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Syria blows hot and cold in peace process

NOW THAT the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, and King Hussein of Jordan have reached their separate accommodations with Israel, attention has shifted to what Syria's President Hafez al-Assad will do next. But those seeking to read the coffee grounds of Syria's intentions are presented with a muddy mess, writes Charles Richards.

At first the signs were good. In an unprecedented move, Syria's state-controlled television broke its ban on all things Israeli by beaming live from Washington all speeches from Monday's ceremony, including the speech of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. He expressed delight at the apparent change of tone. 'I was surprised and I'm happy about it,' he told Israel army radio. 'One of our main problems with Syria . . . is how to break down the psychological walls.'

Those walls include attempts to block any Israeli reporters even attending Syrian press conferences abroad. Officials who have unwittingly given interviews to Israel media have been sacked.

But last week Syria permitted a reporter from the Jerusalem Post to accompany the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, to Syria, as long as the reporter identified himself as working for an American publications in interviews.

Mr Rabin's delight at the change might be short-lived. Yesterday al-Baath, the newspaper of the ruling party in Syria, castigated Jordan in all but name for signing its non- belligerency agreement with Israel. It described the Washington declaration as a 'surprise development' and a 'violation' of the principles on which the peace process was launched nearly three years ago in Madrid. It said the declaration will negatively affect Arab interests.

'The surprise developments and violations, including the Gaza-Jericho deal and the Washington declaration, could not overwhelm the fact that peace will fail and evaporate if it is not just and comprehensive,' al-Baath said.

This is the first public display of disapproval of the Jordanian initiative. Yet for the past 20 years the position of President Assad has been clear. He is against any partial deal which might weaken the collective bargaining position of the Arabs and enable Israel to pick off individual Arab states or parties one by one, which might be to the detriment of Syria's interests.

However, the Jordanian-Israel accord was only a question of time. Now Mr Assad is presented with a fresh challenge. He can either wait and see whether either of the Palestinian or Jordanian deals comes unstuck, in which case his caution will be vindicated. Or he can enter into more serious talks with Israel beyond the scope of those begun in Madrid in 1991.

Mr Assad has always chewed long and hard over a problem. He will not be rushed into hasty decisions. Yet the old saw 'No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria' no longer holds. Syria could conceivably wreck any peace agreement. But its desire for better relations with the West, now that it has lost its Soviet superpower backer, makes it less able to play a spoiling role.

The Israelis are not holding their breath. The Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, said yesterday that he saw a 'softening' of Syria's stand but did not expect a quick breakthrough.