Hafiz al-Assad's on-again, off-again approach to the Middle East peace process frequently drives U.S. and Israeli policymakers to distraction. Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton have argued that Syria's president has made a "strategic decision" to resolve his differences with Israel peacefully. But some wonder if Syria has really resigned itself to peace. Assad's refusal to return to the table after January's Israeli-Syrian peace talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, a subsequent wave of deadly violence in southern Lebanon, and a frosty March summit in Geneva with Clinton hardly seemed evidence of pacific intentions.

Is the Syrian leader temperamental and unpredictable? Have Clinton and Barak been gulled by the mistaken view -- first advanced by Henry Kissinger after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and now accepted as conventional wisdom in foreign ministries worldwide -- that Assad, a maddeningly clever negotiator, is entirely trustworthy once he has given his word? In light of Assad's enigmatic behavior, should Israel and the United States not forgo the notion that only procedure, not substance, stands in the way of an Israel-Syria agreement?

Many pundits in Israel and the United States have answered yes to all these important questions. A pall of skepticism enveloped the Syrian track, especially after attacks on Israeli troops by Hezbollah, the radical Shiite militia that operates with Assad's blessing in southern Lebanon. Indeed, for some observers, Syria's behavior showed that Assad is not resigned to Israel's existence and is interested not in peace but in process -- in stringing out the negotiations to preserve Syria's regional position rather than cutting a deal.

But this is a serious misreading of Assad, one that could easily lead policymakers to miss a rare opportunity to achieve a larger Middle East peace. In fact, Assad's behavior has been anything but erratic: it has been consistent and predictable. To understand that consistency, one must understand the man known as the sphinx of Damascus and the world in which he lives.

HOW THE SPHINX THINKS

Syria has long been the great holdout in the peace process and the leader of Arab hard-liners who reject accommodation with the Jewish state. Assad himself was defense minister when Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, and since then, he has kept their return high on his list of priorities, which also includes reinforcing his narrowly based regime and extending de facto Syrian control over Lebanon. But when Assad's Soviet patron collapsed, the sphinx of Damascus began rethinking his anti-Western orientation. He joined the 1991 Gulf War coalition against his rival, Saddam Hussein, and sent Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara to the subsequent Madrid peace conference. Analysts such as Moshe Ma'oz argued that Assad had realized that he no longer had a military option and had adopted a new Israel strategy based on diplomacy.

Such a decision helps explain the 1994 series of high-level negotiations between Syria and Israel at the Wye Plantation in Maryland in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian pact negotiated at Oslo the previous year. The Wye talks were broken off in 1996 by Israel, not Syria, after Syria refused to condemn a spree of terrorist attacks on Israeli buses by Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group. The Israel-Syria track remained on hiatus during the prime ministership of the hard-line Binyamin Netanyahu, but great expectations arose after the 1999 election of Barak, who promised to push hard for a deal with Damascus and praised Assad as a bold modernizer. Clinton said repeatedly that a deal swapping the Golan Heights for peace was well within reach. When Assad sent Shara to negotiate with Barak in Shepherdstown in January, it was the highest-level meeting ever between the two sides.

Where is the consistency in this track record? The key is that Assad has devoted his life to what he sees as the defense of the Arab national cause. That cause, Assad believes, was betrayed by his fellow Arab leaders -- from Egypt's Anwar al-Sadat, who made a separate peace with Israel in 1978, to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chair Yasir Arafat, who agreed to the 1993 Oslo accords, to Jordan's King Hussein, who signed a peace treaty in 1994. Assad has pledged that, unlike those weak leaders who capitulated to Israel and the United States, he will uphold the dignity of Arab unity without compromise. The ailing Assad wants this steadfastness to be his legacy. He also hopes to guarantee his place in Arab history by passing power to his son, Bashar, whom Assad figures will find it easier to take the reins if Syria makes its painful accommodation with the Jewish state on the elder Assad's watch.

How would an Assad-style peace with Israel differ from the pacts reached by the Arab leaders whom he has so passionately condemned? Assad has always emphasized a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, bitterly opposing separate bilateral agreements with Israel. But since Egypt, Jordan, and the plo have all concluded bilateral deals with Israel, what meaning can the principle of comprehensiveness now have? Assad concedes that comprehensiveness no longer has a geographic dimension. He calls comprehensiveness no longer horizontal but vertical -- meaning that unlike such "discredited" Arab leaders as Sadat and Arafat, who both left key issues about Palestinian rights for later talks, Assad would not defer the resolution of any issue standing between Syria and Israel. Israel will have to clearly and definitively commit itself to the full return of all Syrian territory before Assad will shake hands with an Israeli prime minister. Were he to do otherwise, he says, the Arab world would judge him a hypocrite who behaved no differently than those he excoriated.

Given this steely conviction, Assad's public statements praising Barak's integrity and courage shortly after Barak's election last May were most unusual. These statements would not have been made, nor would Assad have agreed to send Shara to Shepherdstown, had Barak not assured Assad (via Clinton) that the 1967 armistice lines could become the border between Israel and Syria. That would let Syria reclaim the entire Golan Heights, which it held until the Six-Day War. Many analysts had thought that Israel would hold out for the international border demarcated by France and Britain in 1923, but Barak instead reaffirmed the commitment that his mentor, the martyred Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, had made to Assad. The issue is not as arcane as it sounds: the 1923 lines would keep the Sea of Galilee, with its precious reserves of fresh water, entirely within Israel's borders. For Assad, the Israeli promise to return to the 1967 borders unlocks the door to negotiations with Israel without risking being seen as a traitor to Arab nationalism.

FROM BEIRUT TO JERUSALEM

If Assad has had his way forward cleared, why did the Shepherdstown process stall and why did southern Lebanon erupt? Things went wrong when an American draft peace treaty given confidentially to the parties in Shepherdstown was leaked to both the Arab and the Israeli press. This working document revealed that Syria and Israel had already agreed on many issues relating to security and normalized relations -- before the joint committee in charge of the border issue had even met. Indeed, the American draft openly admitted that the parties continued to disagree over borders. So Assad was blasted throughout the Arab world as someone who had made major concessions to Israel -- for example, promising to join Israel in fighting terrorism -- even before Israel had agreed to withdraw to the 1967 lines.

Clinton has insisted that the problem was merely procedural. But for the badly humiliated Assad, it cut more deeply than most substantive issues. After the embarrassment of the release of the American draft, Assad refused to return to the talks -- despite Clinton's efforts in Geneva -- without a clear public acknowledgment by Barak of Israel's willingness to withdraw to the 1967 lines. Nothing less than that could remove the stigma now attached to Assad, who stood accused of being prepared to compromise Arab positions no less egregiously than the fellow Arab leaders whom he had criticized so bitterly. For Assad, it was a matter of salvaging his legacy -- and of salvaging the honor of Syria, a country that prides itself on being "the beating heart" of Arab nationalism.

Barak, then, made a serious tactical error when he decided not to publicize his agreement to withdraw to the 1967 border until he could show skeptical Israelis what they would get from Assad in return. Had Barak announced his intention to withdraw from the Golan early in his term, when he was still enjoying the momentum of his landslide victory, most Israelis would merely have said that he was sticking to his oft-declared principles. By insisting that he had not yet decided this issue, Barak painted himself into a corner.

Skeptics who questioned Assad's commitment to a drastic change of policy toward Israel pointed to Shara's hostile rhetoric and behavior in Washington -- where he gave an obstreperous speech during a handshake-free White House ceremony with Clinton and Barak -- and at the chilly Shepherdstown talks that followed. They also highlighted Assad's refusal to participate personally in the negotiations, reassure the Israeli public about his intentions, or rein in Syria's state-run press when it makes noxious comparisons between Israel and the Nazis or denies the Holocaust. Above all, they pointed to the heightened Hezbollah attacks in southern Lebanon, clearly intended to bleed Israel, embarrass Barak, and make it harder to resume talks.

But if one considers the larger context of Assad's biography and the Arab world within which he operates, these actions were entirely consistent with a desire to make peace. For Assad to be able to sign a peace agreement with Israel, he must be able to convince himself, the Syrian leadership, and the Arab world that he yielded absolutely nothing to Israel before he won a clear commitment from the Jewish state to a withdrawal that fully restored Syrian and Arab honor. The personal distance and angry rhetoric let Assad maintain what he insists is a distinction between himself and the treasonous Sadat, Arafat, and Hussein.

Hezbollah clearly would never have increased its lethal attacks against Israeli troops without Assad's go-ahead. By the same token, however, Assad also clearly kept Hezbollah from retaliating against Israel's northern cities after Israel responded to the Hezbollah attacks by bombing Lebanese power plants. Nothing happens in Lebanon, domestically or internationally, without Assad's approval. Heating up the Lebanese-Israeli border war was seen by Assad as essential to his claim that -- despite the American working document's suggestion that he, too, had caved in to Israel -- he remains the unyielding, reliable defender of Arab honor.

Indeed, in a striking speech by Shara to the Arab Writers' Union in Damascus on January 27, the Syrian foreign minister said that Israel's overwhelming military superiority and the support it receives from the United States had taken the war option off the table for good. Therefore, argued Shara, Syria must limit its conflict with Israel to the sphere of cultural and economic competition. If Israel returns to the June 1967 borders, he added, the Arab-Israeli conflict will be transformed from an existential one to a border dispute.

NEIGHBORHOOD BULLY

Despite Assad's strategic decision, many in Israel, Congress, and the American Jewish community resent Barak's apparent willingness to overlook Assad's cold and even insulting behavior toward him and Israeli negotiators. They insist that Israel not accept such offensive conduct, even as a condition for peacemaking.

Of course, Israel does not have to tolerate Syrian bad manners. But a peace accord with Syria has sweeping region-wide implications for Israel precisely because Assad is the meanest bully on the block. If Assad were a nice guy, the Arab world would not defer to him on normalization with Israel.

Barak understands Assad's reality very well, even if some of his ministers and much of the Israeli public do not. Notwithstanding Israel's unfortunate February bombing of Lebanon's power plants -- which avoided civilian fatalities but failed to stop Hezbollah's attacks -- Barak has tenaciously resisted the insistent calls by members of his own cabinet and the public for massive retaliation against Lebanon. Barak continues to take Assad's strategic commitment to peace seriously. The Israeli leader is aware, of course, that his own reluctance to own up to his agreement to return to the 1967 lines undermined Assad's position, and he understands that Assad needs to restore his own credibility in the Arab world in order to make peace with Israel.

Barak has placed himself in an unenviable position. He knows, given the mood of Israel's public, that belatedly conceding that he is willing to return the entire Golan could sink not only the public referendum he has promised to hold on any agreement with Syria but his own political future as well. A renewed round of talks would mean a weakened Barak.

Ironically, Barak has always considered a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from its "security zone" in southern Lebanon a reckless gambit. Still, his threat to pull out has been a key factor driving Assad to the table, for fear that the resultant vacuum would embolden Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons and perhaps even drag Syria into a clash with Israel. When Barak dramatically promised during the 1999 election campaign to withdraw Israel's troops by July 2000, he fully intended such a withdrawal to occur as part of an agreement with Syria, which controls Lebanon. But the intense domestic outcry over the recent steep rise in Israeli fatalities in southern Lebanon has made it impossible for Barak not to withdraw from Lebanon, even without a Syrian agreement. He has let the impression that his promise to pull out by July does not depend on an agreement with Syria go unchallenged for too long to deny it now. Were he to do so, his government would fall.

On the other hand, Barak knows that a unilateral withdrawal could have unpredictable consequences -- including more clout for Hezbollah in Lebanese politics or renewed attacks on northern Israel from Palestinian radicals in Lebanon -- that might foreclose Syrian-Israeli peace and continue Israel's regional isolation for a long time. The latter danger weighs most heavily on him. "We are speaking of a border that has only symbolic but not operative value," Barak said recently at a closed meeting with senior army officers. "Three hundred meters here or there should not stand in the way of [the] huge strategic asset represented by a comprehensive Middle East peace."

The dilemma in which both Assad and Barak find themselves is real and deep. Moreover, time is short. Barak has promised to pull out of Lebanon by July, and the ambitious Israeli prime minister hopes to wrap up both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks before the American election season. Barak cannot escape the need to accept the 1967 line rather than the 1923 border -- a concession he must make before negotiations resume. Assad, on the other hand, must accept minor but real deviations from the 1967 line to let Barak claim that he avoided the vulnerabilities that the 1967 frontier presents. But the changes cannot be so large as to cast doubt on whether the 1967 line in fact prevails. Fashioning such a formula should not be beyond the imagination and skills of the parties and of the American mediators. Only creative U.S. diplomacy can rescue Assad and Barak from their respective domestic plights. Misreading Assad does not help.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Henry Siegman is Senior Fellow and Director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • More By Henry Siegman