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Syrians Hope to Profit From Mideast Peace Dividend


DAMASCUS, Syria — Tareq Shallah listens to the tedious drumbeat of peace negotiations in the Middle East and hears the sweet clinking of coins--for him and his Syrian friends, for sure. And profits for the unknown Israelis who have always been the enemy, well, why not?

As head of the Syrian Assn. of Travel Agents, Shallah has already seen the beginnings of the peace dividend. Two years ago, with peace talks new and flailing, his company lured nary an American tourist to Syria. But last year, with the escalating pace of the talks, he sponsored two U.S. tour groups. This year, he has booked six. And for next year, more than two dozen are on the books.

Now, even the specter of droves of Israeli tourists to Syria's historic old crusader fortresses--such as the 600 a day who are expected to swoop into Jordan following this week's peace treaty signing--no longer chill his blood. "If you look at it from a business point of view, as a source of income, then I guess we have to put up with it!" he said.

With Thursday's visit by President Clinton to the Syrian capital, the first by an American President in 20 years, Shallah and others are growing increasingly optimistic--and impatient--that it is time for years of flirtation with peacemaking to finally pay off.

"The people of Syria have seen that our president is really serious about improving relations with the U.S. and they hope the U.S. could give something to Syria so they won't let down our president," Shallah said. "In that sense, most people are looking to President Clinton and his visit as maybe a savior."

There was anxiousness among Damascenes who awaited concrete news from the closed-door talks, a feeling that Syrians have too long paid the price of leading the Arab rejectionist front against Israel.

"Have you been to Israel? Is it true their lifestyle is very elevated, better than ours?" asks a curious oil-company employee.

"Better than anywhere else in the Middle East," he is assured. He turns to a friend and nods knowingly.

From the old, domed Hamadiya souk--where enthusiastic merchants were offering a 50% discount Thursday "for Clinton," to Damascus University, where students quietly debated the news--there was a sense with the American President's visit that a chink in the old armor of war may be opening.

Syrians who listened to Hafez Assad's cautious remarks Thursday came away convinced that the Syrian president meant what he said about peace.

"President Assad said this morning that peace is something strategic; that is what I understand," said one Damascus University professor. "And today when we listened to President Clinton and he gave a commitment that the U.S. will carry on to bring a settlement, we believed."

If Clinton gave signs that he had hoped for more from his nearly four-hour meeting with Assad, many Syrians were disappointed that neither the U.S. nor Syrian leadership appeared to make concrete strides toward breaking the logjam of the peace process.

And many were equally disappointed that Clinton made no move to remove Syria from the list of nations supporting terrorism, an act that would clear the way for badly needed new foreign investment. Largely skeptical of Jordan's quick peace agreement with Israel, they wonder if Syria will get the kind of break on foreign debt relief that welcomed Jordan's king to the peace fold.

"I would like to stay in my country and get a high enough salary to live on, but to do this we have to cancel the external debt and get U.S. aid for Syria. And until now we don't hear anything," said a young university graduate who is thinking of going abroad to seek work.

Manar Alwan, a 23-year-old French literature student in Damascus, said peace has its own rewards.

"Somehow we feel we are near an ending," Alwan said. "And you feel something different when you make a peaceful relation with your enemy. You start feeling safety in your home."

At the same time, Syrians are talking about peace with words such as dignity and honor. It is hard to find anyone who disagrees with Assad's insistence on a full recovery of the occupied Golan Heights, or with the banners that drape Damascus proclaiming, "Peace, But Peace With Honor."

The fact that Syria still isn't ready to leap toward peace appeared clear in the English-language Syrian Times published on the morning of Clinton's arrival. The paper put the news of Jordan's peace treaty with Israel near the bottom of the page--enclosing the word treaty in quotation marks--while leading the page with reports of Palestinian demonstrations against the "treaty."

"Partial and unilateral solutions . . . will continue to be rejected by us," warned the daily Al-Baath, mouthpiece of the ruling Baath Arab Socialist Party.

Clinton's visit was carried live on Syrian television, from the long line of ceremonial handshakes at the airport to the departure of Air Force One into the Syrian afternoon, the camera lingering as it disappeared into the blue.

A clutch of Syrian officials talked animatedly on the tarmac. And the business began in Damascus of trying to understand what, if anything, the plane had brought.

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