The Syrian-Israeli peace talks inaugurated in Washington last week have a long way to go. But the forces buffeting Syria and President Hafez Assad are pushing toward agreement with an urgency unequaled in Assad's long career.
Nearing 70 and in less-than-perfect health, facing hints of political division and a need for economic modernization, the "Sphinx of Damascus" has many reasons not to wait any longer to make peace with his Jewish neighbors. Syria "is a one-man show," said Georges Jabbour, a Syrian political scientist and former Assad adviser, and "time is not to his advantage."
Viewed from Damascus, the key to resumption of the Syrian-Israel peace talks was Israel's election of Prime Minister Ehud Barak in May. He took office declaring he had a mandate to seek peace on all fronts--with Palestinians hoping for a state, with Lebanese whose southern hills host guerrillas fighting to drive Israeli occupation forces from their soil, and with Syrians eager to end the 32-year occupation of the Golan Heights.
Assad had long ago declared willingness to negotiate peace with Israel provided the Golan--seized during the 1967 Middle East War--was returned to Syria. When Israel was governed by Yitzhak Rabin, the two countries began the talks. But they were suspended in 1996, after Rabin's assassination.
In that light, Assad seized on Barak's election, sending public and private signals that he wanted to resume the negotiations. Those signs, once subject to the Kremlinesque deciphering required to interpret official declarations here, were "a clear message to the Syrian people" that the country was ready to try again to move toward peace with its enemy of 50 years, said one Syrian official.
But Assad insisted the negotiations resume where they left off, with what he said was a promise from Rabin that the Golan would be returned to Syria if a satisfactory peace accord could be worked out. Although maintaining his desire to resume the talks, Barak said they should start fresh--and he denied that Rabin had made any commitment to withdraw.
The six-month impasse was suddenly broken by an artful compromise: The talks would resume where they left off, but each side was free to interpret what that meant. As a result, Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa formally reopened the negotiations Dec. 15 in Washington and agreed to return to the United States Jan. 3 to pursue them.
Undoing the legacy of the Golan's loss has been a paramount aim of Assad's presidency, and the conflict with Israel an important reason for the country's closed politics, closed economy and extensive military and security budget. Nervous about voicing dissent because of their government's security network, Syrians seem to defer to Assad as the one leader strong enough to bridge the country's social fault lines and deal with the Israelis from a position of strength.
A member of the minority Alawite sect of Muslims, Assad rose to the presidency in a coup d'etat in 1970, ending decades of sectarian, interparty and class violence that had left the national government weakened. "In the history of Syria, since the Crusades . . . he is the man, the one, who is capable to make peace" with an adversary as profoundly distrusted as Israel, said Suheil Zakkar, a professor of medieval history at Damascus University.
However, after so many decades of war, maneuvering and failed diplomacy, the need for resolution has become obvious to many here, lest Assad's era pass with his main goal unattained. Talk about succession is frequent in Damascus, and it is a common assumption that part of Assad's strategy in negotiating with Israel is to increase chances that his son, Bashar, could take over.
In the past year, the London-trained ophthalmologist has assumed an increasingly public role, being dispatched on diplomatic trips to France and elsewhere and taking over as coordinator of Syrian policy on Lebanon. A computer-savvy technocrat, Bashar is considered a potential modernizing force who would likely advocate a more open economy and more democracy.
But even Assad loyalists fear Bashar would not be much of an adversary for the Israelis. They worry that if a deal for the Golan is not concluded now, any future Syrian leader would be too concerned with consolidating power to pursue peace or proceed with economic and political reforms.
In addition, some of the country's old tensions have resurfaced. This fall, Syrian officials confirmed that they had shut down a facility in Latakia operated by Assad's brother, Rifaat, once the country's number two man before being stripped of power for a suspected coup attempt in the 1980s. The incident was "more than a family feud," said Jabbour, and a reminder that Assad's passing could trigger a messy power struggle.
No one has suggested Assad's authority is waning, and even questions about his health yield contradictory opinions. For every diplomat who says the president seems weakened by a long battle with diabetes and other ailments, there is another who says he remains focused and commanding; for every analyst who says the peace talks may be hard to conduct because of his health, there is another who says he wants to deal quickly for the same reason.
Syria's economy has generated growing concern. As Assad has focused on his abiding foreign policy goals, virtually every country around him, with the exception of Iraq, has changed its leadership or its policies and generally moved toward more economic and political openness. But here, much of the formal economy remains in the hands of the state. Officially, the annual per capita income for Syria's 17 million people is $800. But economists say more is earned via informal trade through Lebanon and Turkey.
"The nation is at a very critical point, because the main interest and actions of our president were given to foreign policy, and the inside development in many fields was left in the hands of irresponsible people," said Riad Seif, an industrialist and member of the Syrian People's Assembly who has campaigned for more accountability in how the government spends its money.
Since the 1980s, and particularly since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, there has been talk of economic reform, but little has happened. The U.S. government's commercial guide for the country talks of a bureaucracy so overweening it has required businesses to account for supplies as picayune as used spark plugs and paint cans, for fear the items could be resold on the black market.
Foreign currency accounts are forbidden in all but a few circumstances, and tariffs and import policies are among the most protectionist in the world. The banking system--state-owned, low-tech and slow-moving--remains rudimentary.
Prospects for growth, as the country is currently managed, depend on gifts from Persian Gulf countries, a healthy oil economy and hope that former East Bloc countries will not call in billions of dollars in loans. None of those things is certain, even oil.
Some estimates predict Syria, which exports a modest 600,000 barrels a day, will have to start importing to meet domestic consumption within a decade.
If only by allowing Syria to focus on those other problems, a peace treaty could have an important effect, said Jabbour, freeing the country "from this cycle of wanting to defeat Israel . . . a challenge that for the last 50 years we could not honor."