For the 'Lion of Damascus', peace can only follow land

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The Independent Online

President Assad claims to like President Clinton but it would be difficult to find two more different men. Hafez al-Assad is a stickler for detail, inexhaustible in his search for the exact words that will ensure a ceasefire or a peace agreement, ruthless in pursuit of his political aims - be it the return of the occupied Golan Heights or the suppression of an Islamic insurrection in his own country.

Bill Clinton does not like detail, he prefers emotion, "trust" - a sticky quality in high politics - and will invariably give way, like all United States presidents, under Israeli pressure. President Assad knows about that pressure; he has fought it since 1967 when, as defence minister, he lost the Golan.

That is why, in 1991, he demanded - and got - a confidential letter from James Baker, then US Secretary of State, that an Arab-Israeli peace would be constructed upon United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which demanded the return of all Arab land occupied in the 1967 war in return for the security of all states - including Israel - in the area. It is upon that letter that Mr Assad has based his entire "strategic decision" for peace. In return, the "Lion of Damascus"- even the Israelis call him that - has been called inflexible, frightened, sick, desperate and brutal.

It is a big mistake. "People who believe the Syrian leader is negotiating out of weakness, or because he is desperate to bequeath a peace to his son Bashar, do not know the President," a close acquaintance of his remarked.

"I have told the Americans to be careful. The Israelis say all these things but they are making a big mistake. He is determined to get Golan back under the terms of the UN resolution. He will stick to the letter of the resolution. Assad is not going to be another Yasser Arafat."

True, President Assad at 69 looks his age. His voice is gravelly, his heart complaint in 1982 proved his mortality, his feud with his brother Rifaat continues. Syria is a police state and Mr Assad's enemies rot in the darkest of prisons. But his resolution is almost Churchillian, his suspicions mostly well-founded, his fear of entrapment as real as his ability to lock up the Israelis in their adventures in Lebanon.

If the Israelis want to leave Lebanon, they must give back Golan, Syria's territory. Otherwise there will be no peace on Israel's northern border. Abide by the UN resolution, President Assad says. Again and again.

It is easy to make him look uncompromising. The US State Department, its media and all the third-rate opinion-makers map out an easy story to follow. The Syrian leader is dying. He must be forced to accept "reality" (that is, American and Israeli power). He wants Golan back before making peace; he is throwing a "spanner in the works" by demanding land first and peace later.

The fact that President Assad has seen what happened to Mr Arafat, who accepted peace first and got precious little land, no capital in Jerusalem, no end to Jewish settlements and no return of refugees, is quietly overlooked.But his refusal to compromise on the Baker letter and the US promise of a peace based on UN resolutions is his sticking point. Mr Clinton and Israel were reminded of that again yesterday. President Assad may be prepared to bargain over early warning stations and water sources, but he wants the land that was Syrian up to that fateful month of 1967.

Of all Middle East potentates, Mr Assad is perhaps the only one who believes words mean what they say. "Land for peace" means all the land and total peace. In that order.