THE REGION: The Syrian track is dead
By Barry Rubin
Syria's disinterest in peace with Israel became even clearer this past week. Within a couple of months, no one will be able to ignore the fact that this track is dead. The most recent developments include a hate-filled editorial in Syria's main government newspaper portraying the mass murder of Jews in Europe as an Israeli propaganda stunt. The Syrian-backed Hizbullah group in Lebanon stepped up attacks, too. Actually, the kind of rhetoric used in the editorial is not unusual in the Syrian media, or in other Arab newspapers. But the timing and prominence of this particular piece is an unmistakable symbol. Similarly, Syria does not control Hizbullah's every deed, but the seriousness of the current campaign suggests the encouragement of Damascus. How can one explain Syria's strategy? There are four main alternatives, which all amount to the same thing:
* Syria isn't interested in making peace with Israel.
* Syria is demanding so much and offering to concede so little that any deal is impossible.
* President Hafez Assad would like to make peace, but has lost his nerve and retreated to a more familiar rejectionist position.
* Syria mistakenly thinks that the way to get its demands met is to show how much it can "hurt" Israel.

In all these cases, the result will be deadlock, unless Assad has a sudden change of heart - or a sudden deterioration of his heart - that leads to a dramatic turnaround in Damascus. All of this does not mean, however, that Prime Minister Ehud Barak's policy toward Syria is mistaken. There's no sense in making credible the Syrian argument that Israel is the one wrecking negotiations. By the same token, there is no reason why Israel should not retaliate against Hizbullah attacks in Lebanon. Perhaps we should adopt the following principle in understanding Arab peacemaking: It has been so difficult for Arab states and groups to offer Israel a reasonable peace settlement that anyone who succeeds in doing so is really ready to make peace.

In short, serious offers are not tricks because they are so politically and psychologically costly. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas, and many other groups - one can add non-Arab Iran - simply cannot make a credible proposal because they are not ready to make a real peace. THE NEXT stage of the battle has already commenced over whether Syria can impose its veto to force other Arab states and leaders to do nothing until Assad is ready to make peace with Israel. The Syrians certainly failed to do so between 1993 and 1996. Of course the Palestinians are not going to be deterred by Syrian opposition if they want to make a peace agreement with Israel. On the contrary, they complain that Israel is spending too much time trying to make peace with Syria and not enough effort in negotiating with them. It is now clear, as this column has repeatedly argued, that the deadlines for an Israel-Palestinian framework agreement will be missed. This outcome is partly inevitable - given both sides' desire to show constituents how toughly they are bargaining and the complexity of the issues at stake - and partly caused by American mistakes.

Yet however many months it takes, there should be progress by the middle of this year. If Jordan's King Abdullah visits Israel soon, this will mark another sign that Syria cannot tell the region what to do. Another front is the multilateral process. For the first time in about four years, talks on almost all regional issues are about to move forward, with meetings scheduled for April and May. Despite a Syrian and Lebanese boycott, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and others attended a conference in Moscow to plan these new rounds of talks. Egypt, though, is the important exception. Why should Egyptian foreign policy remain hostage to Syria's maximum demands? The irony is that in order to retain the leadership of the Arab world, Egypt believes it must effectively put the reins in Syria's hands. SPEAKING of self-defeating strategies, the time has come to reexamine the condition and role of Arab armies. One of the most stimulating and original thinkers about the Middle East today is Norvell De Atkine, a retired US army colonel with long experience in the region. De Atkine's latest work is Why Arabs Lose Wars, published in the December 1999 issue of the Middle East Quarterly and reprinted in the March 2000 issue of MERIA Journal (for a free subscription write He argues that the principal cause of defeat is not solely technological, but rather social and political factors which are often neglected in analyzing this issue. Politicians' manipulation of military structures, the wide gap between officers and enlisted personnel, excessive secrecy, tactical rigidity, and other such factors are huge handicaps for Arab armed forces.

De Atkine concludes: "Until Arab politics begin to change at fundamental levels, Arab armies, whatever the courage or proficiency of individual officers and men, are unlikely to acquire the range of qualities which modern fighting forces require for success on the battlefield.

"For these qualities depend on inculcating respect, trust, and openness among the members of the armed forces at all levels, and this is the marching music of modern warfare that Arab armies, no matter how much they emulate the corresponding steps, do not want to hear."