Syria aims at Mid-East leadership role: Robert Fisk reports from Damascus on President Assad's hopes for his coming meeting with President Clinton

PRESIDENT Hafez al-Assad of Syria leaves for Geneva on Sunday in the hope that President Bill Clinton will recognise him as a regional political leader and the key to Arab-Israeli peace. A series of agreements is expected to follow the summit, which will include American assurances that the Golan Heights belong to Syria and not to Israel; a Syrian definition of what 'total peace' with Israel would involve; and a promise from President Assad that Syria will rejoin the bilateral Middle East peace talks.

Behind these important statements, however, lies a series of far more critical issues. President Assad will present himself at Geneva as a future guardian of regional security, able to involve Syria's ally Iran as well as Turkey and Jordan in a 'new order' that will guarantee lasting peace in return for Israeli military withdrawals and an opportunity for the regional influence of all Middle East nations, including Iran. The Iranians are understood to have accepted that the Hizbollah militia - Israel's most ruthless enemy - would in these circumstances be turned into an exclusively Lebanese political movement, since Israel would also withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon.

But the Syrians also want the Assad-Clinton meeting to be followed by a clear-cut Israeli declaration that the Golan is Syrian sovereign territory: in effect an Israeli revocation of its annexation. Mr Assad has already told Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, what he will tell Mr Clinton on Sunday: there can be no peace without a total Israeli withdrawal and the departure of all settlers from Golan.

But can Mr Clinton deliver Yitzhak Rabin - who will himself have to be satisfied with Mr Assad's definition of 'total peace'? The Israelis want promises of trade and diplomatic relations, about which Mr Assad is unlikely to want to be specific - the Syrians have refused to contemplate diplomatic relations with Israel until the latter has completed its withdrawal. President Assad will tell Mr Clinton that Israel should pull its troops out of Golan within 12 months. The Americans are expected to side with Israel's time-scale of at least five years.

One fruit of the summit is expected to be the creation of three Syrian-Israeli committees, the first to discuss 'regional security', the other two military withdrawal arrangements and political 'normalisation'. Mr Assad and Mr Clinton, however, will have to work hard to find a compromise that will resolve their apparently contradictory views on the already faltering Arafat-Rabin accord, hailed with such uncritical euphoria by Mr Clinton on the White House lawn last September.

Mr Clinton wants some positive sign of Syrian support for this Gaza- Jericho agreement, and the suppression of - or at least the withdrawal of Syrian support from - Palestinian opponents of the accord. Syria's signature four days ago on the Damascus Declaration - which states that Gaza-Jericho is a 'first step' on the path to peace - is apparently not sufficient.

It might just be possible for President Assad to state personally in Geneva that Gaza-Jericho is a 'step' towards peace, but what he is really looking for is American acknowledgement that the Arafat accord is failing. President Assad may well remind President Clinton of what the Syrians are hearing privately from some US diplomats in the region: that the White House itself now has serious reservations about the whole Arafat-Rabin peace and is searching, with ever-increasing concern, for an alternative. There is no doubt that Mr Assad would feel himself uniquely placed to give advice at such a time. Indeed, an important equation is already making its appearance in the Baathist drawing-rooms of Damascus: that the weaker Yasser Arafat becomes, the stronger Mr Assad grows.

Thus will the Americans be expected to show their interest in Syria's 'regional' role - as opposed, of course, to the failing timetable of the separate Israeli-Palestinian deal - as well as offer its support for Israeli withdrawal from Golan. Mr Clinton will raise the issue of human rights in Syria. There will, however, be no serious US complaints about Syria's military presence in Lebanon - which even Israel, according to US sources, now regards as essential to its long-term security. President Assad will insist that Israeli military withdrawal from Lebanon goes hand-in-hand with a withdrawal from Golan.

It sounds as dramatic as the Syrians hope Sunday's summit will be historic. But President Assad is not going to rush into peace.

Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Sport
Jose Mourinho restrains his assistant manager Rui Faria, Fabio Borini celebrates his winning penalty and Connor Wickham equalises for Sunderland
sportChelsea 1 Sunderland 2: Deafeat is extra bitter as former Chelsea player Fabio Borini scores late penalty to seal victory
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit