Damascus strives to block the Bulldozer of Peace

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THE Bulldozer of Peace will be grinding its way back to Damascus today. Already it has set Yasser Arafat up in the fly-blown backyard of Gaza. King Hussein, isolated by so many Arabs, hopelessly in debt to the United States, has been propelled into White House handshakes and a Tristar flight over Jerusalem. So now, surely, President Assad of Syria will see the light, acknowledge the 'changing geopolitical world', as the Washington spin merchants call it, and make peace with Israel.

That will be the message - a weary, familiar message - the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, will take to Damascus today. And there will no prizes for guessing the scenery or the script. Mr Assad will sit in his sparse Baathist drawing room with Mr Christopher on his left, separated by a small table. After the usual pleasantries, Mr Christopher will turn on the Bulldozer's ignition. Mr Arafat has gone back to Palestine, King Hussein has made peace. Now it is time for Mr Assad to make the 'peace of the brave' - to borrow from Mr Arafat's decreasing store of cliches. Israel has offered secret meetings, private talks, the return of the Golan Heights - and all it wants is a full treaty before it pulls its men off Mount Hermon.

And President Assad will politely recall - as he has done many times before - that back in 1991, he received a confidential letter from Mr Christopher's predecessor, James Baker, which promised a 'comprehensive' peace - not a set of little peaces - under the terms of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 425. The Arabs would all negotiate together. There would be no secret deals. The Israelis would have to abandon all occupied territories, not bits of them. The Israelis would have to leave all of Lebanon and all of Golan.

Mr Christopher will bring up all the old arguments: things have changed, the 'peace process' has moved forward (ie, secret deals have been struck) and Syria should not be left behind. And President Assad will remember that only a couple of weeks ago, the Israelis suggested there would be war with Syria in two years if there was no peace. An interesting concept - war as an alternative to peace - for it is part of the machinery with which the Bulldozer has been constructed. Syria is still on the list of states that 'sponsor terrorism', and deprived of preferential loans and American technology.

Mr Christopher will ask Syria to crush its Hizbollah proteges, thus making Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon easier - but this will be dressed up as a call for assistance to crush 'fundamentalist terror'.

There are traps here, of course. For the Americans and Israelis have built a new litany into the Bulldozer. To object to 'progress in the peace process' is to object to peace, indeed to be against peace. And thus to be an ally of those who set off bombs, someone who helps 'fundamentalist terror'.

And so Mr Assad, who is the Middle East's leading expert on the subject - many an Algerian and Egyptian leader must wish they could follow the fearful example he set in crushing just such a phenomenon at Hama in 1982 - will express his admiration for US peace- making, his desire for peace on the terms of the original Madrid proposals, his enthusiasm for an end to regional conflict.

And then? Well, last week Syrian television showed - without comment - the Rabin-Hussein handshake on the White House lawn. Was this approval, or merely an attempt to reflect the realities of the new Middle East? Was it preparation for a Syrian-Israeli entente, or a method of warning Syrians of the Arab betrayals taking place behind their backs?

Last year, after Mr Arafat concluded his secret agreement with Israel, Mr Assad shrewdly guessed that the all-powerful Israelis would outsmart the PLO leader. Now Mr Arafat is a virtual prisoner in Gaza, begging for cash while his wife helps to clean the beaches. Above the PLO's offices, the Palestinian flags are tattered, the green turned to dull blue in the sun, the red faded to near-white. Is this really the kind of peace that Mr Assad wants?

The profound ironies of recent history are all too evident. The only two Arab leaders to embrace Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait, Mr Arafat and King Husain, are Israel's friends. The only anti-Israeli state to side against President Saddam - Syria - is threatened with isolation.

And Mr Assad knows what happens to states that do not give way to the Bulldozer of Peace. It is only a short step from being a 'sponsor of terrorism' to being a pariah state, like Iraq or Iran or Libya or Sudan or . . . Syria? Thus does the Bulldozer work. Mr Assad's final defence is therefore a simple one: however dramatic Mr Arafat's new alliances, however solemn King Hussein's new friendships, there cannot be a real end to the Arab-Israeli conflict without Mr Assad's signature.

As the headline says so often on the front page of Al-Baath: There will be no peace without Syria.

(Photograph omitted)

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