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Syria: Economy, Politics Impel Talks With Israel

A visit by Bashar Assad, son of the Syrian president, to Paris this week has sparked new speculation that Syria is preparing to restart peace talks with Israel. And Bashar could play an important role in those talks, perhaps as heir apparent. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 11 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A flurry of Syrian diplomatic activity in Paris this week is sending new signals that Damascus may soon restart its peace process with Israel.

The signs came with a groundbreaking trip to Paris over the weekend by Bashar Assad, the son of Syrian President Hafez Assad. After meeting with French President Jacques Chirac -- his first official meeting ever with a Western head of state -- Bashar Assad told reporters he is hopeful of a prompt resumption of peace talks with Israel.

Analysts say Bashar's trip marks Syria's desire to bring Europe into a leading role in Israeli-Syrian peace talks, which were mediated by Washington before they broke off nearly four years ago.

At the same time, the trip may be preparation for the 36-year-old Bashar Assad to take an important role in any upcoming talks. Many believe that Bashar, a doctor and army colonel, is being groomed as a potential successor to the Syrian president following the death of his elder brother Bassel in a car crash five years ago.

Our correspondent asked Eberhardt Keenly, an expert on Syria at the School of Oriental Studies at London University, to explain the pressures Syria is under to revive peace talks. Speaking to RFE/RL by phone from London, Keenly said the strongest pressure on Syria to make peace with Israel is economic.

"The Syrian economy needs foreign investment, the Syrian economy needs all sorts of support and aid for modernization, which it doesn't get at present for various reasons, one of them just being in a sense political reasons that ... various investors will just not invest in Syria just because a country still theoretically in a state of war, though perhaps not practically, is not a place where one would easily invest."

Keenly says that in recent years, Syria's economy has not only been stagnating but declining. He says the poor performance of the economy could pose a danger to the regime of President Assad.

"In the sense that the resource basis from which the regime operates, the regime ... does not want to govern a completely impoverished and pauperized country. The regime needs a certain resource basis in terms of production, in terms of exports, in terms of accumulation, which allow it to reproduce itself, to defend itself, to pursue policies, to implement infrastructural improvements ... especially a country which has regional ambitions."

Many analysts feel that President Assad also feels strong personal reasons to try to conclude a peace with Israel. Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the Syrian president wants regaining the land to be part of his legacy. Many observers also feel that Assad, who is 69, believes that leaving such a major issue unresolved would pose dangers for his apparently preferred but untested heir, Bashar.

This makes it likely that President Assad will conduct talks with Israel himself but give a key role to Bashar to build his son's stature. Keenly says that, as a possible first step, Bashar Assad already has been entrusted by his father with overseeing Syrian-Lebanese relations.

"It is not the first time that Bashar is involved in sensitive political issues. He has been playing an increasing role in Lebanon, or in negotiations between the various Lebanese forces and politicians, on the one hand, and the Syrian regime in Damascus on the other hand ... And it wouldn't be surprising if he were entrusted, not entirely with the other [Israel-Syria] dossier, but at least if he would play some sort of role in that other dossier."

If Bashar does play a key part in any renewed peace talks, it would give him increased credibility -- internationally and domestically. But even this experience may be just a step on a long road Bashar still must travel before he can be sure to succeed his father. Keenly:

"Increasingly, I think, there are indications that [Hafez Assad] would like to see his son as his successor. Now the problem is whether this will actually be implemented or can be implemented in the present Syrian context. I would say the longer President Assad remains in power, the longer he survives, physically and in power, the more likely it is that his son who, after all in spite of these various roles which he starts to play, is a newcomer to the political scene, the more likely it becomes that his son will be able to take over at some stage."

Signals that both Syria and Israel are interested in restarting peace talks have multiplied since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak came to office this year. But despite evident interest on both sides, analysts predict any new talks would see tough negotiating with no guarantees that compromise solutions can be found.

The two sides broke off talks in early 1996 amid disputes over the fate of the Golan Heights. Syria has demanded the full return of the heights, but over the last two decades parts of the territory have been populated by Israeli settlers.