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
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone