” ‘Fare you well, your suit is cold.’
Cold indeed and labor lost…”
The Merchant of Venice II: vii

The antechambers of the President of Syria fill up with an army of suppliant suitors; and every personage, however grand elsewhere, must shrink himself down and jostle all the rest for access to this opaque oracle.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s schedule of pilgrimages to Damascus recurs as regularly as a commuter’s train and is as frequently subject to delays. One day Christopher must wait three hours while Assad treats with the foreign minister of Russia. And when next our Secretary of State returns for a new round of beseechments, he is told that it is useless to wait because the President of Syria is indefinitely occupied with the foreign minister of France.

The trespass-blotted catalog of international statesmanship scarcely contains an entry more deserving of condemnation and rewarded with higher respect than the name of Hafez al-Assad.

Assad is the criminal no one dares arraign; and his immunity would be quite mysterious if diplomacy were a trade to the slightest degree inhibited by moral concerns. Even Shimon Peres prefers not to voice aloud his resentments of Syria as patron of Hezbollah. Assad need never worry about being blamed for the disease so long as he can tease the imaginations of the more powerful but less brazen into inferences that, properly appeased, he may be the cure.

Israel has been occupying the southern tenth of Lebanon for close to twenty years; and Syria has been dominating the rest since the late Eighties. Armies in occupation cannot escape arousing resistance. There would likely be a Hezbollah if Assad didn’t help; but there could certainly be no Hezbollah if Assad ordered his 32,000-man Lebanese forces to suppress it.

If such were ever his wish, it would assuredly be followed by the swiftest and harshest application of his will. When he moved his troops into Lebanon, Syria’s then lively Muslim Brotherhood vehemently protested this shoring up of the Maronite Christians; Assad responded by suppressing Islamic fundamentalism and like dissents so savagely that he has since ruled undisturbed by a visible vestige of opposition.

Virginia Sherry recently returned from a seven-week Human Rights Watch Syrian mission to report that she could find no sign either of human rights movement anywhere in Assad’s zone of sovereignty. The love of freedom there is a discontent that dares not speak its name outside the prison that awaits anyone bold enough to express it.

Ms. Sherry had the gratifying surprise of finding courage unbroken and unashamed when she observed the state security trials that our State Department discouraged its embassy hands from noticing.

There she found men who had endured torture through years of confinement without charges, who had refused the loyalty oaths required for release, and who still kept intact their outrage and their defiance. Men and women like these may, if they live, someday be of great service to Syria; meanwhile the West would rather trust Assad to serve its convenience.

To be the one politician who has disposed of the electoral process is to be supremely advantaged in negotiations with all the rest who happen to be encumbered with it. Our president is a candidate who cannot afford to distance himself from Israel, and Israel’s prime minister is a candidate who cannot afford to seem less tough-minded than his militant opposition.

And yet mightn’t Israel be better off if Clinton were less an unquestioning friend and Peres less a temporarily hard-nosed leader? Lebanon has been Israel’s curse for nearly a generation. Her defense forces pursued the Palestine Liberation Organization across this swamp, thought it destroyed, and saw it rise again. Now they are discharging twenty rounds of heavy artillery for every shot Hezbollah fires at them. The civilian casualty rate is the same 20–1; and once again Israel is winning a war and once again finding no peace.

Protract a mistake long enough and you can only end with the sort of embarrassment from which you clutch Assad as the wispiest of desperate hopes for extricating yourself.

April 25, 1996

Copyright © 1996 Newsday, Inc.

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May 23, 1996