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Damascus Won't Accept 'Peace at Any Price'

Syrians are ready to make a deal with Israel, but only on condition the Israelis completely withdraw from the Golan Heights

IN Arabic ba'd salaam means ''after peace.'' It is a phrase heard repeatedly today from Syrians of all classes, ethnic groups, religions, and occupations.

The phrase refers to the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations that have cyclically started and stalled since the October 1991 Madrid conference. It is a salient issue in Syria; especially since the Jordan-Israel peace treaty of a year ago and continued progress on the PLO-Israel front have made Syria the last significant Arab state bordering Israel yet to sign on the dotted line. What is interesting about this oft-heard phrase is its certitude: that peace with Israel is something of a fait accompli.

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Syrians are ready for peace. They tend to see it, however, as something of an unavoidable trend rather than something at the top of their wish list. And this is where there is a great deal of misperception in the United States. The general feeling exists that Syria has had no choice but to sue for peace with Israel ever since the fall of its former economic, political, and military patron, the Soviet Union. The immediate result of this was Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's participation in the coalition against Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf war, thereby openly allying Syria with the US, the pro-West Arab states, and tacitly with Israel. Certainly the changing international and regional landscape spurred by these two events compelled Mr. Assad to embark in different directions internally, primarily through economic liberalization, as well as externally, through regional moderation and building political and economic ties to the West.

But it would be a serious mistake to conclude that the Syrians feel they are in desperate need of peace with Israel and will accept anything short of a full Israeli evacuation from the Golan.

Syrians will steadfastly point out that their regional standing dictates that they cannot agree to anything less than what former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat received in his peace treaty with Israel, in that case the entire Sinai Peninsula. In addition, in most Syrians' minds, the idea of peace with Israel is completely separate from friendly relations with Israel. There has been too much bloodshed and too much hyperbole to suddenly embrace their former enemy; ''correct'' relations are the best they can offer at this point, holding out the hope of ''normalization'' at some future juncture. No doubt many Israelis share these feelings, especially after the recent Israeli deaths at the hands of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon, a group tacitly supported by Syria to enhance its position in the bargaining process.

No peace dividend

The Syrians, however, have observed that peace with Israel does not automatically translate into a peace dividend - Egypt is more of an economic and political mess than ever, the PLO is far from united and remains in a tenuous position, and many Jordanians are feeling overwhelmed by their new ''friend.'' A peace agreement with Israel will be cordially greeted in Syria, but the celebrations will be for the return of the Golan and for the increased economic opportunities that peace would bring to some sectors of the Syrian economy.

Other elements of the Syrian political and business establishment worry that the negative economic effects of peace will outweigh the positive, that large multinational corporations will do to the merchant and small business classes - some of the pillars of Syrian society (and of support for the regime) - what Wal-Mart has done to family-owned businesses in Smalltown USA. The regime wonders if it can maintain the asymmetrical pace of political and economic liberalization, preferring to incrementally continue the latter while glacially advancing the former - although most Syrians, considering their country's politically turbulent past, willingly accept the trade-off of some loss of freedom for security and stability.

These and other considerations do not cry out for any sort of peace agreement, but one that will pass the litmus test of every Syrian, a test defined by the government over the years and one that it dare not revise: Israeli withdrawal.

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Economic troubles

The Syrian economy, however, needs help. The growth rate, which peaked at 10 percent in 1992, has steadily declined ever since. The financial windfall from the Arab Gulf states and Europe for Syria's participation in the Gulf war has all but ended, oil production may have flattened out, investment laws aimed at attracting expatriate capital and foreign ventures have fallen short of expectations, the banking and financial sectors are archaic and unattractive to outside interests, and the gap between rich and poor has noticeably increased in the past five years since serious economic liberalization policies were enacted. Many believe these factors call out for further economic reform and integration into the world community, and this means peace with Israel.

Assad has correctly chosen an incremental, and therefore less disruptive, pace to economic reform, again Egypt being the example - one to avoid in this case. He has also decided to approach the Israelis cautiously, for the Syrian economy is in better shape than that of most other developing nations, and the economic liberalization program has produced some positive results that may continue with further reform.

In other words, the link between economic growth and peace with Israel is by no means written in stone. But this caution stems primarily from the fact that Syrians have accepted the idea of peace with Israel without embracing it - the best of both worlds for Assad. The current state of nonbelligerency between Syria and Israel can go on indefinitely from Syria's point of view. This is now much more likely to occur in the near future in the wake of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and as Assad awaits the outcome of Israeli and American elections next year.

The advantages of an official peace, even with outside inducement, are not seen by many powerful segments within Syria to be necessarily greater than what currently exists - so many are willing to wait, and for now only ponder what would happen ba'd salaam.

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