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Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 06:18 GMT 07:18 UK
Another obstacle for peace process?
Syrian men crying
Syria's priority is stability at home
By Gerald Butt

The death of President Hafez al-Assad adds a further complication to the search for peace between Syria and Israel.

But it will give US President Bill Clinton the chance to focus his attention exclusively on trying to achieve a breakthrough in the talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad lacks political experience

Even before President Assad's death, the avenue of the Middle East peace process involving Syria and Israel was leading nowhere.

Syria was insisting on the return of every inch of the Golan Heights all the way to the Sea of Galilee as a precondition for peace.

Israel, on the other hand, wanted to talk about peace while agreeing to hand back most of the land it occupies.

Immediate concerns

For President Assad's son, Bashar, Syria's determination to win back the Golan will have give way to other concerns in the immediate future.

The priority for the young and politically inexperienced Bashar will be to consolidate his power base within the civilian and military establishments.

Bashar could hardly risk anything less than the minimum demanded by his late father

He will also want to make sure that his purge of the corrupt members of the old guard is completed, and then acquaint himself with the economic and social problems which beset his country.

Only then will be able to turn his attention to matters of foreign policy - and in particular to the Middle East peace process.

The US has said it will not put pressure on Syria to return to peace negotiations with Israel until the transfer of power is complete.

"The key thing for us is to make sure the door remains open," said US special envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross.

Father's son?

The hope and expectation of Israel is that Bashar - more worldly, less burdened and obsessed by history than his late father - will be more flexible if and when the day comes for the resumption of peace talks.

But this may be wishful thinking.

Syria as a whole has been indoctrinated over recent decades into the view that it can accept nothing less than the full and unconditional withdrawal of Israel from the whole of the Golan Heights.

Bashar could hardly risk anything less than the minimum demanded by his late father.
US President Bill Clinton
Clinton: Hopes for peace deal before he leaves office

Bashar is also expected to follow his father's line on Lebanon.

Despite international calls for Syrian troops to be withdrawn, the new Syrian leader is likely to be adamant that maintaining a military presence and political influence in Lebanon is vital for his country's strategic interests.

Thus, even though Israeli troops have withdrawn from southern Lebanon, there is no chance of the Beirut government being allowed to sign a peace deal with the Israelis until it gets the green light from Damascus.

And that signal will have to await a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

Breakthrough

So in the coming weeks one should not look for movement on the Syria-Lebanon flank of the peace process. Instead attention will be focused uniquely on talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

President Clinton has said he wants to achieve a breakthrough before he leaves office next January.

Now is his chance.

The US president will hope that with the spotlight firmly on the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the two men will decide that failure is not an option.

He might even decide on intensive negotiations like those held at Camp David in 1978 between President Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel during the Carter presidency.

Whichever way he chooses the going will be tough.

But with the Syrian track frozen, there is nothing to stop President Clinton giving it his best shot.

Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East Correspondent, is Senior Editor, Middle East Economic Survey (MEES)

See also:

11 Jun 00 | Middle East
10 Jun 00 | Middle East
11 Jun 00 | Media reports
12 Jun 00 | Middle East
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