Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Bashar concedes
There has been much interest in recent days in the interview Syrian president Bashar Assad gave to Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post. Assad is still dining out on the Sphinx reputation of his father, so whatever he says is regarded as not only important, but rare. A quick look at Arabic newspapers will reveal, however, that the lad quite enjoys speaking to the press--something occasionally useful, but hardly Sphinx-like.

Most important in the interview, to my mind, was the following largely-ignored interchange:

Weymouth: What is the basis on which you are offering to start talks with Israel?

Assad: U.N. resolutions, [the 1991] Madrid [conference] and the Saudi initiative.

Weymouth: Do you demand that Israel agree to give back [in advance] what [former Israeli] Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak offered, or will you negotiate without conditions?

Assad: If you want to negotiate, you need a basis. So the basis is the Madrid conference.

This confirms what we've been suspecting for quite some time, namely that Syria has abandoned its demand that past understandings reached with Israel after Madrid must be the basis for new negotiations. This is a fundamental difference with what Hafiz Assad demanded in his negotiations with successive Israeli governments: He always demanded that prior understandings be respected, particularly those to Syria's advantage. Among the most important of these are (a) Rabin's so-called "promise" of August 1993, and (b) the security non-paper agreed by Syria and Israel in May 1994.

The promise was a conditional proposal handed to the US in which Rabin agreed to a full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines on the Golan Heights, in exchange for what Israel considered acceptable security arrangements and genuine peace. The non-paper was an unsigned document that defined what the two sides saw as the guidelines for security arrangements accompanying a settlement. One thing it did was give Syria room to maneuver on the scope of its expected demilitarization on and around the Golan after an Israeli withdrawal.

Bashar's offer to return to Madrid essentially rendered these understandings null and void, as it did Barak's offer made through Bill Clinton in Geneva in 2000 that Syria could regain sovereignty over most of the Golan, but not stretch this to the shores of Lake Tiberias. Why have the Syrians conceded so much? They're afraid the success of the "road map" will make them the last major Arab party to negotiate with Israel, and that under those circumstances the Israelis will give them a bad offer, or none at all.

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