Lingerie and other Western wares signal a new openness in Syria

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — DAMASCUS, Syria -- The racy black panties in the shop windows are a good omen for the peace talks.

Long the stock of smugglers, such things as un-Muslim-like lingerie, French perfume, Italian pens and Kellogg's Rice Krispies are now flowing legally and bountifully into stores here, a sign of Syria's new openings to the West.


Syria's participation in the Middle East peace talks is another sign. Its negotiators will arrive in Washington for the next scheduled round of negotiations tomorrow walking a tightrope toward an agreement.

On one side is a desire to win favor with the United States, and the election of a new Israeli administration that might strike a deal.


On the other is a deep and long-standing animosity between Israel and Syria and a seemingly intractable dispute over the mountains between them, the Golan Heights. President Bush's decision to support Israeli loan guarantees has made the tightrope all the more slippery.

"It will be difficult," Walid Shehadeh, editor of the Syrian Times, said of the negotiations. "But the chances of success are at least better than before."

While much attention has been focused on Israel's partial freeze of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, there has been little notice in the West of what Syria considers a reciprocal gesture to keep the peace talks moving.

In a meeting in Damascus last month with the other Arab negotiators, Syria agreed to Israel's proposed autonomy negotiations with the Palestinians, made a veiled acknowledgment of Israel's security needs on the Golan Heights and placed its signature over a written appeal for a peace accord.

Those are subtle changes, well-hidden in the usual rhetoric of the statement issued after the Arab meeting. But such subtleties are the fodder of diplomacy. Almost imperceptibly, Syria has come to the verge of meeting Israel's long-held goal of recognizing that the Jewish state is here to stay and that they might as well be peaceful neighbors.

"This is a very deep change, to accept the state of Israel," said a Syrian political observer. "Twenty years ago, we believed we would expel Israel and drive the Zionists to hell."

Syria began nudging closer to the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The nation lost its superpower patron, its supplier of military and financial aid, and its chief protection against an Israeli attack.

President Hafez el Assad shrewdly picked the winner in the Persian Gulf war. But to extend the goodwill he won by siding with the United Nations coalition in that conflict, he must help keep the peace talks alive.


That is a bitter pill for Syria. It is hard to overestimate the deep resentment and suspicion by the Syrian public toward the spurting growth of Israel in the past 44 years.

"We aren't programming people's minds. They can see on their own the Israelis really don't want peace. Israel wants to control the region," said Yahya al-Aridi, who holds a doctorate from Georgetown University and produces a weekly political program Syrian television.

The peace negotiations will be more difficult because of the Bush administration's decision this month to support $10 billion pTC in loan guarantees to Israel. The move is widely seen here as a sellout of the Arabs by Mr. Bush to get re-elected.

"He really tried to say no to the Israelis," Mr. Aridi lamented. "But now to give up -- well, Zionism programs everything."

Syria has said it will come to the Washington talks, but the Arab press has castigated Mr. Bush's move, and there is talk by Palestinians of boycotting the meeting.

But Syria cannot afford to simply turn its back on the peace talks. Its economy is stagnant. Mr. Assad wants economic favors from the West and relief from the demands of keeping a military that by some estimates eats up half the gross national product.


"He knows he needs the West. He knows he needs good relations with the Americans," said a diplomat here. "He knows what will preserve him is if he gets his economy going, and to do that he needs to open up to the West."

Mr. Assad has done so by lifting import restrictions and price controls and relaxing some of the state controls on the economy. The effect has been a flood of new consumer goods in the markets.

It is a relief in a country where five years ago stores offered only long lines and few choices. But critics contend that corrupt government officials are raking in enormous kickbacks on the trade, and the resultant prices are out of reach for most Syrians.

Mr. Assad has taken fewer steps to relax his totalitarian grip. Secret police still cast a blanket of fear on the citizens. Human rights groups still report horror stories from inside Syrian jails. And Mr. Assad's "re-election" in December with 99.98 percent approval was patently fixed.

But he has relaxed emigration rules for Syrian Jews to satisfy a long-standing international campaign on their behalf, and last year he announced the release of about 3,000 political prisoners.

"Assad will do what it takes to stay in power," said another diplomat here. "If that means making peace, I believe he is willing to make peace, as long as he considers it honorable."


That may be the catch. Mr. Assad has made it a point of nationalist pride to regain the Golan Heights seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, promised in his campaign not to give up control of the area, which looks down on Israeli settlements.

There have been suggestions of a novel arrangement in the area, such as a demilitarized zone or a long-term lease by Israel of the mountaintops.

But for all of his 20-year reign, Mr. Assad has railed at the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, and he would find it difficult to accept any arrangement that falls short of ending that.

"If Israel is not going to quit the occupied land, why should we want peace," he asked in a television interview last year. "For what? No people can accept a substitute for their land."