Assad faces dilemma in peace talks: Syria will not cut its own deal with Israel, but wants a wider solution, writes Robert Fisk

FROM his massive presidential complex on the hills above Damascus, Hafez al-Assad can gaze south-east towards the snows of Golan. For the first time in a quarter of a century, the Israeli occupation of the heights appears to be less permanent than the frost which never melts, even in the warmest of summers.

'Withdrawals' is the word the Israelis are using in their Washington peace talks with President Assad's delegates. 'Comprehensive solution' is what the Syrians say by way of reply: Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab land. Even for those mystical heights, a symbol of both humiliation and shared suffering for Syrians, President Assad will not cut a separate deal with Israel.

It has become the cornerstone of Syrian foreign policy, defended in every discussion with foreign dignitaries, on every news programme, in every Damascus editorial. When Yasser Arafat, on the eve of a visit to Damascus this month, suggested Syria might conclude a bilateral agreement with Israel, an enraged Mr Assad announced he no longer had time to meet the PLO leader. Hadn't Syria always insisted it was the vanguard of the Palestinian cause, and stood in the 'same trench' as the Palestinians?

In 1982, Syria concluded a ceasefire with the Israelis in Lebanon and left the Palestinians to fight on alone in Beirut, albeit after the destruction of almost the entire Syrian air force and all its missile batteries in Lebanon. Mr Assad believes he was tricked into the truce by the late Philip Habib, the US mediator, and the moral he drew was a familiar one: never again. Yet there are more important and less altruistic reasons for Syria's determination to demand all or nothing from the Israelis.

Syria's economy is flourishing, its oil output stands at more than 500,000 barrels a day, foreign companies are queuing to invest while Saudi and Kuwaiti loans - payment for Syria's participation in the coalition against Iraq - are subsidising new industry and communications. Amnesty International names 1,500 political prisoners in Syria, but there is less surveillance and less censorship. Fax machines, the technological nightmare of every dictatorship, can now be imported. The smell of money is real.

But equally real is the steady ascendancy of Islam. The Syrian regime is still haunted by the savage 1980-82 Muslim Brotherhood uprising which was repressed in the bloodbath at Hama, and President Assad, according to those who have met him these past weeks, is absorbed by the religious movements which are changing the Middle East. When Roland Dumas, the French Foreign Minister, visited the President, Mr Assad spent hours discussing fundamentalism. By way of accommodation, he has increased the amount of religious broadcasting on Syrian television and ordered the building of new mosques, particularly in the Alawite mountains from which he comes. The most impressive mosque has been built in the President's home village of Qurdaha. Yet even official preachers in the mosques, speaking of morality, have been heard using the word jihad. Mr Assad realises that his decision to join the Gulf war coalition was deeply unpopular among Syrians. He knows that a betrayal of the Palestinians would initiate a whirlwind of discontent within his country, a gale force wind which would blow from the mosques rather than the streets.

President Assad faces a turning point. If the New World Order once appeared to promise peace, the view from his presidential palace is far from comforting, even when he looks away from the heights of Golan. To the east, Iraq is threatened with dismemberment, a frightening precedent for Syria, however deep the enmity between Saddam Hussein and Mr Assad. To the south, King Hussein of Jordan is attempting a recovery from cancer and may have only a year to live. Few Arabs would trust the Israelis not to exploit the King's death and claim that a Palestinian state exists in Jordan.

To the north, a potentially expansionist Turkey, heavily armed and now making regular military raids against Kurdish guerrillas deep into the north of Arab Iraq, offers little compromise over the flow of the Euphrates waters into Syria. And in the west, Lebanon, that most precious and most perilous of Syria's Arab neighbours, walks from its civil war on crutches, its new parliament safely pro-Syrian but its Christian Maronites contemptuous of Syria's stewardship and its new Prime Minister, a Saudi citizen.

The Syrians are planning to withdraw their troops from Beirut before Christmas - but not from Lebanon. 'The Lebanese army is not yet ready to keep order,' a Syrian official said uncompromisingly this week. 'We know that there are still guns in every home and in every street.' President Assad knows, too, that this applies to the towns of upper Egypt where Islamic revolution continues to ferment. Far to the west, in Algeria, an old and trusted ally, a nationalist government is already at war with an Islamic guerrilla army.

'Abu Basil' is how Mr Assad now likes to be called - 'Father of Basil', the horse-riding soldier- son who is being gently groomed for leadership - and his personal prestige appears untouched by the return of his ne'er-do-well brother Rifat. But Arab nationalism is declining as the Islamic renaissance extends its influence. The ghosts of Hama have not been laid. For President Assad, a separate, bilateral peace with Israel would probably mean national catastrophe as well as political suicide.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star