Damascus seeks perfect time to make its peace: President Assad knows he has no option but to come to terms with Israel. The question is when, writes Charles Richards

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The Independent Online
BACK IN February, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria told President Bill Clinton in Geneva of Syria's strategic commitment to peace. Mr Assad understands that the status quo cannot continue indefinitely. The withdrawal of support from Moscow, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, undermined his whole strategy of seeking parity - that is, a balance of forces - with Israel. The question now for Mr Assad is when to make peace with Israel.

Timing will dictate what concessions he will hope to extract from Israel and it be determined by what is on offer. Why then the surprise in Israel, and the favourable reception given to Mr Assad's reiteration of his commitment to peace in a weekend speech?

Israeli commentators noted a change of tone, a warmer spirit in Syrian comments. In substance, Syria still insists on Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, as a prerequisite for full relations. And when last week the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, outlined to his cabinet a three-year phased withdrawal on Golan, the plan was rejected by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Sharaa.

What has changed is real progress towards peace and circumstances inside Syria itself. Regionally, the Palestinians have begun to implement the first part of their accord with Israel, and the PLO chairman is ensconced in Gaza. The Jordanians have reached their draft agreement with Israel, and the Syrians notably were subdued in their reaction. Once the Syrian press would have stridently blasted betrayal of the Arab cause, and Jordanian diplomats would have been shot dead in Europe. This time the Jordanian- Israeli signing ceremony was shown on Syrian television.

Other changes are afoot in Syria. Last month the commander of the Special Forces, General Ali Haidar, was replaced by General Ali Habib, who commanded Syrian forces during the Gulf war. General Haidar was arrested and is in al-Mezze prison.

The detention of General Haidar, who for more than 25 years has been one of the pillars of the Assad regime, is a loosening of the stranglehold on senior military positions of those, like Mr Assad, from the minority Alawis, a Muslim sect. Other officers were dismissed, and a new generation promoted who played no role in the events that brought Mr Assad to power. They include Mohamed al- Khouli - controller of Nizar Hendawi, serving a 45-year sentence in Britain for trying to plant a bomb on an Israeli airliner flying out of Heathrow in 1986 - who has been made intelligence chief.

Since the Hendawi affair, Syria has tried to shrug off its reputation as a state sponsoring terrorism, and to clean up its record of controlling drugs production in Lebanon's Bekaa valley - a fiefdom of General Haidar's forces.

Syria is also experiencing a loosening up of its economy. The private sector is booming. Foreign investors are queuing to build power stations and cement works.

Political liberalisation is a far more distant prospect, as key policy is controlled by Mr Assad. A new parliament has been sworn in but it has few teeth. It was this parliament that President Assad was addressing on Saturday.

The speech served two functions. It reassured Israel of Syria's desire for a real peace. And it helped prepare Syrian public opinion for the inevitable: peace with Israel. So far, there has been more rhetoric than substance, more talk of peace than peace talks. Israel wants the kind of secret channel that operated so well with the PLO in Oslo, and Syria is happy to allow the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, to perform his shuttle diplomacy.

Mr Christopher is due back in the region after Israel's solemn holiday on Thursday of Yom Kippur. And the Israeli press is predicting a first-ever meeting of the Syrian and Israeli foreign ministers at the UN General Assembly in New York.