A healthy debate is making the rounds among IDF Military Intelligence officers and Israeli security officials. It pertains to assessments - not concrete information - as to whether Syria's President Bashar Assad is serious or not.
The discussions began two weeks ago, in response to an interview in The New York Times in which Assad urged the Americans to pressure Israel to negotiate with his country. The debates picked up steam following Assad's visit to Cairo on Wednesday, during which he reiterated his offer to resume negotiations with Israel without preconditions.
The issue of Assad's credibility resembles the question of whether "Sharon is serious" when he talks about the dismantling of Jewish settlements and separation from the territories. Assad, like Sharon, is beholden to a deeply rooted world view; as in Sharon's case, the slightest verbal deviation from Assad's long-standing positions generates excitement.
At first glance, this comparison has one clear limitation. Unlike Sharon, Assad enjoys the advantage of one-man rule; theoretically, his moves are not hedged by Syria's veteran politicians, and he has the authority to initiate a new policy and prove that he is the architect of a new Syria. He could become another version of Jordan's King Abdullah II, who tirelessly promotes one initiative after the other.
However, if we brush off the layer of dust in our accounts of Syria's history, we recall that it was the father, Hafez Assad, who initiated the process of direct negotiations with Israel. Hafez Assad was both the ruler who determined the path of Syrian foreign policy and strategy and also the leader who deviated from this seemingly intransigent outlook. If Hafez Assad was the architect, his son Bashar is the on-site builder. If Hafez was the initiator, Bashar is the follower.
Bashar Assad's mode of operation is illustrated by the modest reforms he has instituted in his government: he has appointed a new Prime Minister, Naji al-Otari, yet this official has done little to shake up existing norms of administration. Assad will condone the establishment of private banks, but he will not alter the economy's basic structure. The government's key underlings - including Vice President Abd al Halim Khaddam and Foreign Minister Farouk Shara - have worked under the Assad family for a quarter century, and no replacements for them are in sight. Bashar Assad gambled that Saddam Hussein would survive the stand-off with the Americans; he severed ties with the official Palestinian leadership, and (unlike Iran) he chose not to develop close relations with European states.
If he is in any sense "ready" to undertake a diplomatic initiative, his disposition stems from a response to what has transpired in the region and to real or imagined threats. It appears that it will be easier for Assad to issue a declaration of his willingness to dismantle weapons of mass destruction than to engage in direct negotiations with Israel. This is because Bashar Assad, like his father, makes sure that Syria sticks with the pack. After Iran evinced anew its commitment to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and after Libya issued its historic consent, Assad will not want to remain alone as the lone exemplar of the Middle East's "axis of evil."
Negotiations with Israel are another matter. As Assad has explained in public interviews, he believes that an accord forged between Israel and the Palestinians without the Syrians will not guarantee peace to the entire region. Bashar views himself as the last obstacle blocking Israel's "entry" to the Middle East; and he will not permit such entry without exacting a price. His slogan "negotiations without preconditions" is facile. Syria, in fact, has one clear condition for talks - Israel's withdrawal from all lands conquered from Syria. This being the case, his declaration is no different from Israel's reference to "talks without preconditions;" in Israel's case, this phrase means "no return to the edge of the Sea of Galilee." Therefore, whether Israel or Syria really does or doesn't want talks, the negotiations are destined to bog down exactly at the point where they were derailed the last time.
Assad is not the only one whose "readiness" is to be tested. Israelis who now assess his intentions will themselves have their "readiness" tested. As an early indication of how the test with Syria will fare, it will be important to see whether Sharon is ready to dismantle a single outpost, or Gaza Strip settlement, before he moves on the Golan Heights.
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