Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 6   No. 1 Table of Contents
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January 2004 


Assad's Desperate Diplomacy
by Gary C. Gambill

Bashar Assad

Three months after the Bush administration withdrew its opposition to congressional sanctions on Syria and publicly endorsed a retaliatory Israeli air strike on a terrorist camp outside of Damascus, Bashar Assad has signaled a willingness to resume peace negotiations with Israel without preconditions for the first time in four years. However, the Syrian president's diplomatic initiative is too little, too late. In an unusual reversal of roles, American officials have counseled their Israeli counterparts to hold off on direct talks until Syria has taken decisive action to end its decades-long support for militant Palestinian terrorist groups.

Washington's lack of enthusiasm for a resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks marks a major shift in official thinking about Damascus. Getting Syria to sit down at the negotiating table with Israel was once the paramount goal of US policy - other objectives, such as ending its sponsorship of terrorist organizations and its occupation of Lebanon, were seen as secondary and more easily attainable once a final settlement of the Syrian-Israel dispute had been reached. Moreover, it was assumed that Assad (and his late father before him) was genuinely interested in a normalization of relations with the Jewish state in exchange for the return of territory in the Golan Heights seized by Israeli forces in 1967 and annexed fourteen years later. The Devil was said to be in the details - disagreement between the two sides over their future border demarcation boiled down to just a few hundred meters - not the dictator.

Even at the height of Syrian-US tensions during the war in Iraq, when the Bush administration publicly accused Damascus of funneling arms to Saddam Hussein's military, American confidence in Assad remained strangely unshaken. Significantly, the Syrian president was never publicly accused of approving the weapons transfers himself, or even of knowing about them. This reflected a widely held assumption in American foreign policy circles - that Assad is a well-meaning reformer checked at every turn by a powerful cabal of corrupt military and intelligence officials who constitute an independent sphere of authority. Interestingly, this assumption was shared not only by State Department apologists for Syria, who argued that constructive engagement would strengthen Assad's hand against this cabal, but also by many hawks in the administration, who argued that constructive engagement was pointless because the nefarious "Old Guard" was completely running the show in Damascus.

The notion of an all-powerful "Old Guard" contravening the young leader's authority has always been a gross simplification of Syria's complex power structure - Assad has demonstrated repeatedly that he has the power to sideline senior officials in the regime he inherited from his father. However, this assumption continued to inform American thinking because little available evidence directly contradicted Assad's habitual claims of ignorance regarding his regime's involvement in illicit activities ranging from terrorism to arms trafficking. Syria is by far the most politically opaque country in the world (outside observers have had a much easier time determining who makes decisions in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Fidel Castro's Cuba).

In recent months, however, mounting evidence compiled by US authorities in Iraq has shown that the Syrian dictator was directly involved in shipping arms to Saddam Hussein prior to the US-led invasion. Although American officials have been tight-lipped on the issue, in December the New York Times cited documents gleaned from computer hard drives and interviews with captured members of Saddam's inner circle as indicating that Iraqi officials met with representatives of North Korea on Syrian soil to negotiate the purchase of missile technology - meetings that would have been impossible without the knowledge of Syria's Foreign Ministry (North Korean tourists do not visit Syria).[1]

A recent report by Los Angeles Times reporters Los Bob Drogin and Jeffrey Fleishman, who obtained copies of documents seized at just one of the former Iraqi regime's military procurement companies, provided an even more revealing glimpse. Files from the Baghdad office of Al-Bashair Trading Company show that a Syrian company, SES International Corp., signed more than 50 contracts to supply arms and equipment worth tens of millions of dollars to Iraq's military prior to the war. The general manager of SES, Asef Isa Shaleesh, is a first cousin of Assad, and one of its major shareholders, Maj. Gen. Dhu Himma Shaleesh, is a relative of Assad who heads an elite presidential security corps. According to the report, the director-general of Al-Bashair, Munir A. Awad, fled to Syria during the war and is now living there "under government protection."[2]

US administrators in Iraq have also uncovered evidence that Assad allowed the Iraqis to move weapons of mass destruction (WMD) material to Syria prior to the war. "We are not talking about a large stockpile of weapons," said David Kay, who headed the Iraq Survey Group investigating Iraqi WMD until his resignation earlier this month. "But we know from some of the interrogations of former Iraqi officials that a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam's WMD programme. Precisely what went to Syria, and what has happened to it, is a major issue that needs to be resolved."[3]

The fact that Assad's own inner circle - not regime malcontents - was responsible for arming Saddam Hussein's military left even State Department officials, who typically take Assad at his word, fuming. One of the main reasons why US policy toward Syria has hardened so substantially in recent months is that the young dictator foolishly betrayed and discredited his staunchest defenders in Washington. In any event, there is no longer an overriding concern in Washington that getting tough with Syria will strengthen hard-line elements in the regime. Pressure on Syria may well undermine Assad's political stature, but this is because the vast majority of Syrians have little desire to see their country become permanently estranged from the United States - which has shown that it has both the military might and the political will to enforce its writ in the Arab world. Whatever differences may exist between Assad and the purported "Old Guard," they both have an interest in maintaining an amicable relationship with Washington.

Nevertheless, Assad evidently continues to believe that it is possible to repair Syrian-American relations without ending Syrian sponsorship of terrorist organizations. In hopes of winning back the support of State Department Arabists, he has appealed to their soft spot - the desire to broker Arab-Israeli peace.

The first sign of Assad's "softening" came on December 1, when he called for a resumption of negotiations with Israel in an interview with the New York Times. However, while claiming that Syria had no "conditions," he insisted that the talks "should be resumed from the point at which they had stopped" four years ago.[4] Thus, Assad's statement did not represent a change in Syria's position. Moreover, even as he offered to resume negotiations, Assad and other Syrian officials continued to deny that it is possible to make peace with Sharon in interviews with Arab media - a contradiction that reinforced Israeli suspicions about his offer.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quick to dismiss Assad's remarks as a publicity ploy and reiterated his long-standing demand that Syria halt its sponsorship of anti-Israeli terrorist organizations as a precondition for negotiations. In late December, Israel announced that it will spend about $90 million over the next three years expanding existing settlements in the Golan, a program expected to increase the number of Israelis living in the territory by one-fourth. A spokesman for Israeli Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, who heads the government's settlement committee, said that the plan was intended to be a "message" to Assad that "harboring terrorists" is costly.[5]

In early January, Assad began hinting that he was willing to negotiate without preconditions. According to the Israeli daily Maariv, the Syrian leader said in a message to Israel delivered by Turkish intermediaries that he might be willing to give up Syria's claim to the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.[6] Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who met with Assad earlier this month, was quoted in the Israeli press as saying that Assad had agreed to drop his demand that talks restart from the point at which they left off.[7] However, Assad remained unwilling to publicly state this position and Syrian officials have repeatedly denied that negotiations without preconditions are under consideration.

According to the daily Ha'aretz, senior American officials told the Israeli government that the United States is not willing to sponsor, and will not press for, a resumption of Syrian-Israeli talks. The paper said that the officials were skeptical about Assad's motives, arguing that he would have used diplomatic back channels if he had been serious, and questioned whether he is strong enough politically to sign a peace deal. According to Israeli government sources, the paper added, "the White House and the State Department appeared to agree on this matter."[8]

Nevertheless, Assad's overtures succeeded in sparking considerable debate within the Israeli government. While there is a widespread consensus that Assad's conciliatory gestures are primarily the result of his diplomatic isolation, not a reflection of a genuine willingness to make peace with Israel, there is considerable disagreement over what should be done to exploit Syrian weakness. According to one view, shared by Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Israeli negotiations with Syria would merely alleviate Assad's isolation at a time when Israel should be seeking to intensify it. "Why should we get in the Americans' way as they press Assad?" wrote commentator Nahum Barnea in Yediot Aharonot. "Let's see what the Americans can get out of him without us, and then go into negotiations."[9]

However, other figures in Sharon's government, such as Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have said that Israel should enter into negotiations without preconditions, arguing that Syria's position of weakness would make it more likely to make concessions. A third view, advanced by some Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and several high-ranking military officers, holds that negotiations with Syria will almost certainly fail, but that Israel should not be the one to decline talks.

On January 12, in an apparent effort to test Syrian intentions, President Moshe Katsav invited Assad to visit Jerusalem "to meet with the country's leaders and conduct serious negotiations if that is his wish."[10] However, Syria categorically rejected the offer, calling it a "trick to avoid serious peace talks." Egyptian diplomats reportedly sought to convince Assad to meet with Katsav in Jordan or a European country.[11] Qatar also urged Assad to accept the invitation and, failing that, offered to host a secret meeting between Israeli and Syrian officials in Doha. However, it appears that the Syrian president is not willing to entertain such ideas without advance assurances of Israeli concessions at the negotiating table.

Assad is unlikely to get such assurances. According to a recent poll, 56% of Israelis oppose returning the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace. Although this does not preclude future Israeli territorial concessions, it makes it highly unlikely that Israeli leaders will commit to withdrawing from the Golan absent concrete Syrian steps to end its sponsorship of terrorist groups that continue to kill and maim Israeli civilians.

Notes

  [1] "For the Iraqis, a Missile Deal That Went Sour; Files Tell of Talks With North Korea," The New York Times, 1 December 2003.
  [2] "Banned Arms Flowed Into Iraq Through Syrian Firm," The Los Angeles Times, 30 December 2003.
  [3] "Saddam's WMD hidden in Syria, says Iraq survey chief," The Telegraph (London), 25 January 2004.
  [4] "Key Passages From Interview With Syria's President," The New York Times, 1 December 2003.
  [5] "Israel Plans 25% Expansion Of Its Settlements on Golan," The New York Times, 1 January 2004.
  [6] "Analysis: Syria, Israel not moving closer," United Press International, 14 January 2004.
  [7] Ha'aretz, 13 January 2004.
  [8] "Report: Damascus asking U.S. to help renew talks with Israel," Ha'aretz (English edition), 11 January 2004.
  [9] Yediot Aharonot, 12 January 2004.
  [10] Associated Press, 12 January 2004.
  [11] Al-Siyasa (Kuwait), 16 January 2004.


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