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The Two Faces of Bashar Al-Assad

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad recently announced his readiness to make peace with Israel, but he also declared his readiness to pursue war. In a recent interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, Assad expressed his willingness for Syria to return to the negotiating table with Israel but concluded that if a peace agreement could not be reached within six months, there would be war. This past weekend, Assad also gave separate interviews with the BBC and a Kuwaiti daily Al-Anbaa. True to form, Assad called for a resumption of peace negotiations during the BBC interview, and in Al-Anbaa, the Syrian president declared he is now preparing for war with Israel.

There is nothing new in Assad’s inconsistent words and actions in the region. While his talk of peace fills European newspapers, Assad’s speeches to his own people have been provocative and ominous. In his first public speech since the cease-fire in Lebanon, Assad declared, “Israel is the enemy and we hate it.” Addressing the Israeli people, he said, “You have tasted the price of war in Lebanon.… [O]ur generations are growing and will be able to defeat you.” A King Hussein or Anwar Sadat, Bashar al-Assad is not.

In studying Assad’s overtures, one always has to ask: What kind of “peace” does he envision and what are his motives in calling for peace negotiations? On paper, a Syrian and Israeli peace negotiation looks relatively simple — especially with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli peace track. Since 1973, the border between Israel and Syria has been quiet, and the issue of the Golan Heights does not carry the ideological or religious weight of Jerusalem or the West Bank. The deal seems obvious: Israel relinquishes the Golan to Syria, and the two establish peaceful relations. But, of course, it’s not quite so simple.

Assad does not envision the normalization of relations between the two countries even after a peace with Israel. In a 2003 interview with the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, Assad announced, “It is inconceivable that Israel will become a legitimate state even if the peace process is implemented, because its structure deviates from the region’s norm, and maybe from the whole world.” The enmity does not end with Assad alone. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said during the Lebanon war that he would be “ready to be a soldier at the disposal of Hezbollah leader Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah,” Hezbollah’s spiritual and political leader. At best, then, he appears to offer Israel a period of temporary non-belligerency, but no real acceptance of Israel, no web of relations that normally mark two countries at peace and no enduring peace between the two peoples.

A key motivation for Assad’s call for peace appears to be, then, a way to help Syria escape the international isolation it finds itself in, not only from the United States, but, more recently, from the Arab states as well.

Syria’s isolation is not unwarranted. The regime has continuously transferred Iranian shipments of weapons to Hezbollah and aided this Islamist terrorist group logistically and with intelligence. There are reports of American military intelligence officials asserting that segments of the Iraqi insurgency had been directed from Syria, where Saddam Hussein loyalists found sanctuary and provided money and other support to those fighting against the new government. Finally, Syria provides safe haven to Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, a militant voice who has vowed to never recognize Israel and has directed numerous attacks against Israel, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by Gaza-based Palestinian militants.

A renewed call for peace negotiations allows Assad to present himself as a moderate voice, which he hopes will shift the focus away from his support for Hezbollah and Hamas, from Syria’s role in thwarting progress in Iraq and from its multi-layered relationship with Iran.

It was concern over Syrian actions that prompted Congress to adopt the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act and which, more recently, led us to call on President Bush to increase the pressure on Syria to abandon policies that threaten American national security, our interests and our allies, by implementing all sanctions available under the act. A full enforcement of these sanctions will finally hold Syria accountable for its actions and will help deny it the resources it needs to engage in such destructive behavior.

While it is important for Israel to pursue peace with its neighbors, it is equally important that Israel’s partner in negotiations be credible and sincere in wanting to achieve a peace that is just and sustainable. Syria’s Assad does not fit that bill, and the international community should not fall for Assad’s phony calls to negotiate while in the same sentence he is threatening war.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, chairs the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia.

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