Early this year, an Israeli diplomat, speaking to Jewish activists here, described Syrian President Hafez Assad as “a sphinx … an enigma.” This week, that enigma sent his foreign minister to Washington to resume direct negotiations with Israel, under U.S. auspices — the culmination of months of secret diplomacy that did little to diminish Assad’s reputation for impenetrability.
Mideast observers and administration officials draw a picture of a complex, reclusive, driven man who knows what he wants — but doesn’t feel particularly driven to communicate it to the outside world.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), has met with Assad more than any other lawmaker, going back to their first meeting in 1988.
“I think he’s a very serious man, a very cautious man,” Specter said this week. “He’s very consistent — what he wants hasn’t changed since 1967.”
He said Assad, though a tough and hard-to-fathom negotiator, sticks to the agreements he makes.
Numerous observers say Assad — whose reputation has been shaped largely by the brutality of his regime — has a good but cutting sense of humor.
At one session, Specter suggested to Assad that he could win the Nobel Peace Prize if he made peace with Israel.
“He looked at me and said ‘maybe so, but if I go to Stockholm to pick it up, I might not be able to get back into Damascus.”
Does the conservative, pro-Israel lawmaker like Assad as a person?
“Yes. I find he is highly intelligent and responsive. He’s a man who has his own principles and objectives.”
Judith Kipper, head of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, described Assad as “primitive, in the sense that he is an intelligent man who has learned from experience, but who has traveled hardly at all. He’s been surrounded by loyalists who are similarly limited.”
The single most important facet of his personality, she said, “is his pride.” Prime Minster Ehud Barak, she said, has been much better than his predecessors in playing to that trait.
Others describe Assad as a kind of recluse who still craves audiences for his rambling, sometimes brilliant and sometimes disjointed analyses of history.
He is known for his “bladder politics” — his tendency to keep visiting dignitaries sitting in his palace for marathon conversations, while exercising iron bladder control himself.
Henry Siegman, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations Mideast program and former director of the American Jewish Congress, was one of the first Jewish leaders to experience that treatment.
In an interview, Siegman described Assad as “surprisingly charming and humorous.”
He said a driving force for Assad is “his concern about his place in history. It means a great deal to him that Syria is seen in the Arab world as what they call the ‘beating heart of Arab nationalism.’ He takes that very seriously.”
In their four-hour conversation, Assad criticized Egypt’s deal with Israel, Siegman said — not because of the content of the agreement, but because “it didn’t really protect the honor of Syria. What bothered him was that Sadat was ready to go to Jerusalem before a deal was cut.”
Siegman said Assad offered similar critiques of Jordan’s treaty with Israel, and of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
“He said the Palestinians betrayed the cause of Arab nationalism by signing Oslo without having any assurance what the end of the road would be,” Siegman said.
And Assad added that having given those criticisms, “he couldn’t very well go forward and sign a deal with Israel without having clear assurances of what the outcome would be.”
The palace talk-a-thons, Siegman said, are the result of Assad’s “unusual personal style. He seems determined to put current concerns into a much wider historical context. So you spend much of the time going over his version of history.”
Some of that history makes perfect sense, he said — and “some of it is off the wall.”
He described Assad as “a good listener, unlike many other Arab leaders I’ve met with. He pays close attention to what you say, not just as matter of courtesy. He responds to the things you say.”
Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also described Assad as “a deliberate thinker and speaker. Although he understands English, he likes the opportunity to let translators work while he considers his response.”
He said Assad is “inquisitive. He asks penetrating questions, while keeping a shroud over his own policies and views and preferences.”
He cites a classic Assad story surrounding former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 war.
“Kissinger went back and forth with Assad, painstakingly trying to work out the wording of the official invitation to the Geneva Peace Conference,” he said. “It was a laborious exercise. Assad wanted to look at the dot on every i. Finally, they reached an agreement.”
Kissinger, in a celebratory mood, was ready to leave Damascus when Assad dropped his bombshell.
“Assad said, ‘Congratulations, we can now agree on the wording of the invitation,’ ” Satloff said. “But he added that there’s only one problem: ‘I’m not coming.’ ”
He warned against using that and similar anecdotes to predict the outcome of the new Israeli-Syrian negotiations, but said “it’s an example of Assad negotiating for the value of negotiations, but not making a real decision until he can see all the outcomes.”