Lure of peace fails to shake Syria's resolve over Golan

The Middle East after Rabin
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The Independent Online
MICHAEL SHERIDAN

Damascus

"Steadfast Syria" it once entitled itself: a front-line Arab Socialist state allied to Moscow and committed to confrontation with Israel, a regime so tough that its foundation in the military and the security services excluded even the language of compromise.

Today the language of Syria's officially controlled press is moderate. "The only way to let the bitter bygones be bygones with Israel is through a fair and universal peace," wrote the Ba'ath party daily after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Another paper, Tishrin, observed hopefully that "the writing is on the wall for the radical Israeli right", which it blamed for stalling talks with Syria.

Times have changed even in Damascus, the citadel of "rejectionism", but change has been slow. For example, the Syrians sent a message to Israel after the death of Rabin. "But there was not the touch of human warmth in it that we were looking for," said Itamar Rabinovitch, Israel's ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with Syria.

Yesterday the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouq al-Sharaa, told the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, that his country still believed in a negotiated peace. Mr Rifkind, the first Western emissary to visit Damascus since Rabin's assassination, then met President Hafez al-Assad, who repeated the message that Syria has made "the strategic choice for peace".

But in Syria, strategy is never confused with emotion. There will never be laurel wreaths and poetry between Syrians and Israelis.

Syria's "strategic choice" has been implemented by tactics so inflexible that negotiators have little margin for manoeuvre.

President Assad last year took the bold decision to authorise direct talks between the Syrian chief of staff, General Hikmet Shehabi, and his then Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak. But subsequent discussions foundered last June. Now Mr Barak is likely to be Defence Minister in the new Israeli government, and his security credentials may be just what the acting Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, needs to push the talks forward again. The Syrians will be looking for evidence that Israel is serious.

For President Assad, these are the imperatives of survival. Robbed of his Soviet ally and isolated since the 1991 Gulf war, he has spoken of "a peace of the brave", inviting his 14 million people to prepare for the day when the state of war with Israel, in place since 1948, comes to an end.

The negotiations between Israel and Syria stalled partly because President Assad and Rabin were cautious military men, obsessed with details of security. Neither trusted the other. Each sought the maximum advantage at the negotiating table, Rabin to preserve his battlefield gains, and Mr Assad to regain what he had lost.

In 1967 Rabin was Israel's chief of staff for the campaign in which Mr Assad, then Syria's Defence Minister, lost the Golan Heights. This narrow strip of rugged land blocks the approaches to Damascus.

In 1973 Mr Assad, by then President, went to war again and was fought to a standstill on the Golan. Henry Kissinger negotiated a disengagement agreement which has lasted 23 years.

The recovery of the Golan is more than a national aspiration. It is an objective by which President Assad proposes to legitimise his broad "progressive" coalition, dominated by his minority Alawite Muslim sect.

The Syrian dictatorship is low-key. Huge portraits of the President stare benignly from billboards in the dusty, bustling souks of Damascus, but Mr Assad has never indulged in a personality cult like that of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Yet he is so wedded to the doctrine of national sovereignty that the issues on the Golan will require creative genius to overcome his objections. One obstacle is whether there should be manned early warning stations on the heights after an Israeli withdrawal. There isdisagreement over demilitarisation on either side and on the boundaries, with Israel insisting on the 1967 border, while Syria prefers the 1923 British mandate border.

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