Backgrounder:

The Word of a Syrian

Syrian President Hafez el-Assad, 68, grabbed power 29 years ago in a military coup. For years, he used popular animosity toward Israel to stabilize his minority Alawite rule. But recently, he has trumpeted a "strategic decision for peace" with Israel in hopes of regaining the Golan Heights. Assad enjoys a reputation among many Western leaders and policymakers as a "man of his word," meaning Israel can trust him to keep signed peace agreements. But Assad's record of breaching previous commitments is long and distressing, demonstrating a clear pattern of untrustworthiness not only in terms of agreements with Israel, but also in commitments made to fellow Arab and Muslim rulers.

The Assad Record with Israel: Since coming to power in November 1970, Assad has entered a number of cease fires and other agreements brokered by third parties and aimed at alleviating hostilities between Israel and Syria. He has yet to honor a single agreement.

For example, in May 1974, Israel and Syria signed the Separation of Forces Agreement ending the previous October's Yom Kippur War. Both parties agreed to "scrupulously observe the cease fire on land, sea and air and [to] refrain from all military action against each other..." Additionally, Assad assured he would return Syrian civilians to land evacuated by the Israelis as a show of his non-belligerent intentions. Instead, Syria moved commandos into Kuneitra and heavy artillery within the length of the demilitarized zone. In violation of the 25 kilometer "thin out strip," Syria placed 21 surface-to-air missiles and eight missile launchers. The area today is still devoid of citizens.

In April 1976 American officials brokered a set of "red-line understandings" between Syria and Israel relating to Lebanon. Israel promised not to intervene with Syria's insertion of troops in Lebanon in return for several Syrian assurances regarding its military deployment in Lebanon: no Syrian aircraft, no surface-to-air missiles and troop deployments limited to no more than one brigade. Assad breached each of these provisions. He sent more than ten brigades, helicopters were used to ferry troops in 1976, jets and helicopters attacked Beirut in 1990 and surface-to-air missiles were deployed in the Zahle area. As a result of such actions, former President Jimmy Carter, writing in his memoirs, lamented that "Assad's earlier promises of cooperation seemed to be worth nothing."

In July 1993, Israel carried out "Operation Accountability" to suppress Hizb'Allah rocket attacks into the northern Galilee. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher intervened, and Assad pledged to prevent any force from launching rocket attacks from Lebanon into Israel. On February 16th the following year, Hizb'Allah recommenced Katyusha attacks against the Galilee, which have continued ever since.

In April 1996, Israel undertook "Operation Grapes of Wrath," another military thrust into Lebanon to eradicate Hizb'Allah elements firing Katyushas into the Galilee. Under the terms of a US-brokered cease-fire known as the Grapes of Wrath understandings, Syria promised that "armed groups in Lebanon will not carry out attacks by Katyusha rockets...into Israel." On December 13, less than a year later, Hizb'Allah again fired several Katyushas into western Galilee in violation of the understandings. Syria has consistently violated its obligations since, as the radical Islamic militia Hizb'Allah has regularly struck northern Israel with Katyusha rockets.

A senior IDF intelligence officer commented in November 1994: "The saying that Assad keeps his agreements is a myth, which has no basis in reality. It is not worthwhile to rely upon Assad's honor. Agreements, as far as Assad is concerned, are interests. He keeps them if it suits him..."

The Assad Record with Arab/Muslim States: Assad repeatedly has breached promises made to his Arab and Muslim brethren, including three separate pledges to withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon. The first instance came following the Riyadh-Cairo Accords signed in October 1978 in which he promised to disengage and withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon.

At an Arab summit in September 1982, Assad signed the Fez Declaration, agreeing to open discussions with the Lebanese government with an eye towards removing Syrian forces. The promised negotiations were never initiated.

Lastly, in October 1989, Syria joined representatives of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon in the Saudi resort town of Ta'if to discuss measures to restructure the Lebanese government and halt 14 years of civil war. In the Ta'if Accords, Syria again pledged to remove its troops from Lebanon, disarm the militias and terrorist groups operating in Lebanese territory and restore Lebanese sovereignty. Unsurprisingly, it violated all of these provisos. It continued arming, training and providing protection for Hizb'Allah, Islamic Jihad, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Japanese Red Army and a host of radical Palestinian and other terrorist organizations. Syria launched a massive final assault against Beirut in October of 1990, effectively smashing Lebanese hopes for restored independence. Today, approximately 40,000 Syrians garrison Lebanon in violation of all three Syrian agreements, as well as United Nations resolution 520, which calls for the removal of "all non-Lebanese forces from Lebanon."

Accordingly, the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat once noted: "President Jimmy Carter was baffled and bewildered by Assad. He imagined the Syrians would be as good as their word, and was taken aback when he found out that the word of a Syrian was in fact 1001 words."

The Turkish Experience: In 1993, Turkey declared the Syrians had violated every one of some 18 agreements signed with Ankara, including security protocols signed in 1987 and 1992 promising to close terrorist bases in Lebanon and Syria used by the PKK, the anti-Turkish Kurd militia. Turkey did so after concluding Assad had no intention of expelling the terrorists, even putting Syrian commanders in charge of PKK squads.

But then on October 20, 1998, the two rivals signed the Adana agreement, in which Damascus agreed to recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization, to cease all aid to the PKK and to deport its leader Abdullah Öcalan from Syria. Amazingly, Assad carried out this completely one-sided agreement and even expelled Öcalan before the agreement was signed.

The reason the Adana agreement stands out as an exceptional Syrian capitulation is the firm stand taken by Turkey. The Turkish parliament authorized military action against Syria, reserves were called up, armored units concentrated along the border, and Turkey's generals threatened to "drive in one end of Syria and out the other." The stunning success of this muscle-flexing raises an obvious question: Are such tactics the only way to prod the Syrian dictator to keep his word?


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