Will Peace Push Syria Into The Modern World?

Syria and Israel are beginning negotiations aimed at ending 50 years of conflict. While obstacles could arise, seasoned observers think the chances of success are good. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al Sharaa said on Dec. 12 that an agreement could be reached in "a few months."

Al Sharaa, who is no Pollyanna, can talk this way because his boss, President Hafez al Assad, has decided that now is the time to move. Assad, 69 and in frail health, wants a smooth transition of power, and he realizes that settling the conflict with Israel is key. At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wants a deal with Syria to ease Israel's way out of its bloody entanglement in Lebanon, and to pressure Palestinian chief Yassir Arafat to be more pliable in negotiations.

But the key to an Israeli-Syrian deal is the secretive Assad, who has ruled Syria with cunning and ruthlessness since 1970. He knows that the world around him is rapidly changing. His former patron, the Soviet Union, is long gone, leaving Syria at a widening military disadvantage in relation to Israel. Damascus cannot afford the cold war with Israel any longer. Assad is hearing more and more from businessmen and technocrats close to the regime that Syria's reputation for sponsoring terrorism--and for being perennially in conflict with Israel and at loggerheads with the the U.S.--is exacting a huge economic cost.

SECURITY-OBSESSED. Assad is also feeling the influence of his son Bashar, who is likely to play a prominent role in a post-Assad Syria. The 34-year-old Bashar recently made statesmanlike trips to France and around the Persian Gulf. And Bashar seems to have convinced his father that Syria's backwardness is not a good thing. So intense has been Damascus' obsession with security that government approval is required to use Syria's mobile-phone network, and fax machines were permitted only in 1995. But earlier this year, Bashar inaugurated an Internet link, and he has pushed through compulsory computer training in Syrian universities. "Syria is gradually metamorphosing away from the Assad period into something else," says Michael C. Hudson, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

While the son presses him, though, Assad must still cater to the old guard. The Syrian President maintains his power through a network of military and intelligence commanders, and he must be careful not to look soft in the talks. That's one reason Assad can't afford to settle for anything less than a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel first occupied in 1967.

While Syria is unlikely to open up quickly, Assad hopes to attract aid and investment to show his constituents that he can still deliver. The regime needs resources to lift Syrians' $1,000- per-capita income and to buy new toys to keep the generals happy. Yet the U.S., which has long been providing Egypt with $2 billion a year in aid, is unlikely to do the same for Syria. Richard N. Haass, a former National Security Council Middle East staffer now at the Brookings Institution, figures Washington will instead foot the estimated $15 billion bill to move 17,000 Israeli settlers and Israeli military installations from the Golan. Europe and the gulf states will be drafted to take care of Syria's needs, he reckons.

Dealing with the Syrian regime is distasteful. But with Damascus on board the peace train, only Iraq would be left in the Arab world as a major opponent of Israel. Syria's ally, Iran, would come under pressure to rethink its support for the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. If Assad acts, the Middle East stands a chance of escaping from its time warp.