Commentary Magazine

The Word of Hafez al-Assad

Of all the expectations set in motion by the recent change of government in Israel, some of the most hopeful have attached to the prospect of a breakthrough with Syria. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s quick visit to Damascus in early September was but the latest sign of such hopes. Before that, in late June, President Hafez al-Assad and Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak had exchanged compliments through the medium of a British journalist, and Israeli officials were predicting that long-frozen talks between the two countries could resume within weeks. The July 26 funeral of King Hassan of Morocco seemed, for a while, a perfect opportunity for the two leaders to meet. “Instances such as these, however sad they may be, enable contacts,” opined Foreign Minister David Levy, who was already imagining aloud what he would tell the Syrian strongman (“You want peace. We want peace. Let’s talk.”). Before heading off to Morocco, Bill Clinton, too, publicly alluded to his plans to bring the two sides together in Rabat.

But then Assad abruptly canceled his trip (piqued, according to unnamed Arab diplomats in Damascus, by Levy’s presumptuous remarks) and instead sent a flack to represent him at the funeral. Questioned about this, President Clinton did not try to hide his disappointment—“I . . . don’t quite understand why he didn’t come”—but he also ventured an upbeat assessment of the Syrian leader: “He is a man you can trust. He is experienced, and he’s trustworthy. His word is his word.”

In saying this, the President, whether he was aware of it or not, was saying nothing new. In fact, he was but echoing what many people, including Israeli leaders, usually of the Labor party, have been saying for years. “The Syrians keep their commitments,” Yitzhak Rabin once flatly declared, and both Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak have concurred. “With the Syrians,” Peres put it, “it is very hard to reach an agreement, but the agreement will stand,” while Barak has offered that Assad consistently lives up to his word. Nor is this view confined to politicians: Uri Sagi, a past head of Israeli military intelligence, has asserted that “if and when [Assad] signs an agreement, he will keep his word.”

The same point is made regularly in both the Israeli and American press. Yoel Marcus, a columnist for Ha’aretz, writes that “an accord with Assad is enshrined in concrete and steel,” while to the editors of the New York Times, the Assad regime “has compiled a record of abiding by agreements it does sign.” Lest anyone still be in doubt, Assad himself has vouched for his own record: “We always mean what we say, and we fulfill our promises.”

Is this true? If so, it would be something of a historical first, since totalitarian rulers of Assad’s ilk are notorious for rather the opposite habit. Saddam Hussein has famously broken virtually every promise he has ever made, and the leadership of North Korea tags very closely behind. North Vietnam did not exactly distinguish itself in adhering to pacts struck with the United States. Then there are the examples of Hitler, Stalin, Tojo, and all the rest. Could it be that, among them all, Assad is the exception?



Since coming to power in 1970, Assad has made a variety of promises to foreign governments. Let us look at a number of them, starting with cases concerning Lebanon, Turkey, and the United States.1



Lebanon. Syrian troops have been in this country since 1976, and Assad makes little pretense of hiding the high degree of control he maintains over his weaker neighbor. On three occasions, however, Syrian authorities have concurred with decisions made by others that Syrian troops should depart. First, as part of the 1976 Riyadh-Cairo accords, Damascus agreed to vacate Lebanon by October of that year. Second, in September 1982 Syria signed the Fez declaration committing itself to negotiations with the Lebanese government over “an end to the mission of the Arab deterrent forces”—i.e., Syrian troops. Third, to win Lebanese Christian support for a revision of the Lebanese government structure (the so-called Ta’if accord), Assad in October 1989 accepted a redeployment of Syrian troops from Beirut to the Bekaa valley within two years.

None of these promises was kept. To this day, some 30,000 uniformed Syrian soldiers remain in Lebanon. Their presence is not subtle; anyone arriving in Beirut by plane encounters them right in the airport.



The PKK. In 1987 and 1992, Damascus signed security protocols with Turkey, solemnly undertaking to shut installations on Syrian soil used by the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group fighting the government of Turkey. In addition, Syrian officials time and again assured the Turks that the PKK would be kept in check. But, year after year, little if anything changed on the ground. A base would ostentatiously close down, only to reopen quietly somewhere else. The PKK would cross the border into Turkey to kill and destroy; the Turks would protest; the Syrians, denying all culpability, would vow that such acts would never occur again; things would quiet down for a few months; and then the whole cycle would start afresh. According to one report, the Turkish prime minister’s office concluded no fewer than eighteen agreements with Assad on this issue, each one of them subsequently broken by the Syrian side.

Particularly galling to Turkey was the fact that the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, lived openly in Damascus, giving interviews and being photographed, while the Syrian regime insouciantly denied his presence on its soil. Only in September 1998, after eleven years of lies, double-talk, and deception, did the Syrians finally expel Öcalan and shut down most PKK facilities, and then only after the Turks had finally made it clear that real trouble, possibly armed conflict, would follow if Assad continued to shelter the Kurdish terrorist.



Syrian Jews. The situation of this 4,000-member community was a long-festering human-rights issue between Damascus and Washington. For decades, Assad refused to let more than a few Syrian Jews emigrate. Then, in April 1992, in the course of a telephone conversation with President George Bush, he announced the wholesale release of the community—“an extraordinary development,” in the words of Congressman Stephen Solarz, who had been preoccupied with the issue for years. And, indeed, by October 1992 three-quarters of the Syrian Jewish population had received passports and exit visas.

But they were not actually allowed to leave, and the process then stopped dead for more than a year as the Jewish population served as a political football. Only in December 1993, in the course of negotiations with the Clinton administration over another matter, did Assad open the door for 200 Jews to leave the country, and then another thousand a month later. It took until October 1994—two-and-a-half years and many problems later—for the rest of the community to be permitted to go.



This brings us to the most central cases, those concerning Israel. Here once again the problem of Lebanon looms large, as it will in any prospective deal between Damascus and Jerusalem.



The “Red Line.” In April 1976, the Israelis acquiesced in the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon in return for several reassurances. Dubbed “red lines,” these unwritten agreements, brokered by King Hussein of Jordan and American officials, were designed to circumscribe the Syrian use of force in Lebanon. Assad reportedly agreed (among other things) not to deploy aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, or more than a single brigade of soldiers, or to place any soldiers in southern Lebanon, which abuts Israel.

Damascus eventually breached all four of these provisions. In 1981, it ferried troops by helicopter and deployed surface-to-air missiles in the Zahle area of Lebanon. (Israel knew full well of these offenses: Itamar Rabinovich, later Israel’s ambassador to the United States, termed them, respectively, an “infringement” and an “unequivocal violation” of the 1976 agreement, with the missiles in particular amounting to “a serious threat.”) Assad ignored the clear prohibition on aircraft a second time in October 1990 when his air force buzzed the Lebanese presidential palace at Ba’abda, and then, as the Israelis failed to respond, returned to bomb the palace and help Syrian forces conquer Beirut.

The sheer number of Syrian troops sent into Lebanon constituted an even more profound infringement of the red-line agreement. Over the years, as we have seen, not one Syrian brigade but more like six or seven have regularly been stationed there, some in the south. Worst of all, Assad has on occasion denied the very existence of the red-line agreements, as well as any future obligation to maintain them. To a Lebanese group he once said, “Do not concern yourselves with the ‘red line,’ which the Americans and the Israelis are talking about. It does not exist, [and] in any event I cannot see it.”



Operation Accountability. After a rocket assault on Israel from southern Lebanon in July 1993, followed by a massive Israeli military response (Operation Accountability), Assad swore to prevent future such attacks. An agreement to that end, struck with the aid of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, was then systematically violated: four times the rockets fell in 1994 and five times in the first half of 1995. Once again, Syrian sources denied the very existence of a deal with Israel.

At the time, Israeli leaders condemned Assad’s actions in strong language, with Prime Minister Rabin charging a “total violation” of the 1993 agreement. (A few months later, though, Rabin publicly excused Assad, saying that the Syrians “don’t always keep to [the agreement], we don’t always keep to it.”) The accord fell apart completely in April 1996 when rockets landed again in northern Israel and, in response, Prime Minister Shimon Peres launched Operation Grapes of Wrath, a wide-ranging assault on Lebanon’s infrastructure. Yet in the same month, Peres still spoke of Assad as someone who “respects” his undertakings. A more accurate assessment was offered by Benjamin Netanyahu. “In Lebanon,” the then-leader of the Likud party said in 1994, “the Syrians broke just about every agreement they signed.”



Negotiations. In June 1995, Assad promised Warren Christopher that he would engage in two-stage talks with Israel: a meeting of the countries’ military chiefs of staff in Washington, followed later by discussions at a somewhat lower level. So pleased was the Secretary of State that, abandoning his habitual reticence, he declared this “a tremendous opportunity to move now toward a goal of a comprehensive peace, perhaps a better opportunity than at any time during the two-and-a-half years that I have been in office.”

The chiefs of staff did meet in late June, but then Assad backtracked, setting a precondition for further talks that Israel could not possibly accept. Prime Minister Rabin put his finger on the core issue: “If the Syrians do not keep to what they agreed to with the Americans, who will guarantee that they will stick to the assurances they make to Israel?”



The Golan. In any deal to be reached between Damascus and Jerusalem, the disposition of this crucial high plateau, in Israel’s hands since 1967, will take center stage. And it is precisely in relation to the Golan that Assad has most earned his reputation as a man of his word.

A wide consensus exists that, for 25 years, Assad has fulfilled the promises he gave in the May 1974 Separation of Forces agreement with Israel. Richard Murphy, a former American Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, attests that the pact has been “scrupulously observed.” Ze’ev Schiff, the dean of Israeli military correspondents, writes that “violations have been negligible,” and even Benjamin Netanyahu declared in 1994 that “Syria has kept to both the letter and the spirit of its disengagement agreement.”

It is indeed true that Assad has prevented violence across the Syrian-Israeli border, thereby making the Golan not just a quiet place but perhaps the safest in the Middle East. But this does not mean he fulfilled all the obligations of his 1974 agreement with Israel.

For one thing, although he reassured Jerusalem of his nonbelligerent intentions by promising that “Syrian civilians will return” to territory evacuated by Israeli forces, in fact civilians have not moved into such areas, which instead remain military zones. And for another, Damascus did allow some terrorist operations in the early years of the agreement, including an attack on the settlement of Ramat Magshimim in 1975. Among the more important documents handed over to Jerusalem by Jonathan Pollard, the American convicted of espionage for Israel, were (he has lately recalled) a “very detailed” assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency of a “huge number” of Syrian infringements in the decade after the signing of the 1974 agreement. These included such encroachments in the demilitarized zone as moving tank platoons under darkness; the placing of listening devices; and abductions and assassinations.

The same pattern was repeated in 1992, when the Syrians moved commandos into the town of Quneitra and heavy artillery elsewhere in the demilitarized zone. They also placed 21 surface-to-air missiles and eight missile launchers within 25 kilometers of the border. Although these illegal actions were duly reported by the United Nations observer force, Prime Minister Rabin chose not to make them public—only in 1994 did Rabin finally disclose that Jerusalem had complained repeatedly about Syria’s violations to the United Nations, “without any response from the Syrians.”



This, then, is Assad’s less-than-impressive record of fulfilling his promises. It is worth recalling that at least some observers have understood all along that he is hardly a man to be trusted. Michel Aoun, who as prime minister of Lebanon in 1988-90 challenged Assad and lost, is clear-eyed about the man who defeated him. The Syrians, Aoun has said, “don’t respect their word. They scheme, they promise you one thing and do something else on the side. They promised in the past, but they never lived up to any agreement.” In a more eloquent phrasing of the same sentiment, Egypt’s president Anwar al-Sadat recounts in his memoirs that President Jimmy Carter found that “the word of the Syrians was in fact a thousand and one words, and that what they agreed to one day, they rejected the next, returning to it the day after.”

But, starry-eyed for peace, Israeli and American governments these days tend to brush aside such inconvenient facts, even when they are attested by their own sources and confirmed by their own experience. When Ya’acov Ami-Dror, then Israel’s head of research for military intelligence, said in 1994 that “Assad keeps an agreement only when it suits him,” Prime Minister Rabin acidly retorted: “This is not the first time the intelligence branch has made mistakes in its assessments.”

Rabin’s reply points to an enduring fact of international politics. In the course of this century, as Douglas Feith (among others) has argued, the Western democracies have compiled a long history of fulfilling their side of bilateral agreements with dictatorships while ignoring or, worse, papering over the infractions of their adversaries. Such was the case with the British government and the Nazis in the late 1930’s, and such was the case with the Nixon administration and the Soviets in the 1970’s. So it is, too, with the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority today, and so it has long been with Israel and Syria, a country whose despotic ruler keeps his word or breaks it as it suits him. Whether or not Assad himself truly intends to strike an agreement with Israel, anyone contemplating pursuing one with him would do well, at the very minimum, to keep this in mind.





1 For the purposes of this analysis, I am putting aside the possible objection that Assad is not interested in a deal with Israel in the first place. Though I myself happen to believe that is the case, it is a matter of speculation, and anyway both Israel and the United States are now operating on the opposite assumption.


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