The past commands the interest and respect of Hafez Assad, and many of his Syrian subjects, far more than does the future. That is why peace with Israel has been expendable to Assad for three decades--and why it is likely to remain a secondary goal in the new round of Middle East diplomacy announced by President Clinton last week.
Let us hope that Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright will succeed where Bill Clinton and Warren Christopher did not. The arrival of Ehud Barak as Israel's prime minister gives U.S. diplomacy reason and opportunity for a final go at durable peace agreements along the Golan Heights and in Lebanon.
But let us also be realistic. It is Assad's grand historic timetable, not Clinton's dwindling future, that counts for Damascus. The American president's impending departure is a deadline for him, not for the Syrians or Barak. They have every incentive to explore what Clinton will pay for contributions, symbolic or real, to legacy.
Visions of plugging into an Internet world, of welcoming floods of Western and Israeli tourists and investment, or of proclaiming platitudes in Oslo as he receives a Nobel Prize, do not dance in Assad's head.
He bludgeons interviewers and secretaries of state alike with history, often beginning a discussion of his latest problems in Lebanon or contacts with Israel by going back to the Crusades. They were worth 30 minutes in one four-hour conversation I had with him in Damascus.
It is easy to understand Syria's dedication to past glories rather than to the dismal present. Greater Syria once stretched from the southern Turkish coast to the Gulf of Aqaba, a territory that encompasses today's Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem became urban jewels of the Arab portion of the Ottoman Empire.
The Arab Revolt of 1917 and the arrival of French and British colonial rule in the Levant splintered this territory. Even the recent past has emphasized truncation and loss: Assad was part of the military command that lost the Golan territory to Israel in the 1967 war and then seized power in Damascus in 1970.
Using ruthless repression when challenged at home, Assad has weathered the modern political cycles of Arab war and peace with Israel, the economic cycles of oil money's boom and bust and the diplomatic cycles of American leaders who have alternately wooed him with flattery and threatened him with destruction.
The United States employed flattery to win announcement last week of the resumption of the Israeli-Syrian talks broken off in 1996. Assad gets payment in advance in the currency most valuable to him: manifest respect by American and Israeli leaders for Syria's presumed centrality in the Middle East. This currency provides psychic compensation for Syria's enduring sense of loss, at no real cost to Washington or Jerusalem.
Albright talked Barak into coming to Washington for a ceremonial meeting this week. That meeting will not be with Assad, who rarely leaves Syria, but with Syria's longtime foreign minister, Farouk Charaa.
Barak is clearly not hung up on protocol. He seemed to have no problem with granting what will be portrayed in Damascus as an act of homage and deference to Syria's mighty lion of a leader.
Fanfare has its uses: Barak also agreed to the announcement of the talks in Washington by Clinton at a year-end presidential press conference, long after Israel's evening news broadcasts were off the air. The announcement was valuable stroking for Assad, who now has an American president acting as his spokesman.
Clinton is right to offer U.S. help in testing whether recent intimations of mortality may have changed the priorities of the aging and ailing Assad, who seeks above all to preserve an Alawite dynasty in Syria. Peace and the complications it offers for the future are secondary.
But the United States should play only a minor role in these talks, which must be direct negotiations between Syrians and Israelis. A high U.S. profile risks sidetracking the talks into an exercise in confirming a Syrian centrality in the Middle East that in fact no longer exists--an outcome Assad would welcome.
Trading land for a still unsatisfactory peace with Egypt has brought many side benefits for Israel in the Arab world and elsewhere. But the disappointments with Eygpt have also raised the threshold for the kind of peace the Israelis want in return for the Golan. This is a result of Assad's waiting that the Syrian leader must now address if Clinton's last throw of the diplomatic dice is to succeed.