a signal that their government has changed its fundamental orientation. That they would view a treaty with Israel as the ending of totalitarian rule and much else - the military losing its paramount position, economic controls loosening, freedoms increasing, and political participation growing.
For Assad, who has ruled Syria with an iron fist for nearly three decades, such expectations must be alarming. He knows how to rule as a dictator, not as a leader accountable to his electorate.
At the same time, continuing to negotiate with Israel brings Assad one hugely important benefit. It permits him to escape being branded a "rogue" state by Washington. Unlike his colleagues in Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Sudan, he gets visited by American secretaries of state. While they suffer US economic sanctions and even the occasional military punch, he is seduced.
Assad's actions since 1991 have been entirely consistent with this interpretation: make cosmetic changes in Syria, negotiate unendingly with Israel, and hope to pass on a working package to his successor. Assad is playing at negotiations but has no intention to ever conclude a treaty with Israel.
This explains why hopeful diplomatic signs never pan out, why negotiations close down just when they seem most productive, and why changes of government in Israel makes almost no difference to the process.
This being the case, Baker has it exactly upside-down. Far from this being a moment when a fleeting "window of opportunity" exists, Assad's frail health could make him all the more reluctant to take risky steps.
For Israel, this skeptical interpretation has two direct policy implications. First, go slow - there is no rush. Current trends (especially a precipitous decline in Syria's economy and Assad's expected demise) mean that holding out will be rewarded.
Second, approach the negotiations with Assad more as a public relations exercise than as a serious forum for closing down the Arab-Israeli conflict. And wait for his successor to begin the talks in earnest.