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Assad and the moving train

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After the Camp David Agreement was signed in 1978, a top US official visited Damascus in an effort to persuade President Assad to keep open the possibility of eventually coming on board. Assad received the American visitor politely, listened to him patiently, and asked a number of penetrating questions. At the end of an hour and a half's meeting, the Syrian President commented matter-of-factly, ''I do not make it a practice of jumping on to a moving train.''

No doubt Assad views the Lebanese-Israeli withdrawal agreement, in which Syria played no part, as a train already having moved quite a distance down the tracks on to which he is now expected to leap. And, of course, he thinks it is moving in the wrong direction. This is not to say that he would have agreed to participate in withdrawal negotiations with Israel, but he presumably would have been prepared to set forth to a third party (i.e., the United States) his conditions for a mutual withdrawal from Lebanon. For one should probably accept at face value the Syrian undertaking, earlier conveyed in principle to the Lebanese and US governments, that Syria would withdraw from Lebanon if the Israelis did likewise.

What the Syrians clearly had in mind, however, was a complete and unconditional Israeli withdrawal, not one which permitted Israeli soldiers to remain in Lebanon or the Israeli proxy there, Major Haddad, to continue to operate in one form or the other in his south Lebanon fiefdom. Nor did the Syrians foresee that Israel would extract political benefit from the invasion. In ending the state of war, in calling for the establishment of liaison offices in each other's countries, and in providing that within six months after troop withdrawal the two countries will negotiate agreements to normalize the movement of goods and people across the borders, the Lebanese-Israeli agreement has all the earmarks of a peace treaty in the Syrian mind.

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