Hafez Assad has such a good reputation for keeping his promises, even Uri Saguy, head of IDF Intelligence, has asserted that "if and when he signs an agreement, [Assad] will keep his word."
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres concurred: "With the Syrians it is very hard to reach an agreement, but the agreement will stand."
Odd they should say this, because the Syrian dictator has a long record of breaking his promises.
Assad gained his enviable reputation of trustworthiness by virtue of his commitment to the May 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement with Israel, which obliges Syria to "scrupulously observe the cease-fire on land, sea and air" and "refrain from all military action." According to Ze'ev Schiff, doyen of Israeli military reporters, "both sides have adhered to the Separation of Forces Agreement since it was first reached."
Richard Murphy, former US assistant secretary of Near Eastern Affairs, confirms that the agreement has been "scrupulously observed."
But focusing only on that 1974 agreement ignores the many others Assad has broken with Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. And a close look even at the 1974 agreement reveals some serious breaches. Let's take a look at some examples.
The "red line" understandings. In April 1976, Israel allowed Syrian forces to enter Lebanon in return for several reassurances, dubbed "red lines," brokered by American officials. These unwritten agreements were to circumscribe the Syrian use of force in Lebanon. For example, Assad agreed not to deploy aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, or more than one brigade of soldiers.
Damascus has breached all three of these provisions. It ferried troops by helicopter and deployed surface-to-air missiles in the Zahle area of Lebanon in 1981. Israelis knew about these offenses. Writing in his private capacity, Itamar Rabinovich (currently ambassador to the US) termed them, respectively, an "infringement" and an "unequivocal violation" of the 1976 agreement. Nor were these merely technical issues; he said the Syrian missiles amounted to "a serious threat" against Israel.
Assad ignored the prohibition on aircraft a second time in October 1990, when his air force has an active role in the Syrian conquest of Beirut.
He violated the red-line agreement even more profoundly by sending far more than one brigade into Lebanon; over the years, 10 brigades have regularly be stationed there. In short, Assad sought not just to tip the balance of power in Lebanon but to control the whole country outright. Yair Evron of Tel Aviv University writes the Damascus thereby "overstepped" and "transgress[ed]" its 1976 understanding.
Worst of all, Assad has on occasion denied the very existence of the red-line agreements. He once told a Lebanese group: "Do not concern yourselves with the ‘red line' which the Americans and the Israelis are talking about, it does not exist. In any event, I cannot see it."
Agreements to leave Lebanon. On three occasions since 1976 the Syrian authorities concurred with decisions made by other bodies that Syrian troops should leave Lebanon. Of course, they are still there.
Damascus first agreed to leave in October 1978, as part of the Riyadh-Cairo accords. In September 1982, it signed the Fez Declaration, which called on the Lebanese and Syrian governments to begin discussions on this subject. In October 1989, to win Lebanese Christian support for a revision of the Lebanese government structure (the Ta'if Accord), Assad accepted a provision that Syrian troops would be redeployed from their positions in Beirut to the Bekaa Valley in two years, after four conditions had been met. Those conditions were fulfilled in September 1990, but September 1992 came and went without any change. (Indeed, arrive by plane in Beirut and you'll encounter Syrian troops right in the airport.)
PKK anti-Turkish activities. In 1987 and 1992, Damascus signed security protocols with Turkey promising to shut installations used by the PKK, the anti-Turkish group of Kurds. In addition, the Syrians time and again assured Turkish officials that the PKK would cause them no more problems. But year after year little has changed on the ground.
A base would ostentatiously close down, only to reopen quietly somewhere else. In October 1993, a Turkish official revealed that Damascus and the PKK had agreed that "Syrian commanders are leading some PKK terror units."
Operation Accountability. In July 1993, Assad reached an agreement with Secretary of State Christopher whereby he would in the future prevent any forces in southern Lebanon from launching rocket attacks on Israel. Less than a year later, not only did Katyushas rain down on the Galilee, but Damascene sources asserted that "Syria has not agreed with the Israelis to stop the firing of Katyushas on northern Israel."
Golan Heights disengagement. Even Assad's reputation for having fulfilled his 1974 agreement with Israel is undeserved.
While it is true that the agreement ended all violence across the Syrian-Israeli border and made the Golan Heights not just a quiet place but perhaps the safest in the Middle East that is not the same as saying Damascus fulfilled all its obligations.
First, Assad reassured Jerusalem of his nonbelligerent intentions by promising that "Syrian civilians will return" to the territory evacuated by Israeli forces. In fact, civilians had not moved into the area and it remains a military zone.
Second, the Syrians in 1992 moved commandos into Kuneitra and heavy artillery elsewhere into the demilitarized zone they had agreed to maintain under the terms of the 1974 agreement. In the "thin-out" strip within 25 km of the border, they illegally placed 21 surface-to-air missile launchers.
But these violations received no attention, for Prime Minister Rabin apparently decided (and this is the amazing part) to ignore reports about them by the UN observer force.
Assad's 20-year pattern of behavior establishes that, typical of a despot, he keeps his word only when it's convenient.