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Regional Outlook : The Syrian Link : The Mideast peace chain has come up short in Damascus. The bottom line is, Hafez Assad wants the Golan Heights back.


ATHINI, Syria — The wind whipped off Golan Heights and pressed Hamad Safadi's Bedouin robes close against his frail, 70-year-old body. His hands shook, one fumbling with a battery-powered bullhorn and the other with a pair of field glasses. Finally, teetering near the edge of a cliff the Syrians call the Speaking Line, Safadi gazed across a valley of ancient and abandoned farms into a small village more prosperous than he had imagined, and he placed the microphone near his lips.

"Salman Shahadi! Mohammed Shahadi! It's me! Hamad Safadi," the old Syrian farmer called out, waving to two old men who were little more than white-robed specks behind a barbed wire fence across half a mile of demilitarized buffer zone.

"Praise to God, Hamad Safadi. It is you," came the hollow shout from the other side. And tears welled up in the old Syrian's eyes.

This meeting across the armistice line that divides the Syrian and Israeli-occupied Golan Heights marked the first time Hamad Safadi had laid eyes on his two cousins in more than a quarter century. Only U.N. personnel are allowed to cross this no-man's-land, so Safadi could go no further.

The brief, long-distance conversation among the old Druze cousins under the watchful eyes of Syrian and Israeli army mountainside outposts that morning was as much a metaphor for the towering obstacles in the way of a complete Middle East peace as the strange bit of real estate where it happened--the place the residents call the Shouting Valley.

Peace was breaking out all around them last week, with a historic handshake in Washington and a breakthrough agreement between Israel and Jordan. But here on the Golan Height, cousins had to settle for a distant glimpse and a shout between hillsides.

"So what about this new peace between Palestine and Israel? Will it happen here?" one of Safadi's long-lost cousins yelled, after comparing notes about relatives dead, gone, married and born.

"God willing, there will be a peace here too, so we can see and touch each other again," the old Syrian shouted back. "But we don't know the opinion of our leaders, what it will be. Maybe their opinion will differ from ours."

So far, at least, it seems it has.

An official sign near the Speaking Line illustrates the depth of the problem: "Our Children in the Occupied Land Are a Thorn in the Throat of the Zionist Occupier." It is signed by Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Through the blur of speeches, signatures and ceremonies in recent days, once-unthinkable events that led so many to hope Middle East peace would be like dominoes falling in a line, the Arab world's most durable dictator has been lukewarm, at best.

In an interview published over the weekend by the Egyptian newspaper Al Akhbar, Assad said "no one has gained except Israel" from the Israeli-PLO agreement signed last week at the White House.

However, he added that Syria remains committed to peace negotiations and does not consider the PLO's deal with Jerusalem a threat. "Considering we are enemies it is natural that we must be cautious," he added.

In fact, in a land where Assad often sends messages through proxies, there have been signals that the Syrian leader is both displeased and deeply frustrated by the pace and direction of the peace process.

His authoritarian government has sanctioned angry, anti-Arafat demonstrations in the streets of Damascus. And it has stood by while opposition Palestinian groups use the Syrian capital as a staging ground for an attempt to convene an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization to work against Arafat and derail the peace train.

Last Wednesday, President Clinton telephoned Assad for the second time in a week, urging the Syrian leader to restrain radical Palestinian opponents of the Israel-PLO agreement. White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers quoted her boss as telling Assad he believes comprehensive peace in the Middle East is possible with Syria's support. "I very much want to see an agreement between Israel and Syria, and I want to emphasize my personal commitment to making progress on all fronts of the peace process," Clinton said.

For their own reasons, however, both Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin seem content to bide their time before renewing efforts at resolving their differences.

In short, according to diplomats, Syrians and other Arab analysts in the region, the peace train--for the moment at least--stops here.

"There will be no dramatic moves," said one Western diplomat in Damascus. "Assad is just sitting back, waiting to see how these Palestinian institutions are going to work."

"President Assad has time on his side," added Jawad Anani, Jordan's deputy prime minister and a key delegate who helped draft Jordan's agreement with Israel. "He has lived so long without the Golan Heights, he can continue like this for some time more."

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