The View from Damascus

Hafez Al-Assad
Hafez Al-Assad; drawing by David Levine

1.

Is Syria as Syria, and not just as a government and regime, ready for peace with Israel at the present time? The answer has to be a cautious and qualified yes.

Consider, first, the major sea change in official Syrian statements about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general since the convening of the Madrid peace conference in October 1991. It is a sea change that has continued unabated in spite of the many hurdles and adverse developments that would have normally reversed it along the way, under less auspicious circumstances. This striking shift reached its climax in the wholly unprecedented kind words spoken by President Asad in praise of Prime Minister Ehud Barak in May 1999, words expressly intended for local Arab as well as worldwide publication and circulation.

Well before that, President Asad had announced to the world, during his summit meeting with President Clinton in Geneva in January 1994, that Syria had taken a firm “strategic decision” in favor of peace with Israel and its readiness for “normal and peaceful relations” with the ex-enemy. In August 1997, these same assurances were again spelled out by Asad while he was addressing a delegation of Arab Israelis invited to Damascus in a first attempt to reach out to a sympathetic segment of the Israeli public.

At a less august level, Syria’s energetic minister of foreign affairs, Mr. Farouq al-Shara’, had already violated several strict Syrian political taboos in the autumn of 1994 by accepting questions from Israeli journalists at press conferences in London and Washington and then by agreeing to meet with prominent Jewish and Zionist leaders in the American capital. He even granted a lengthy interview to a major news program on Israeli television, broadcast October 7, 1994.

These manifest changes did not remain confined to the formal utterances of high officials, governmental communiqués, and press releases, but extended with equal thoroughness to the Syrian media, all government-owned and tightly controlled. It has internal significance when the prefabricated, wooden, repetitive, and at times surreal language used by the Syrian media suddenly starts referring routinely and matter-of-factly to Israel, Israeli leaders, officials, etc., by their proper names, formal titles, actual functions and positions—instead of following the hackneyed, but in Arabic rhetorically quite flowery, practice of speaking about “the so-called prime minister of the Zionist entity.”

Consider, second, the intense debates that have been raging inside Syrian society since the Madrid Conference on Israel over the “peace process” and the nature of our future relationship with the neighbor, as well as the fears, anxieties, disappointments, failures, and expectations aroused by a coming, seemingly willy-nilly, deal with the old enemy. Here, a word of warning is very much in order against possible misunderstandings. These intense discussions are not open public debates aired on radio and television or conducted through newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, etc., but are highly charged, comprehensive, and pervasive exchanges whose main…


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