Small World

Jewish World Review April 12, 2000 / 7 Nissan, 5760

For Assad, Time's Running Out

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

PRESIDENT CLINTON is speeding up efforts to leave behind a major legacy: a comprehensive Mideast peace settlement.

Accordingly, Clinton meets with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak today and with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on April 20 for private pep talks. But the White House one-on-ones especially with Barak may have more to do with progress on Israeli-Syrian peace than they do with Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Clinton journeyed to Geneva last month in an embarrassingly unsuccessful attempt to drag Syrian President Hafez Assad across the peace line. Now there are new signs Assad may be relenting to the extent he ever relents.

What changed? For one thing, the Syrians are increasingly nervous about Israel's decision to withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon by this July. In principle, Syria should be delighted. Israeli troops have been in Lebanon since 1982 trying to curb terrorist attacks on Israeli territory. It has been a costly and unpopular policy in Israel, not to mention the Arab world. The Syrians have been among the loudest critics.

But the Syrians also know that the unilateral decision to withdraw leaves Israel a little less inclined to make other concessions to them.

Moreover, the Syrians who basically control the rest of Lebanon are worried about the vacuum that will be created in southern Lebanon, a stronghold of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement. It's one thing for Israel to strike at Hezbollah guerrillas. It's another for the Syrians to try to keep those terrorists under wraps.

Besides, Assad and his heir apparent, his son Bashar, are beginning to worry about their own fundamentalist extremists, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Assad brutally repressed the brotherhood during an uprising more than 18 years ago, murdering as many as 20,000. But recently, the brotherhood has begun reorganizing. And guess who's helping them? Osama Bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi-born kingpin of global terrorism.

According to senior Mideast intelligence officials, a top officer from Al-Qaida, Bin Laden's military organization, met recently in Baghdad with three representatives of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. He offered the Syrians military training at Bin Laden bases in Afghanistan as well as financing, giving them $50,000 to seal the deal.

Bin Laden's game is clear. By helping the brotherhood, he hopes to stir up enough trouble to hasten the departure of the ailing Assad and his clan, which Bin Laden believes eventually will make peace with the Jewish state. The revived brotherhood already has carried out assassination attempts in Syria against Assad loyalists.

With this as background the Syrians with any eye to U.S. aid are suddenly sending out new feelers about agreeing to disarm the Golan Heights if Israel will disarm the adjoining Sea of Galilee.

How should the U.S. and Israel react? While I'm all in favor of a Mideast peace deal and understand Clinton's desire to leave office with an agreement as one of his crowning achievements, that's not enough to justify knuckling under to the Syrians, who still ask for more than they're ready to give.

The fact is, Assad is in enormous trouble. His economy is a disaster, and his regime could collapse the moment he dies. No one wants to see an Islamic takeover in Syria or even a successor as bad as Assad. But let's play a little poker here.

Until Syria is prepared for a real peace that gives Israel the security guarantees it deserves, no deal. The worst that could happen is that Israel remains on the Golan.

Doesn't sound so bad to me.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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