Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad is president of Syria and the strongman of the Arab-Israeli conflict. When he nixes a deal with Israel, few Arabs defy him. If he wants to make peace, nobody will stop him.
The Lebanese government tried to outmaneuver Asad, with U.S. and Israeli backing, in 1983. Secretary of State George Shultz hammered out a lovely accord between Lebanon and Israel, but Asad resolved to undo the deal. As a result, the Lebanese abrogated the agreement within less than a year. In 1985, King Husayn of Jordan appeared willing to end the conflict with Israel. That too was a non-starter, as Syrian sabotage and mayhem convinced the king otherwise.
The Palestine Liberation Organization has on several occasions flirted with the idea of reaching an agreement with Israel, but they never pan out. In part, Syrian influence over the Palestinians assured the failure of Yasir 'Arafat's initiatives.
But in 1991, suddenly it is Hafiz al-Asad himself who has indicated a willingness to deal with Israel. Not that this is completely new, for Asad accepted the Geneva Conference of 1973 and signed a Disengagement Agreement with Israel in 1974. But Secretary of State Baker's proposed regional conference differs from prior undertakings in two important respects. Those negotiations were either freighted down with preconditions or limited in scope; this one is open-ended. Also, back in the 1970s, Syria was, along with Egypt and Iraq, just one of several powerful Arab states antagonistic to Israel; today it stands alone.
However dim, however remote, a possibility of resolving the conflict between the Arab states and Israel suddenly exists. This is unprecedented and very serious.
Chances of a breakthrough, it bears repeating, are slight. Getting Syrian and Israelis to sit in the same room is an achievement, to be sure, but they must be willing to compromise, too. Will they? Looking just at the Syrian side (because ultimately Syrians, and not Israelis, decide whether the relationship is bellicose or peaceful), the picture is not very pretty. Asad's motivation in entering negotiations, it is clear, does not result from a change of heart toward Israel; rather, it reflects far more his desire for improved relations with Washington.
This is something new. For many years, Syrian leaders have scorned Washington. They did not need it because they were in the Soviet camp, and proud of it. Not only did the Syrians buy Soviet materiél; they also imported Soviet military doctrines and even the style of their uniforms. The economy was increasingly brought under the dead hand of the state, while fifteen little KGBs made life hell for Syrian citizens.
Seen from the Presidential Palace in Damascus, the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 signaled a dismaying collapse of Soviet will. The overthrow and murder of Nicolae Ceausescu a month later had an even greater impact. If Gorbachev let his East European cronies fall in this manner, what fate awaited Middle Eastern tyrants?
One of them, Saddam Husayn, decided the time had come to take on the United States. Much more sensibly, Hafiz al-Asad witnessed the Soviet decline and concluded the time had come to win America's favor. He began the process with an array of minor but positive changes, both within Syria (ending emergency laws, allowing an infinitesimal choice in parliamentary elections) and in foreign relations (improving relations with Egypt, ending terrorism against Westerners).
Then Saddam invaded Kuwait, handing Asad a golden opportunity. By joining the allied effort against Iraq, he found himself on the winning side without loss of face, without apology for past transgressions, and with all the honor due an important coalition partner. Better yet, he nimbly and elegantly removed his state from the pro-Soviet cul-de-sac and deposited it firmly on the pro-American highway.
While the wartime coalition had its uses, it did not assure Asad the many benefits he seeks from the West in general and the United States in particular. Along with most of the old Soviet Bloc, he hankers after commerce (trade, credits, technology). In addition, Asad has two agenda items of his own: getting Washington to pressure Israel to make concessions and getting it not to pressure Syria's arms suppliers from providing Scud-Cs and other powerful weapons.
Asad is probably the most canny politician of the Middle East; he is certainly smart enough to realize that he is in a weak position, and that he has to give if he wants to get. Would he go so far as to end the state of war with Israel? If necessary, yes, but only if he sees this in his interests.
The U.S. government has a critical role here. Should President Bush lean disproportionately on the Israelis to make concessions-a role Damascus would dearly love to assign him-Asad will have no reason to make real compromises. But if the U.S. government declines this part, and instead lets the Syrians and Israelis negotiate their differences, while making it clear that improved relations depend on Arab-Israeli peace, there is a reasonable chance that Asad will make meaningful concessions.
Even if he does not, the regional conference promises to be a major event in itself, for it would still signal two major breaks in the Arab rejection of Israel. In addition to Syrian diplomatic flexibility, the Jordanians and Saudis have conditionally offered to end their economic boycott of Israel-a major psychological shift, if not a change of much economic significance.
There is plenty of reason to predict diplomatic failure. The Israelis have not yet committed themselves to the regional conference; next, they would have to come to terms with the prospect of evacuating their troops from the Golan Heights. On the other side, the Syrian people are second only to the Palestinians in the depth of their anti-Zionism. And the Asad regime represents of a narrowly-based ethnic clique which, in part due to its inherent fragility, is poorly suited to making concessions for peace.
This said, a novel sense of possibility exists, and it is appropriate. In 1987, many Americans began to play with the notion that Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika might, just might, end the cold war. The notion that an apparently permanent hostility could come to an end seemed unbelievable. But it was real.
A similar prospect now exists with regard to one of Moscow's protégés. It's not likely, but it is newly conceivable that the Arab-Israeli conflict has entered its final round.