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Mideast Peace, Sans Assad

The son of Syria's late leader has new opportunities

The passing of the "Lion of Damascus" isn't likely to turn Syria into a sheep anytime soon. Arab societies are just too conservative. Even fax machines were banned until recently under Hafez Assad's rule.

Yet with an end to Mr. Assad's 30-year reign, Syria's pivotal role as a Middle East peace spoiler may now come to an end.

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Such a transition won't be easy. The dictatorial Assad, after all, had nine years of contact with Israel to make a deal. He let a dispute over a sliver of shoreline on the Sea of Galilee stand in the way. The defender of pan-Arab nationalism preferred, in the end, not to seal a peace that would allow Israel to dominate the region.

To his credit, he opened the door for peace. He just didn't walk through it. That task is left to his oldest son, Bashar, a British-trained ophthalmologist who wants to bring the Internet Age to a country where power still flows father to son - and with bullets, not ballots.

The new Assad - assuming he can consolidate his legitimacy in the weeks ahead - can bring Syria out of its backwardness and isolation.

Bashar need not be burdened by his father's sense of historical injustice, such as the loss of the Golan Heights or his attempt to re-create a Greater Syria - or his hatred of Israel.

The road map for Damascus is simple.

Syria can get out of Lebanon, where it has some 30,000 troops, especially now that Israel has done the same. It can expel anti-Israel Palestinian groups who are regarded as terrorists and stand in the way of better ties with the United States. It can join Jordan and Egypt in supporting the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, which will help settle a region that needs stability for investment, not confrontation.

And it can make peace with Israel, winning back the Golan Heights with some access to Galilee's waters.

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Most of all, Syria can make a transition from an Arab-style dynasty to a democracy. That's the best guarantee for peace in a region that needs it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society