March 30, 2000
Assad’s Chump Gambit
Administration officials were in stiff-upper-lip mode this week in the wake of the failed Geneva summit between President Bill Clinton and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
But just beneath the official resolve to persist were other reactions: anger, disappointment and genuine confusion about where to turn next in a peace process that seems to have reached yet another dead end.
The administration had tried to tamp down expectations in the days before Clinton jetted halfway around the world to meet the Syrian leader, but insiders admit they expected the president to come home with at least a decision to resume Syrian-Israeli talks, which were stalled after the Shepherdstown conference in early January.
Instead, the immovable, unreadable Syrian dictator spurned the presidential initiative, leaving Clinton hanging out to dry.
Assad's latest feint toward peace will have adverse consequences in a number of areas:
Support for the
Assad consistently misses this fundamental fact: Israel is a democracy, and its voters must approve any agreement giving him the Golan Heights. That vote will be a referendum on voters' trust for Assad, as well as for Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
From the outset, the Syrian leader has refused to make even minor gestures of reconciliation; his snubs and his inflexibility make it less and less likely Israeli voters will approve a deal.
Assad's latest gambit -- playing Clinton for a chump -- just reinforced the arguments of the Israeli rejectionists who insist he is an untrustworthy negotiating partner.
Assad craves closer ties to Washington; indeed, peace process critics say that, and not peace with Israel, is his real goal.
At the least, he wants his country removed from the list of nations supporting terrorism. What he hopes for is economic aid and private investment to rehabilitate his shattered economy.
So why does he continue to play games that seem calculated to embarrass and anger his would-be benefactors? Why won't he make even the minor gestures toward Israel demanded by Washington?
U.S. officials have cut Assad a lot of slack; in return, in their view, they keep getting kicked in the teeth. That's not a formula for the positive relations Assad craves.
Time is running out for a number of reasons, including Assad's own ill health, but he acts as if he has all the time in the world.
Clinton, entering the home stretch of his presidency, has been more willing than any of his predecessors to listen to Syrian concerns and weave them into an overall peace framework. His successor -- Democrat or Republican -- is unlikely to be so tolerant.
The same applies to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose coalition is tottering; Assad's impenetrable maneuvers aren't helping the Israeli leader.
If Assad believes he can make a better deal with Barak's successor, the "intermittent dementia" intelligence officials say is hampering his functioning may have progressed further than anyone suspects.
And Israel's promised withdrawal from Lebanon in July, or even sooner -- with or without an agreement with Syria -- represents another kind of deadline, shadowed by the prospect of confrontation and violence.
Pro-Israel lobbyists who are pushing a huge package considered necessary to underwrite any Israeli-Syrian deal were already facing tough odds, thanks to the foreshortened congressional calendar, election-year partisan wrangling and a tight budget.
Assad, by spurning the president in Geneva, make their job incalculably harder.
Opponents of the peace process have been effectively exploiting Republican hostility to the Clinton administration and wielding their trump card: dislike of Assad.
Why spend billions of U.S. dollars to support a treaty with a dictator who can't or won't fully commit to the peace process, they ask? This week's Geneva fiasco will make that argument resonate much more strongly in Washington.
Without the promise of a huge new security package, Israel's government will have a much harder time reassuring its constituents that returning the Golan Heights to Assad will not jeopardize their country's security.
And the package will include international economic aid for Syria, possibly including limited U.S. funding. Indeed, Israeli officials have been quietly lobbying Congress for such aid after a deal; Assad's performance on Sunday sawed off the limb they were precariously perched on.
This week, officials in Washington were still assessing the damage from Sunday's disaster and looking for new avenues to pursue. There were reports that the administration will ratchet up the pressure on Assad and promises that they will not abandon the peace process.
But some officials are beginning to ask this question: are they just being jerked around by a Syrian leader who is using the negotiations as tokens in some other game?
It's the same question Israel's leaders are asking; in the wake of Geneva, the answers are not reassuring.
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