Why Assad May Be Ready To Come In From The Cold

With Jordan almost in the bag, U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher is heading for the Middle East on Aug. 5 to try to give the frustratingly slow Syrian-Israeli talks a boost. If Syria's President Hafez al-Assad agrees to terms, that would be another giant step toward wrapping up the Arab-Israeli conflict. Jordan's King Hussein would then be able to quickly finalize his deal with the Israelis, and Syrian-influenced Lebanon would present few problems.

Bringing Assad in from the cold won't be easy. The wily former Air Force commander is a hard bargainer who has scuttled many a peace initiative.

But the outlines of a deal providing for Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights can now be discerned. The disagreements are more over details than principles. For example, the Israelis want a long, phased pullout while the Syrians demand a quick one.

ICEBREAKER. They are further apart on the definition and timing of full-fledged "peace." The Israelis want all the trimmings--including an embassy in Damascus, trade, and tourist exchanges--and they want them as soon as possible. The Syrians hope to minimize and delay such contacts. "Suddenly having an Israeli embassy in Damascus is probably more than Syrians can digest after such a bitter feud," says a well-placed Syrian.

Such is the distrust on both sides that many analysts think a dramatic gesture is needed to break the ice. "All we need is an eye-to-eye meeting between Assad and Rabin," says Israeli Tourism Minister Uzi Baram, a dovish member of the Labor Party. But Arab sources say Assad worries about spending his best card--recognition of Israel--without a sure return.

Still, the chances of a breakthrough on the Israeli-Syrian track over the next few months are good because Assad wants his regime to prosper in the new era that is dawning in the Middle East. He knows that Syria is in poor shape. The collapse of the Soviet Union deprived him of his key patron. His only major ally is Iran, a near-pariah state. This past January he lost his son and heir apparent, Basil Assad, in a mysterious car wreck. With the 63-year-old Assad looking increasingly frail, a second son, Bashar, who was studying to be an eye doctor, is now being hastily groomed with crash military courses, but he may not be up to ruling a dictatorship.

In addition, 30 years of Baath party socialist management and heavy spending on arms have taken a severe toll on the Syrian economy. Per capita income is only about $1,000. Although oil finds have pumped in a little life recently, Damascus is a poor relation compared with nearby Amman--not to mention Israeli cities.

MINOR GESTURES. Assad is pursuing talks with Israel not so much because he wants peace but because he wants U.S. help in weathering the coming transition. He is angling for a U.S. blessing that would shore up his position and open the way for investment, European and gulf aid, and new lending by the World Bank, to which Syria is now over $400 million in arrears. Some observers say he wants the sort of multiyear, multibillion-dollar U.S. aid commitment that Egypt got at Camp David in 1979.

To get ready, Assad is gradually preparing his people for peace and making Syria more acceptable to the outside world. He allowed extensive coverage in the state media of the July 25 Jordan-Israel deal. He is slowly opening up the Syrian economy. But these are minor gestures. The challenge is for Assad, the Israelis, and the U.S. to agree on a price for peace before the moment of opportunity passes.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.