Clinton Meets Assad, A Dictator's Dictator


Hafez el Assad is the dictator's dictator: strong, long-lasting, and if not beloved, at least not reviled by his people.

The leader of Syria, who will meet President Clinton in Geneva today, has been said to be comparable to Saddam Hussein, only smarter. There are many similarities, though the two autocrats -- are old and committed foes.

The comparison is key to a question at the heart of today's Geneva summit: Is the United States making the same mistake by dealing with Mr. Assad that it made with Mr. Hussein?

L Or, put another way, can an old dictator change his stripes?

Until Saddam Hussein trooped into Kuwait in August 1990, the West had viewed him with favor. He was seen as a reformed demagogue, a voice of moderation, an anchor of stability, a counterbalance to extremists, and a refuge of secularism in a sea of rising religious fervor.

Mr. Assad is being painted in much the same way. The regime that was vilified as a black pirate of terrorism and tyranny is now enjoying a softening of image.

Those making the case can point to significant, real evidence: Mr. Assad took a bold step in joining the Western coalition (at least nominally on the side of Israel) during the Persian Gulf war; his human rights record within Syria now has some positive entries; he agreed to enter into direct negotiation with Israel in the Mideast peace talks; he has again loosened restrictions on immigration of Jews from Syria.

"He is more moderate now," acknowledges Dr. Yossi Olmert, an expert on Syria in Israel. "But not less of a terrorist."

Indeed, the other face of Mr. Assad remains: He harbors some of the most extreme radical groups in the Middle East; he continues to stir the pot in southern Lebanon by permitting attacks on Israeli forces by the Hezbollah guerrillas; his troops remain camped in Lebanon; and he remains opposed to the peace treaty between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Domestically, he continues to rule Syria with a web of secret police agencies that ensnare his people in fear. Internationally, he remains unpredictable and obstructionist, an inscrutable figure who has earned the nickname "the Sphinx."

Mr. Assad "keeps his cards very close to his chest," acknowledged Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

It is a habit of cunning that has allowed Mr. Assad to remain in power 23 years in a country where weakness or misstep usually meant replacement.

The young air force pilot joined a coup in 1963 that brought the Ba'ath Party to power, one in 1966 that brought the military wing to power, one in 1970 that brought him to power. Many of his opponents were killed or have languished in prison ever since.

There have been challenges, chiefly by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic movement opposed to his non-religious military regime. It was the suppression of that challenge that gave him his most chilling reputation.

When a Muslim Brotherhood ambush in the city of Hama, 125 miles north of Damascus, killed 90 soldiers in 1982, Syrian troops under his brother Rifaat leveled large portions of the town with tanks, artillery, dynamite and finally steamrollers. Estimates of the death toll range from 10,000 to 30,000.

The stock term for Mr. Assad's relationship with Israel was "implacable foe." He teamed up with Egypt in the surprise attack of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and he castigated Egypt five years later when it made peace with Israel.

For years, Syria kept up a drumbeat of vitriolic propaganda against the Zionist state. It has been a mantra of his regime to recover the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967.

What, then, leads anyone to believe he has changed? Basically, the world has changed, and Mr. Assad is smart enough to realize it. When the Soviet Union splintered and crashed, Syria lost its chief economic and military prop. The United States became the only superpower, and Mr. Assad wants to be on the winning side.

Mr. Assad's antiquated, centralized economy needs an infusion of capital and trade. Without the Soviet bloc, Mr. Assad must look to the West for that. Again, he needs U.S. favor. The cost to Syria for that favor is peace with Israel. It is a bitter pill for Mr. Assad, and for years he could stall before swallowing it, making incremental steps while jockeying for the best deal.

But Yasser Arafat's betrayal of the promise of one-for-all, all-for-one unity in the negotiations with Israel startled Mr. Assad. When the PLO made its secret deal with Israel in September, Syria suddenly saw the prospect of being cut out of the game.

"Syria cannot remain alone without an agreement with Israel," concluded Khalid Fahoum, a Palestinian academic in Damascus. Step by step, the Arab boycott of Israel will stop. Step by step, diplomatic relations will begin with Israel. Syria will be isolated."

"He can't afford for Syria to be left behind in the talks," agreed a Western diplomat in Damascus. At age 64, in questionable health, Mr. Assad does not have the luxury of time.

But he still has cards. He keeps the 10 Palestinian groups opposed to the peace pact safe and fed in Damascus, and keeps a slack leash on the troublesome Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Israel, and the United States, want those various groups curbed to avoid trouble for the plan to start Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip and Jericho.

"If Syria continues without a solution [to its conflict with Israel] this Gaza-Jericho agreement will fail," predicted Mr. Fahoum. "If Syria finds a solution, then the agreement will work."

The deal seems obvious. Syria will reign in the rejectionist groups in return for improved ties with the West. President Clinton may take Syria off the list of terrorism-sponsoring states, giving a green light for trade to begin.

Syria will agree to make peace, in stages, with Israel in return for Israel's retreat, in stages, from the Golan Heights.

If the solution seems too simple, perhaps it is. There are other parties with considerations. Some feel the U.S. demands on Syria are so unabashedly tailored for Israel's interests that other legitimate issues are being overlooked.

"They talk about the peace process, but about human rights they don't say anything," said Haytham Manna, a Syrian who heads an organization of exiles in Paris demanding democracy and improved human rights.

In 1991 and 1992, Syria briefly seemed intent on improving its human rights record, and released 8,000 political prisoners. But since attention focused solely on the peace process with Israel, none of the remaining 5,000 political prisoners was freed. Mr. Assad's 16 secret police forces continue to arrest, torture and imprison at will.

The Palestinians, too, wonder if they will be forgotten in the U.S. rush to promote an Israel-Syria embrace. A U.S. congressional team last week went to Syria to try to get information about eight missing Israeli servicemen, provoking the Jerusalem newspaper Al-Quds to ask, "What about missing Palestinians?"

"Peace is supposed to serve Israel, and the whole world is supposed to search for missing Israelis," the paper remarked bitterly.

Even the Syrians feel their viewpoint may be subjugated by this process. Syria is portrayed as the bully who must be muzzled with a peace agreement. But Syrians note that Israel has occupied Syrian territory since 1967, invaded Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982, and maintains bristling armaments aimed at Damascus.

"The Syrians are also afraid of a new war on the Israeli side," said Walid Shehadeh, editor of the Syrian Times in Damascus. "The Israeli side is armed with more sophisticated weapons."

Finally, Mr. Assad himself is constrained by the propaganda of his own making. For so many years, Israel was depicted as the enemy, so he is now loath to accept Israel's terms for peace: full diplomatic recognition, a peace treaty, exchange of ambassadors, an Israeli embassy in Damascus, open borders, Israeli tourists in Syria.

"Assad is very reluctant to go down that path," said a diplomat in Damascus. "He doesn't want to be seen by the Syrian people as running too fast."

For that reason, the summit is expected to have Assad-like results: cautious, careful, reserved.

"The results will be more than ceremonial, but less than dramatic," predicted Dr. Olmert. "He won't put everything on the table. He will not discard his options."

Doug Struck is The Baltimore Sun's Mideast correspondent.

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