Assad's Domestic Concerns Delay Peace Talks, Analysts Say

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Nearly a week after President Clinton and his Syrian counterpart Hafez Assad failed to find a formula for restarting Israeli-Syrian talks, Damascus and Jerusalem continue to blame each other for the impasse while still keeping their peace options open.

"[Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak, Clinton and Assad haven't said talks are dead and buried," analyst Dr. Yossi Olmert told "But they're in deep trouble," he said.

Olmert, who served as advisor to former Defense Minister Moshe Arens and as Israeli negotiator in an earlier round of talks with the Syrians, attributed Assad's reluctance to resume talks now to the internal transition in his country.

"The succession process is more important to him than the peace process," he said.

Assad, who is known to be in ill health, has been grooming his son, Bashar, an optometrist, to assume the reins when he dies.

According to Mordechai Kedar, lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University, Assad has other problems, too, which will make the succession of his son difficult.

Kedar told Assad has a legitimacy problem because he is a member of the minority Alawite sect, which is considered heretical in Islam. Although the Alawites control the army, they constitute no more than 11 percent of the population.

Assad comes from an uneducated, village background and bears the historical weight of having lost the Golan Heights after attacking Israel in 1967.

Adding to Assad's personal problems, Kedar said, his oldest son Basal, who was in line for succession, was killed in an automobile accident while driving a Mercedes, a fact that reminded Syrians he enjoyed a lifestyle far wealthier than that of most of the population.

Olmert said if Assad were seen as making concessions to Israel at this time it could create even more trouble for him.

Many analysts have said that because Assad's health was failing he would want to make a quick deal with Israel to have the process finalized by the time he turns over the power to his son.

But Olmert disagrees, saying that from his experience of Assad, in a situation like this the Syrian leader would more likely run from an agreement with Israel rather than embrace it.

Israeli-Syrian talks restarted in December after a break of nearly four-years, only to stall again in January. Clinton says he has been working behind the scenes to try get the sides talking. But after meeting Assad in Geneva on Sunday, he said "the ball is now in [Assad's] court."

Barak said on Thursday that it would "be difficult to say that the Geneva summit was a success" and blamed the failure on Syria.

"The gaps [between the sides] were identified by the Americans but not bridged," he said. "The differences remain." Nonetheless, Israel was not "shutting the door on the possibility of a resumption of talks with Syria."

Syria has demanded that Israel withdraw from territory captured in 1967, including land on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, from which Israel draws 40 percent of its freshwater supply.

Barak has basically agreed to a withdrawal to the 1967 border, with the exception of the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.

For his part, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said Assad was not responsible for the breakdown in talks.

"When President Clinton told President Assad that Israel wants full sovereignty over the Jordan River waters and Tiberias [Sea of Galilee] ... President Assad categorically rejected it," the Syrian Arab News Agency quoted al-Sharaa as telling European Union ambassadors.

He said Assad would not "relinquish the right of the people and the country, whatever time it takes."

Earlier this week, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres told a wire service why Israel was not prepared to give the Syrians access to the Galilee coastline.

"We have two lakes, one dead," he was quoted as saying in a reference to the Dead Sea further south. "We are not going to kill the other one."