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With Assad, Israel Has the Enemy It Knows--And Can Deal With : Mideast: Now that the trustworthy Syrian dictator has signed on to the U.S.-backed peace plan, Shamir seems ready to go to conference.

July 28, 1991|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey

WASHINGTON — Syrian President Hafez Assad has always held a special fascination for his adversaries. Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger has written of his admiration for the Syrian leader's skilled bargaining in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Former President Jimmy Carter developed such a strong attachment that, according to a classified State Department cable, he told a group of Syrian professors in Damascus, in 1983, that Assad was "one of the few close personal friends" he had among world leaders.

Now Secretary of State James A. Baker III seems to have joined the Assad fan club. For weeks, Baker has been telling skeptical aides that, while he could not predict Israeli behavior, he felt certain Assad was ready to sign on to the U.S.-designed Middle East peace conference.

Even the Israelis are susceptible to Assad's charms. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is hinting he, too, is ready to accept the U.S. plan--because it looks as if Assad has undergone a major conversion and is ready to talk peace with Israel.

But then, the Israelis have always been willing to do business with Assad. In fact, he has long been their favorite enemy. Before her notorious meeting with Saddam Hussein on the eve of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, former U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie was better known in Middle East circles for her Syrian boosterism. At a dinner party several years ago, Glaspie provoked quite a row when she asserted that Israel preferred Assad to any conceivable replacement.

A vigorous debate ensued, with some Israeli experts arguing Assad was the worst kind of enemy--one who had the unique ability to take a relatively small and poor country like Syria and make it a mortal threat. These experts pointed to Assad's skillful strategy during the 1982-1984 Lebanon War, when he outmaneuvered both the United States and Israel. But Glaspie countered that private conversations with numerous Israeli officials had convinced her they were comfortable doing business with this calm, methodical and, most important, trustworthy dictator.

Subsequent canvassing of a wide sampling of Israeli military, political and intelligence types lent credence to much of Glaspie's arguments. Even better proof is evident in Lebanon and across the common border, where Israelis and Syrians scrupulously respect each others' vital interests--what are called, in diplomatic parlance, "red lines." In practical terms, this requires Israel to refrain from direct attacks on Syrian military positions in Lebanon. For Syria, it means ensuring no terrorist raids against Israel are launched from Syrian territory. In short, since the Lebanon War, Assad was the perfect partner with whom to maintain the status quo.

But outside the Middle East, the world was changing. By the end of the 1980s, it was clear the Cold War was over--a victory for the United States and a defeat for the Soviet Union. For the Arabs, particularly the Soviet Union's Syrian and Iraqi clients, this brought unwelcome changes. The Soviets did not even try to cushion the blow. New envoys were dispatched to the Arab world, including Alexander I. Zotov, sent to Damascus after spending seven years in Washington. Zotov, an outspoken critic of the 1967 Soviet decision to break diplomatic relations with Israel, wasted no time in letting the Syrians know that Moscow would no longer underwrite their confrontation with Israel.

By early 1990, the message was getting through. If the Arabs needed a tangible sign of the collapse of Soviet power, they had only to look to the tens of thousands of Soviet Jews arriving in Israel. The Iraqis were the first to react. In February, Hussein took the issue head on, vowing to protect all Arabs against what he called the threat of U.S. "hegemony." In May, he hosted an Arab summit, using the issue of Soviet Jewish immigration to draw even moderates like Egypt to Baghdad. But the ever-cautious Assad stayed away.

These days many observers congratulate Assad for having the sagacity to choose the winning side of the Gulf War. They note he was well paid for his support--estimates range upward to $5 billion from Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Gulf sheikdoms. He also got a large measure of revenge against his longtime rival, Hussein, who had humbled Syria's main regional ally, Iran, after an eight-year war.

But Assad's participation in the coalition was not cost-free. At home he had to manage the tricky transition from scourge of the West and intimidator of moderate Arabs to friend and protector of both. In addition, from the moment Assad signed on, it was clear that, if Syria's military contribution was negligible, the political symbolism of a "radical" army siding with the U.S.-led coalition was crucial. As one cynical State Department official said at the time, "It's certainly a relief to all concerned to have support beyond the usual stooges."

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