Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 1   No. 10

October 1999 


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Assad's Minimal Requirements for Peace with Israel

Syrian President Hafez Assad

Hafez Assad
The conventional wisdom in policy-making circles has long been that Syrian President Hafez Assad's minimal requirement for peace with Israel is the reclamation of the Golan Heights--a salient feature of his public diplomacy for 25 years. It appears that Israel is now willing to concede the Golan under certain specific conditions (primarily access to water resources, the establishment of early-warning stations, and demilitarization of a "strategic depth zone" along the border). The operational, planning, intelligence and logistics departments of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have already begun planning for a withdrawal.1

The return of the Golan Heights is his price for sitting at the negotiating table with the Israelis--but it is highly unlikely that he will sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state on the basis of that single concession. For Assad, control over the Golan is a requisite, but not sufficient, condition for peace with Israel. What, then, are Assad's other requisite conditions?

Control over Lebanon

A key advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Osama al-Baz, recently said that Assad is extremely worried about the possibility that Israel will demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in upcoming negotiations.2 Syria, which derives an estimated $4 billion in annual revenues from its occupation of Lebanon, is almost certain to reject such a condition. Recent bilateral accords designed to accelerate the process of political and economic integration between Syria and Lebanon reflect a concerted effort by Syria to legitimize its presence in Lebanon in advance of talks with Israel (see related article)

Assad has recently been under pressure from the American government to permit Lebanon to freely negotiate with Israel. In a stunning reversal of Syria's past declarations of the "inseparability of Syria and Lebanon" in the peace process, Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa said last month that Lebanon would have a separate negotiating team in future talks with Israel.3 In practice, of course, this "concession" is meaningless (the Lebanese delegates will undoubtedly be handpicked by Syrian officials and will report to Damascus), but it has clearly left Assad concerned that he will encounter American pressure on more substantive aspects of the occupation further down the road.

Support for Bashar's Ascension

Bashar Assad

Bashar Assad
Sources in Syria indicate that Assad's health has deteriorated significantly over the last few months. The ailing 68-year-old dictator rarely appears in public and Syrian television has begun using archival footage of Assad in its news coverage. Visitors who have met him recently reported that he looks frail and has difficulty concentrating.4 It is likely that a succession of power in Syria will occur sooner than many have expected--probably during the course of negotiations with Israel.

Assad clearly wants to ensure the ascension of his son, Bashar, to the presidency and fend off potential challengers--namely his brother Rifaat (see related article). Securing international recognition for Bashar as the legitimate ruler of Syria will be of critical importance in this power struggle. Knowing that Rifaat is even more anti-Israeli than himself (and knowing that the Israelis know this), Assad will almost certainly seek Israeli (and American) assurances of support for Bashar.

Financial Aid

According to a recent report by Infra-Prod, an Israeli market research company, Syria's economic forecast is extremely bleak. "At its current drilling rate, Syria will have no petroleum to export in a decade...the situation is very bad," said Doron Peskin, a researcher at Infra-Prod. Peskin also pointed to Syria's lack of a capital market, the absence of privatization and its "massive technology gap" as factors that severely curtail the country's growth potential.5

Not surprisingly, Assad is anxious to derive a significant "peace dividend" in the form of economic aid from the United States. This desire is reinforced by prestige considerations--as the last "holdout" in the Arab camp, Assad feels that he is entitled to at least as much financial compensation as Egypt received after it signed a peace treaty with Israel twenty years ago. To settle for anything less would be a humiliating acknowledgement of Syrian weakness.

  1 Ma'ariv, 13 September 1999
  2 "Asad Fears Settlement," BBC, 5 October 1999.
  3 An-Nahar, 20 September 1999
  4 "Intelligence Chief Warns Assad is in Failing Health," Ha'aretz, 14 October 1999
  5 "Syria Facing Oil Depletion and Dire Economy," Reuters, 28 September 1999

1999 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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