Those in the know seem to think that this round of Syrian-Israeli negotiations will lead to the big breakthrough. Prime Minister Ehud Barak predicts an agreement within "a matter of months" and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara speaks of a possible

Those in the know seem to think that this round of Syrian-Israeli negotiations will lead to the big breakthrough. Prime Minister Ehud Barak predicts an agreement within "a matter of months" and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara speaks of a possible deal within "a few months."

Well, maybe. This sort of exuberance has been around since the start of Syrian-Israeli negotiations in 1991. In August 1994, for example, Israeli officials indicated that the essentials of an accord had been reached and that they expected it to be signed in well under a year.

In December 1995, prime minister Shimon Peres predicted an agreement with Syria, adding, "I have no doubt except over the timetable."

In December 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu asserted, "I have no doubt that we will succeed in reaching a peace accord with Syria during our present term in office."

This long record of mistaken expectations should give pause.

Further, the frosty demeanor and tough words of Syria's foreign minister at the White House last week again point to his regime's extreme reluctance to deal with Israelis, much less to reach an agreement with them. His boss, Hafez Assad, agreed to these talks because he is courting Western public opinion, not to reach closure with Israel.

Time and again, he has manufactured a pretext to stay away from the table or stall the negotiations. I think he fears an agreement with Israel would signal to the Syrian population an opening to the West and an end to totalitarian rule.

Whatever his reason, the recurrent pattern of avoiding progress leads me to predict that Damascus will again concoct a reason to abort this round of negotiations.

Should that happen, Israelis need not despair. In fact, they may be better off for it. Syria's economy has fallen apart in ways that echo what's been taking place in Iraq. In both countries, a totalitarian ruler sacrifices the welfare of his people to ensure that he stays in power.

As Steven Plaut recently showed in the Middle East Quarterly, the proportion of Syrian babies born in a health facility is only 37 percent, one of the lowest rates in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa. Syria has fewer tractors per capita than Cuba. At last count, there were 5,000 fax machines in the whole country. The college library system of Syria contains as many volumes as a good-sized bookstore in the West.

Because this economic collapse translates into military weakness, one has to wonder why Israel is so keen on a deal with a regime whose base has eroded so significantly. As Plaut suggests, "a rush by Israel to reach agreement with [Assad] makes about as much sense as the United States rushing in 1989 to reach agreements the Soviet Union."

Why not sit back and wait for an even more weakened Syria? Maybe even a post-Assad regime?

There's another parallel with Iraq: Like Saddam Hussein, Assad has a long history of signing international agreements when these are useful to him, then ignoring them when they no longer serve his purposes.

Three times he promised to remove his troops from Lebanon, in 1976, 1982, and 1989; but 35,000 of them remain. Eighteen times he promised to end the terrorism by the Kurdish group PKK against Turkey, but each time broke his word.

So, too, with Israel, most notably concerning the 1974 Separation of Forces agreement. Assad promised Jerusalem that "Syrian civilians will return" to territory evacuated by Israeli forces, but they never did; only soldiers are there. He allowed terrorist operations in the early years of the agreement. In 1992, he moved commandos and heavy artillery into the demilitarized zone.

Why should anyone believe that Assad, any more than Saddam, will keep his word? A piece of paper from Assad is worth little - and it's especially inopportune at this time of economic decline, his ill-health, and the succession struggle now under way in Syria.

What's Israel's alternative to a piece of paper? Emulating Turkey.

Just over a year ago, the Turkish government and people, in an act of solidarity, demanded that Assad expel PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan from his territory. Turkish politicians lobbed thinly veiled warnings to Damascus and the media bristled with talk of military action.

And Assad capitulated. This episode suggests that if Israel also wants to get its way (say, an end to Hizbullah attacks from Lebanon), it should threaten rather than cajole. Like bullies everywhere, Assad understands one language only - that of force.