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by MARK DAMELI
Thursday, Dec. 04, 2003 at 10:34 PM
New York times
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria understands that he no longer lives in his father's Middle East, where brutal repression at home, the refusal to deal with Israel and cozy relations with terrorist groups and rogue regimes were enough to ensure decades of unchallenged power. That much comes across in an interview with our colleague Neil MacFarquhar in The Times on Monday. What is less clear is whether Mr. Assad, the son and successor of Hafez al-Assad, fully grasps the magnitude of the challenge he has inherited, and so far failed to meet
Bashar al-Assad seems to have a rose-tinted view of Syrian reality. Unless he quickly begins to recognize the increasingly desperate situation Syrians face as a result of his family's failed policies, it is hard to see how he can make needed changes.
For example, Mr. Assad disingenuously claims that there would be no problems between Syria and the United States were it not for Israel. That is hard to swallow just months after Syria's lax policing of its border with Iraq may have permitted hundreds of Arab fighters to cross over and join
attacks on American troops. It also overlooks Syria's persistent attempts over the years to manufacture, buy or trade unconventional arms, including chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles. Syria has a long and nasty history of sheltering and cooperating with
not only Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas but also international terrorists - including, at one point, Abu Nidal, a man believed responsible for some 900 deaths in at least 20 countries.
Despite this, Washington has tried to broker peace deals that would have let Syria recover virtually all of the Golan Heights from Israel. Shortly before Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, he turned down a promising offer conveyed by President Bill Clinton. Bashar al-Assad now says he wants
to resume negotiations from that point, as if his father's failure to follow through, along with subsequent changes in leadership and policies in both Israel and the United States, had never happened.
Good-faith negotiations over the Golan Heights would indeed be welcome, especially since Mr. Assad now offers full normal relations with Israel if an agreement is reached. He should show Syria's good faith by reining in the guerrillas and terrorists his father periodically unleashed to prove
that peace was impossible without satisfying Syria.
The most surreal part of the interview came when Mr. Assad argued that the Iraqi people should choose their government through elections. This admirable suggestion would carry some weight if he tested it out first in Syria, where free elections are never allowed and where open political
discussion has once again, after a brief thaw, become an almost certain ticket to prison.
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