In snubbing Warren Christopher Assad was telling the Arab world: This is how to continue the struggle against Israel.
THE Russian foreign minister's plane circled over Damascus for 45 minutes awaiting permission to land from President Assad, who wanted to please the American secretary of state, who hoped to wrap up his mediation between Israel and Syria before the Russian's arrival. Only when the plane's fuel was almost spent was it granted permission to land in a secluded corner of Damascus Airport, allowing the American to leave without meeting the Russian.
That didn't happen this week, but during the disengagement talks in May 1974. The Russian was Andrei Gromyko and the American Henry Kissinger, but it was the same Assad. This week he did it the other way round, snubbing Secretary of State Christopher by making him wait while he talked with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Just like 22 years ago, the secretary's talks focused on terrorist attacks against Israelis. This week it was Kiryat Shmona, then it was Ma'alot.
Now there is a security zone which prevents the terrorists from reaching Ma'alot and other border settlements, so they fire Katyushas long-range. But the problem of terrorism is the same. Assad is realistic enough to avoid a frontal confrontation with Israel. When he was defense minister and commander of the air force in 1970, he kept his planes on the ground when Syrian tanks entered Northern Jordan, and the IDF was marshalling its forces near the border.
On the second day of the Yom Kippur War, as former Soviet diplomat Victor Israelyan reveals in his new book, Inside the Kremlin. During the Yom Kippur War, Assad requested that the Soviets obtain an immediate cease-fire in place.
When his army entered Lebanon in 1976, he asked for King Hussein's intervention to prevent a face-to-face confrontation with Israel. And during the Lebanon war in 1982, Assad was careful to localize the fighting, avoiding an all-out confrontation, even after our air force destroyed the Syrian missile batteries. Syria prefers to act against Israel by remote control, without risking war, like Assad's predecessors did just before the Six Day War. Assad dresses up this tactic by arguing that he cannot tie the hands of the resistance to Israeli occupation.
This was Kissinger's problem 22 years ago. This week, it was Christopher's. Kissinger's solution was an unambiguous announcement: "In our view, the cease-fire covered guerilla actions; if any took place, the US would support Israel politically if it retaliated." The military operations with which Israel responded to terrorist provocations (Operations Peace for Galilee, Accountability, and Grapes of Wrath) have taken the sting out of Kissinger's warning which is why Assad couldn't find the time to talk to Christopher on Tuesday, leaving the secretary having to make do with Foreign Minister Shara.
Driven by the desire to achieve a cease-fire this week, the US is doing its utmost to minimize Assad's snub. But Assad is exploiting the incident to signal the terrorist organizations that they have won the duel between Hizbullah's primitive Katyushas and the IDF's sophisticated bombs.
The insult to Christopher was also Assad's method of telling the Arab world that this, and not the Sharm e-Sheikh conference, is the way to continue the struggle against Israel. If as Assad can infer from the US's activity Israel wants a cease-fire to guarantee the security of Kiryat Shmona and Nahariya, it will have to pay Assad's price. When Assad realized that he lacked a war option, he began to talk about a strategic decision for peace. But this doesn't mean negotiations free from terrorist pressure.
Quite the reverse: Assad intends to use terrorism to get the best deal he can for his country. This is why he categorically refuses to shut down the Damascus headquarters of the Palestinian terrorist organizations, and why he is making no attempt to restrain Hizbullah. Simply: They serve his interests.
The Americans are still trying to find a formula for a cease-fire which the Israeli government can sell its public. But Assad will do everything in his power to ensure that Hizbullah and Hamas, his tools in the negotiating process, retain a free hand.
Using constructive ambiguity, Warren Christopher may finally bring about a cease-fire declaration, but its durability will depend on the wishes of Teheran and Damascus, and its acceptance will depend on the face-saving formula the Israeli government can devise to present to voters a month before the elections. (c) Jerusalem Post 1996
MOSHE ZAK a veteran journalist, comments on current affairs.