At a pre-conference dinner welcoming the guest lecturers to the two-day meeting in mid-December, one of the speakers said to two of his colleagues across the table: “Every morning, Asad must wake up and first read what you have written so that he’ll know what he should be thinking.”

The significance of the jocular remark was double. It testified to the insightful research and prolix writing of the participants at The Jewish-Arab Center-hosted conference, “Modern Syria: Social, Economic, and Political Issues.” The banter, however, also revealed that in effect Hafez el-Asad, the president of Syria, still remained very much of an enigma to well-known scholars, especially those who have no direct access to that country or its leaders.

This conference, however, which was conducted under the auspices of the Center’s Bertha von Suttner Research Program in Conflict Resolution, also presented lecturers from abroad who have visited Syria. Furthermore, it took the unusual step of videotaping interviews in London, for showing in Haifa, with two writers who have close ties to both Syria and its president (see separate story). Scheuled speakers came from Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Germany, and the United States in addition to the University and other institutions in Israel.

That Israel’s neighbors considered the conference to be of importance was demonstrated, perhaps, by Egypt’s Ambassador to Israel, Mohamed Bassiouny. The ambassador surprised the conference organizers by giving a short talk; he had been scheduled to make an appearance, but not to address the audience. In fact, his very attendance had not been assured, since Israeli newspapers were at the time suggesting he was about to be recalled because of Egypt’s displeasure at the faltering Hebron negotiations.

One of the recipients of the banter about telling Asad what to think was Philadelphia-based Daniel Pipes, editor of the well-known and influential Middle East Quarterly. In Pipe’s view, Asad is interested in the peace process, not in peace itself. On the other hand, he is not about to make war, for the Syrian strongman is also interested in power, for now and in the future [for his family].

Asad’s actions don’t make sense and are somewhat mysterious, according to Pipes, unless explained by the prism of Asad’s maintaining control.
A peace treaty with Israel would represent a major reorientation of Syrian policy, Pipes said. That is how the Syrian public views it, and Asad realizes this. Further, a peace agreement would signal Syria’s moving into the Western world. These acts, however, might destabilize Asad’s hold on the country.

Pipes believes that the lack of a closure of what he sees as the tiny gap between the Golan Heights boundary demands of Israel and Syria explains Asad’s favoring process over fact. Peres, Pipes said, had offered him one thing after another, but Asad kept upping his demands when the two sides seemed on the verge of an agreement.
Asad, the American editor continued, wants Syria taken off the U.S. rogue list, which is why “we are now [mid-December] hearing that there was an agreement with Israel [over the Golan, reached with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin], when we didn’t hear about that earlier.” Israel is blamed, and Syrian troops are moved, but Pipes sees all this as part of Asad’s game of not deciding on an unsettling peace in order to protect his own domestic political interests.

The focus on retaining power would also explain why Syria’s economic reform was halted, Pipes said, for that would ultimately have reduced the power of the state. It accounts, too, for Asad’s lack of concern for his people--which attitude, Pipes added, puts the Syrian closer to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Any collapse of the regime brought on by domestic discontent would lead to a decline of the Alawites, Asad’s co-religionists who form but a minority of the population, and perhaps even their massacre.

Pipe’s thesis was disputed by Prof. Zeev Maoz of Tel-Aviv University, who believes that Syria is systematically preparing a military option even if war would not lead to big gains. The only effective actor to de-escalation is the United States,” Maoz said, “but its position is one of benign neglect.

He thinks the United States would not be so concerned over a “minor” clash between Syria and Israel, as that might pressure the Israeli government to come to an agreement with Asad. He hopes that is not the case, but sees the scenario of an unintended war brought on by a “war of words,” similar to the 1966-67 situation, a real possibility.
A gloomy picture of Syria’s domestic condition was presented by Prof. Volker Perthes of the Research Institute for Security and International Politics in Munich. Perthes, who has first-hand knowledge of Syria, finds that Israel presents a mirror image of the discourse in Syria about Israel. “There is a danger,” he warned, “of constructing a Syria of your own just as Syrian intellectuals may be doing [about Israel]” in the absence of seeing what’s happening in person.

The German writer believes that relations with Israel is not the most important thing for Syria. Far more crucial are domestic and regional issues. Among these, he said, is the challenge of changing, not the regime, but the country’s elite. He said he told a Syrian audience that they had to develop a different approach to the function of a state and asked them whether there would be a well-educated generation able to lead Syria in the 21st century.

Other problems he cited included job creation, as 60%-80% of first-time job seekers in Syria are unemployed. The relative decline in oil-related income was a poblem because, he said, a large propotion of the political elite does not realize that Syria’s income, two thirds of which is derived from oil exports, will be affected by the increasing domestic use of oil.

The war dividend” that Syria receives as a confrontation state from the Gulf State is also declining, Perthes point out, but reforms of the country’s industrial structure have stopped short of bringing change. The last real step, he said, was made in 1991. “Political irrationality always overrules economic rationality.
An unscheduled lecturer was Prof. Mansouri Driss of Casablanca, Morocco, who talked about his country’s relations with Syria. Morocco’s participation on the Golan Heights in Syria’s behalf during the Yom Kippur War is in the nation’s collective memory, Driss remarked, but pointed out that there has never been an official visit by the heads of state of Syria and Morocco to each other’s country.
The Moroccan intellectual also explained why the Ba’th Party, which rules in Syria and Iraq, has never been successful in Morocco despite attempts. His country, he said, is traditionalist and religious, whereas the Ba’th wants to replace Islam with Arab nationalism. For Morocco, Driss averred, the state comes first. “Morocco is a nation by itself”

The wide-ranging talks and discussions by some two dozen speakers were closely followed by Dr. h.c. Karlheinz Koppe, academic representative of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia to the Bertha von Suttner Program. He opened the proceedings by announcing that the conference marked the end of the five-year agreement between the von Suttner Program and the University. The previous week, he then added, a new agreement had been signed. Research and conferences like the present one add to the optimization of conflict resolution, Koppe said, but in the end “conflict resolution...remains a political task.” Also attending the two-day conclave was Mr. Bernd Fecke of North Rhine-Westphalia, a von Suttner Program official.

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