France Is Assad's Answer To Balance American Bias
By Adel Darwish
Syrian President Hafez Assad this week began a two day state visit to France that could mark Syria's opening to the west and draw Europe into the middle East peace process to fill a vacuum left by the failure of the United States' peace role in the region.
``France and the European Union have a right and even a duty to play a role. It is in their interest,'' he told French television as a prelude to the visit.
Although disillusioned with Washington, the wily hermit of Middle East politics who has ruled his country with an iron grip for 28 years has been careful not to alienate Washington. ``The Europeans do not want to replace the Americans. They want to participate in the peace process alongside the United States in order to help it move along,'' he said.
French intervention in the region has occasionally advanced the process where American policy failed.
France engineered a truce, which still stands, that ended Israel's offensive against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 1996. Last month the French guaranteed an exchange of prisoners and soldiers' remains between Lebanon and Israel.
Mr Assad see the impasse in the peace process as a chance to appropriate a leading role in the region; Damascus is pushing for an Arab summit to freeze relations with Israel built up since the US launched the peace process in 1991.
France is the obvious answer to Mr Assad's need for a strategic partner to balance Israel's alliance with the United States; which Arabs believe is encouraging Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to be intransigent.
For France Syria is regarded as the pivotal player in the Arab world.
Mr Chirac, who visited Syria in 1996, has long sought a place for Europe, and France in particular, in peace negotiations mediated primarily by the United States.
Damascus state controlled press at the time called for a wider role by the French and Europeans and praised President Chirac who had clashed with some Israeli security men during his walk about in east Jerusalem.
There was another Syrian chorus of approval last month when President Chirac, during a visit to Lebanon reminded the Israelis that they should comply with UN resolution 245 and pull out of South Lebanon without conditions.
A French-Egyptian proposal in May for an international conference to save the peace process also will be discussed during Assad's visit.
Historically, Syria was an outsider among Arab nations. During the first Gulf war which lasted eight years between 198 to 1988, Iraq and Persian Gulf Arab nations were disturbed by Damascus' ties to Iran's Islamic government, while its support for extremist Palestinian groups gave others pause. Relations between Syria and the west have warmed gradually since ties were restored in 1990. In 1990 Mr Assad made a Strategic decision to defy his Russian allies and send troops to join the international coalition that ended the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
On the eve of the visit President Assad sought to increase international pressure on Israel to resume peace talks with its Arab neighbours, and warning that the Middle East could sink back into war unless the Israelis returned conquered Arab land.
`` Netanyahu says he wants peace for peace, a motto which means that he wants to retain our land and also take peace from us,'' said Mr Assad during the Television interview. He put Mr Netanyahu on the spot by saying he was willing to meet him, once Israel agrees to hand back the Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the Six day war in 1967.
Mr Netanyahu's only comment on Mr Assad's visit - the first in 22 years-was that having Syria open to the world and to the west was not `` a bad thing.''
The Syrian Israelis negotiations were near to completion but broken off shortly before Mr Netanyahu's election in 1996. Israel insists that there should be fresh negotiations, while Syria will only resume from where the talks with the previous Labour-led administration left off. Syrian negotiators claim the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has promised the returning of the Golan heights to Mr Assad. But an Israeli source who witnessed Mr Rabin's briefing the negotiators in 1995, told Middle East News that Mr Rabin offered the return of the Golan Heights for an exchange of a full normalisation of relations between the two nations ` enabling Israeli tourists to visit Damascus and Hallab while Syrians can visit Jerusalem.'
Mr Assad, like many Arab nationalists see negotiation as other means of confrontation with Israel. He thus believes that no agreement could be reached while Mr Netanyahu is in power, according to Syrian insiders
Mr Assad, who still finds it hard to mention the word Israel, warned in the Television interview: ``The peace process does not concern Syria alone but the whole world. If we accomplish nothing, wars will flare up and will spill over into many countries in direct or indirect ways.''
Last month Israeli Military intelligence warned that a war involving Syria is very likely next year if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat went ahead and declared an Independent state. Syria, which now can cover the whole of Israel with 50 missile at one time, will be able, with the help of North Korean scientists, to develop VX deadly nerve-gas warheads. The Reports are dismissed by many western diplomats, who believe the Intelligence services have their own agenda and nearly caused a war with Syria last year by some false reporting.
Asked if Syria would withdraw from southern Lebanon if Israel gave up the strategic Golan Heights, Assad replied: ``I don't see the link between the two.''
The visit, the first in 22 Years by Mr Assad, who runs Syria with a heavy hand was marred by protest from human right activists citing reports of over 2000 political prisoners in Syria. Commentaries in French press highlighted the arrest lately of seven Syrian journalists for departing from the official line. There is no free press in Syria.
A nagging issue between Paris and Damascus has been the alleged presence in Syria of Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner, and Syria's refusal to respond to French requests to make a judicial inquiry.
Mr Assad denied knowledge that Brunner, 87, is in Syria. Brunner is blamed for the deaths of thousands of French Jews.
According to insiders Mr Assad shrugged off the protest as insignificant. His patient and long-term style of diplomacy is designed to make him outlive many demands and conditions during a 28-year career. One aid to Former Secretary of State James Baker said yesterday that President Chirac would at least escape Mr Assad secret weapon to win negotiation:' Bladder diplomacy.' President Assad places his guest next to him on the couch, thus he has to turn his head getting ' pain in the neck', while he is endlessly greeted by cups of drinks as the talks go on for hours. Having been briefed by his ambassador that it is impolite in Arab etiquette to refuse drinks or to leave for the bathroom, the negotiating guest eventually finds a great relief in giving in to President Assad's point of view.