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Sunday, June 18, 2000

Fuse burning on the Mideast powder keg


LONDON -- Ignore all the empty chatter about the future of a "Middle East peace process" that died months ago, and waste no time in futile speculation about the character of Syria's new president, mild-mannered ophthalmologist Dr. Bashar Assad. The regime that was run for the past 30 years by Bashar's late father Hafez Assad, ex-fighter pilot, occasional mass murderer and latter-day statesman, is a system that gives Bashar almost no room for maneuver.

Like the regime in neighboring Iraq led by his fellow Ba'athist and deadliest enemy, Saddam Hussein, the basis of Assad's rule in Syria was astonishingly primitive. In a pattern as old as the Hittites and the Assyrians, it was built on his own charisma plus the loyalty and cohesion of his own clan and tribe.

Assad's power base was the Alawites, a people who make up only 10 percent of Syria's population and are viewed as near-heretics by the orthodox Sunni Muslim majority. The Alawites have reaped enormous benefits from being on top in Syria, but they are riding a tiger, and their main requirement of a leader is that he knows how to keep them from falling off.

Assad stayed at the top of the Alawite heap for all that time by careful cultivation of his image, endless manipulation and occasional savage brutality.

Even the formal structure of a one-party state was a mere facade. The Ba'ath Party, originally an Arab socialist party modeled on the communist ruling parties of Eastern Europe, was emptied of all ideological content decades ago. The truth is that Assad could have been ruling any traditional Middle Eastern autocracy of the past 5,000 years: His system would be completely familiar to Sennacherib, Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar.

To call Assad's system primitive does not mean that it was unstable. After a dozen coups in its first two decades of independence, he gave Syria 30 years of stability. It doesn't even mean that Syria could not make and keep international agreements. If Israel could have brought itself to offer the return of all the Syrian territory it conquered in 1967 during last winter's negotiations, Assad's son and heir would be coming to power in the warm afterglow of a successful peace agreement.

But the deal wasn't made, and Bashar cannot now make it. His priority for the foreseeable future is sheer survival, for this is a system that can only transfer power within the family -- so the family in question inevitably begins to operate according to the rules of Shakespearean drama. The particular drama that springs to mind is "Richard III," with Hafez's brother Rifaat, 63, in the starring role and Bashar as one of the unfortunate little princes who were murdered.

Rifaat was vice president of Syria and Hafez's strong right arm, in command of the elite troops that safeguarded the regime and destroyed Hama, until he overplayed his hand and challenged Hafez's power in 1984. Since then he has lived in exile, but he is not out of play: He publishes two Arabic-language newspapers, his son Soumar runs a British-based satellite TV network, Arab News Network, and he controls at least 100 companies and funds worth between $2 billion and $4 billion.

Last year Hafez's troops assaulted and destroyed Rifaat's heavily defended Syrian headquarters in Latakia, the Alawite "capital," in an attempt to ensure Bashar's succession, but Rifaat himself remains safely in his mansion in Marbella, Spain.

Bashar has ordered Rifaat's arrest if he returns to Syria, but if he appears incapable of protecting Alawite power the defections will soon follow. From now on Bashar's life will consist mainly of thwarting plots and intrigues, with a coup or assassination as a daily possibility. To survive, he must win the support of key players in the military and the secret police, and they will not be interested in risky initiatives in foreign policy at this time.

This matters less that it might seem, since what remains of the Middle East peace process is evaporating in front of our eyes anyway. All the timetables that are now running militate against it.

The key date is Sept. 13, when Yasser Arafat has said he will unilaterally declare a Palestinian state on the territory he now controls in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip if there has not been decisive progress in the negotiations with Israel for a "final status" deal. Seven years after the Oslo agreement that seemed to promise that state to the Palestinians, the PLO leader cannot wait any longer.

Because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's broad coalition government was unable to offer Syria a full return to its 1967 border in last winter's peace talks, there was no deal before Assad died. Israel's failure to make peace with Syria, in turn, meant that its withdrawal from southern Lebanon last month was a chaotic retreat that underlined how reluctant the Israeli public has become to accept casualties among its young soldiers.

The success for an Arab strategy of armed resistance in Lebanon creates an attractive example for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip whose patience is exhausted. Why, ask frustrated young Palestinians, can they not do in the occupied territories what Hezbollah did in southern Lebanon, and force the casualty-averse Israeli Army to pull out?

Arafat's peacemaking strategy is so threatened by this unrest that he has closed down four TV and two radio stations and arrested dozens of members of his own Fatah organization in the past few weeks. He cannot let the September deadline pass -- and yet there is no chance of a peace deal by then. Bashar will not even assume his duties as president of Syria until the end of 40 days of mourning for his father in late July. From late August, the U.S. presidential election will effectively paralyze U.S. diplomacy for six months. And in any case, Barak's government is falling apart.

On Tuesday, Shas, the orthodox religious party that is the second-largest member of Barak's broad coalition, announced that it was quitting the government. This is flagrant blackmail, aimed at extorting more funds for its corrupt and bankrupt system of religious schools, and Shas has given Barak until Sunday's Cabinet meeting to hand over the money -- but Barak cannot afford to capitulate to the demands of people whom his secular supporters despise as venal parasites.

Without Shas, however, Barak no longer has a "Jewish majority" in the Knesset. He could only get any peace deal approved by depending on Israeli Arab votes, which would cause such outrage among Jews that he is unlikely to try. So no final peace offer acceptable to both Palestinians and the Israeli public will be forthcoming before the Sept. 13 deadline for the declaration of a Palestinian state.

That probably means harsh Israeli action against Arafat in September, and a renewed intifada in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Given Bashar's acute vulnerability, Syria cannot be seen to lag behind in Arab patriotism, which is likely to lead to a resumption of rocket attacks by its Hezbollah clients along the Israeli-Lebanese border, followed by the usual devastating Israeli air raids against helpless Lebanon.

Is this the end of all hope for a lasting Arab-Israeli peace settlement? No. But peace is at best a hope that must now be deferred for some years, while some hundreds or thousands more people die to demonstrate that there is really no alternative to compromise and coexistence in the Middle East.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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