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Why Syria's Assad May Be Ready To Deal

International Outlook

Why Syria's Assad May Be Ready to Deal

Syria's President Hafez al-Assad and recently elected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak haven't exactly formed a mutual admiration society. But an exchange of respectful statements between the two leaders suggests that a solution to the toughest part of the Arab-Israeli conflict could be near. In the past, Syria resisted Middle East deals and blocked wider peace in the region. But now, the Syrians are publicly calling for talks to end 50 years of hostilities.

Several currents seem to be pushing Syria. Assad, 68, and reportedly in ill health, may want to wrap up a deal soon. The Syrians see Barak as a man they can do business with, in contrast with his hard-line predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. "The Syrians thought all Israeli Prime Ministers were equally bad, but Netanyahu taught them a lesson," says Rosemary Hollis, head of Middle East programs at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.ECONOMIC WOES. A likely deal would see Israel pulling back from the Golan Heights, which it occupied in 1967, in exchange for peace. Buffer zones and monitoring, possibly involving the U.S., would be arranged. Israel would also expect Syria to use its influence with the Hezbollah guerrillas to calm Israel's border with Lebanon. That would allow Barak to achieve his goal of pulling Israeli troops out of South Lebanon, where ambushes and bombs have killed 39 Israeli soldiers in the past 18 months.

Assad would probably like to spare his son and possible successor, Beshar, the difficulty of making such a peace.

Beshar originally trained to be an ophthalmologist until Assad brought him home from Britain and pushed him through a series of high-profile military positions following the death of Beshar's brother, Basel, in a car wreck in 1994. Beshar, 34, is undoubtedly a soft peach compared with his father, who deals ruthlessly with any challengers. A divisive peace initiative after the father's passing might not sit well with the military and intelligence commanders whose support Beshar would need to maintain control.

Assad has other reasons for wanting to make peace. Staggering military expenditures have left the Syrian economy among the most stagnant in the region, with annual income per capita only about $1,000. The government owes some $20 billion--much of it to Russia, and a drought is ruining Syria's grain production. Yet Assad can expect little aid from the West until he makes peace.

Although settling differences with Israel may seem logical for Assad, it is by no means a done deal. He takes his role as defender of Arab lands seriously and can be expected to bargain hard. While Barak seems to accept that he will have to return the Golan, much remains to be decided on minor territorial adjustments, timing, and monitoring. If the talks, which could start by late summer, get sticky, Assad could use Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, which he influences, to put pressure on Israel.WIDE REACH. Yet Syria is not the power it used to be. After the cold war ended and Syria's key supporter, the Soviet Union, collapsed, the country's military strength declined. Its Arab nationalist Baath regime has become something of an anachronism.

Still, an Israeli-Syria deal could have far-reaching impact. If Syria, Israel's most implacable foe, drops its hostility, everyone else in the region would have a green light to do the same, and some of the steam would be taken out of hard-line Palestinian groups, such as Hamas. There already are signs that Iran would accept a Syrian-Israeli deal. The region's peoples, who have endured decades of poverty and dictatorship, just may have a shot at something better.By Stanley Reed in London, with Neal Sandler in Jerusalem; Edited by Paul MagnussonReturn to top

Setback for Iran's Khatami

The violent clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and security forces in Iran threaten President Mohammed Khatami's promising reform effort. Khatami, who was elected in 1997, has a long-term strategy of gradually opening up the political system and restoring Iran to a more normal status in the world. He has already vastly improved relations with Saudi Arabia and restored diplomatic ties with Britain. Cultural exchanges with the U.S. are under way, and some observers thought Iran's relations with the U.S. might be normalized after the U.S. Presidential election in 2000.

The troubles began escalating after security forces and regime hard-liners overreacted to student protests over the closing of a moderate newspaper. Security forces and regime hard-liners staged a raid on the dormitories of the University of Tehran on July 9, beating up students. The students defended themselves, and the situation degenerated into a pitched battle on July 13.

The violence has left the two sides polarized. The big question is whether Khatami can play peacemaker.

Khatami also has to persuade the more radical advocates of reform to give him time. Continued clashes could lead to a brutal crackdown reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square putsch in China in 1989.

"In a confrontation between reform and repression, the forces of repression have all the muscle," says Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University in New York. The riots are abating for now, but Iran's troubles as it moves toward reform have only begun.Return to top

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