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In Syria, Assad's Words Speak Louder Than Deeds : Mideast: Damascus wants leader's desire for peace taken on faith. But Israel, others demand action.


DAMASCUS, Syria — The library was bursting out of the old house, so Suheil Zakkar built a large hall upstairs and laid in more books. There are more than 30,000 in all, a musty gilt, leather and ink shrine to the eras when Arabs fashioned an alphabet to set down their violent and lovely tales and liberated Jerusalem.

Zakkar, Syria's premier historian, spends most of his hours at a cramped desk in the shadow of his towering shelves, writing a new history of the Crusades in 26 volumes, this one through Arab eyes. It has been funded personally by Syrian President Hafez Assad. Next, Assad is commissioning a history of Damascus, believed to be the world's oldest inhabited city.

Zakkar spends his days recording and preserving a civilization. He leaves it to his tough-minded political benefactors to fashion the future. Destiny weaves a fine web of the two.

"There was a man named Hajib who in pre-Islamic history asked for wheat from the Persians. And when they said, 'How will you pay?' he said, 'I cannot give you more than my word' and (made) a small wooden bow. And the Persian emperor gave him what he needed. It took years after that, and Hajib died. But after those years, the tribe repaid the wheat," Zakkar recounted.

"Today, when President Assad said we are going to make peace with Israel, we have nothing to give but his word," he said. "They say that isn't enough. What shall we give them? Shall we give them Damascus as a hostage? If they want peace, they have to trust us. Let them try, and they will not lose. But let them not try, and they will surely lose."

As U.S. analysts sought to pinpoint new landmarks for Middle East peace forged by Assad's crucial meeting recently with President Clinton, it was rough going. The stubborn Syrian leader had repeated his demand for a full return of Syria's occupied Golan Heights and balked at publicly condemning a recent wave of terrorist acts in neighboring Israel.

He again declined to offer gestures proving he was serious about peace--he made no offers to meet with Israeli officials, declined all talk of an Israeli Embassy in Damascus and refused even to send envoys to last week's Middle East economic summit with Israeli leaders.

But in Damascus, the aging Assad's meaning was clear: In unequivocal terms, he had offered peace in exchange for occupied territory. He had defined peace as a strategic objective. Now, in the Syrian view that reaches back as far as history, it is up to Israel to take him, and this nation, at his word.

"When Syria said we want peace, the expectation in Syria is this statement should be believed," said Yehya Aridi, a political analyst close to Assad and a former professor at Washington's Georgetown University.

Yet it is equally clear that Syria's peace will come on its own terms, in its own time.

"There was an example for us when (PLO Chairman Yasser) Arafat and the Israelis went to Washington. They shook hands. They embraced even," Aridi said. "Do you feel Arafat has achieved peace now? How many Palestinians are happy with what has happened? Very, very few. Those who have an interest in Arafat getting them money. Does peace mean having money? There's something more valuable than that. There is dignity. There is the honor of the person. There is a saying in Arabic, 'Land is honor.'

"We have lived a long time like this, and we can live a long time longer," Aridi said.

"This land," he added, "is the first piece of Earth to have seen the sun. It is the cradle of civilization. The first alphabet was found here. It is the home of prophets. For this reason, we do no accept to be insulted. We do not accept to lose our dignity. And we have no need to make you feel comfortable. When we believe we are older than history, we can wait for a long, long time."

After the recent peace treaty signings by Jordan and the Palestinians, U.S. officials had hoped, with Clinton's intervention, to speed Syria to the peace table too. But by all indications, Syria is in no hurry. Far from eager to join the rush toward treaties with Israel, Syria is both the key to an enduring peace in the Middle East and the one nation most likely to stand in the way of its rapid realization.

"Assad has been talking the same game for 20 years. It's remarkable how consistent he's been. So nobody should hold out hope for bold new gestures," said a diplomat in the Syrian capital in the wake of Clinton's visit. "Assad has made the decision to seek peace, but at the moment, he has nothing compelling him to seek anything but the best possible deal."

Analysts here say Syria is ready to make peace on its own terms, but because of a number of factors, it cannot be expected to join Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization in signing a quick treaty, or one that compromises Damascus' basic demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

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