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Publisher\Editor Don Canaan

                     June 30, 1995, V3, #120
All the News the Big Guys Missed

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The Golan from the Syrian Perspective

By Laurie Kassman (Kuneitra, Golan Heights)

Syrian and Israeli military chiefs concluded their meeting this week in Washington in an attempt to work out security arrangements for an eventual peace agreement. That treaty will hinge on the return of the Golan Heights to Syria -- 775 square miles of mountain border area that Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Correspondent Laurie Kassman visited the destroyed town of Kuneitra, the former capital of the Syrian Golan Heights for a closer look at what the dispute is about.

Kuneitra is a ghost city that sits under the watchful eye of an Israeli military observation post on top of the mountain known as tell Abu Nada.

It was once a flourishing market town and a crossroads for trade between four countries -- some 15.5 miles From the Lebanese border and 37 miles from the Jordanian border. Kuneitra is only 19 miles away from what Syrians still refer to as Palestine.

Today Kuneitra is a pile of rubble. Only the skeletons of a few buildings remain. A 400-bed hospital is only a shell, the few remaining walls filled with the scars of mortar shells and artillery fire. A sign on the outside tells visitors the hospital was destroyed by Israelis and then used for target practice.

Israel seized Kuneitra and 1,240 square miles of the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day war. The troops drove out about 150,000 Syrian villagers.

Syrian efforts to retake the Golan in the 1973 Yom Kippur war ended in defeat. Two-thirds of the area has remained under Israeli control. Some 20,000 Syrians who stayed behind have lived in the territory ever since.

After the 1973 war, Israel gave the town of Kuneitra back to Syria, but first soldiers moved in and destroyed it with bulldozers and dynamite.

The Syrian government has not touched the skeletal remains of the hospital, the church, a school and the town theater that stand amid the piles of concrete. It has become a war monument on the edge of the barbed wire barrier that marks the demilitarized zone and the area beyond, which Israel annexed in 1981. A small museum farther up the road displays maps and photos of Kuneitra before and after.

The high mountainous range behind Kuneitra puts the area at the heart of Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The highest peak rises nearly 9,000 feet, giving whoever controls it, a clear view and military superiority over the vulnerable open plains below. Three vital rivers have their source here, too.

Syrian and Israeli military chiefs are meeting to try to work out security arrangements to satisfy the concerns of both sides. There is talk of a demilitarized zone, early warning systems and international observers to keep the area calm.

But both sides are still arguing over the timing and extent of an Israeli pullout and dismantling of Jewish settlements on the Golan Heights. Israel has talked of a phased withdrawal with a test period for normalizing relations. But Syria's vice president reflects a general Syrian attitude when he says Israel must leave the Golan Heights before there can be any talk of normalization.

Syrian Merchants Apprehensive About Doing Business with Israel

By Laurie Kassman (Damascus)

As the peace process moves forward, so do Syrian efforts to transform a centralized economy into a market with a larger role for the private sector. Since 1991, new laws have eased restrictions and encouraged private investment.

But, many ambitious businessmen want to see the reforms speeded up to better prepare for the competition of a peacetime marketplace.

Potential investors complain about the continuing bureaucratic snags and Syria's burdensome state banking system. They want to see improvements in the infrastructure, customer service and training in new technologies.

Syrian executives worry Israel's more liberal economy already gives it a competitive edge. One executive still opposed to peace with the Jewish state insists Israel will dominate the market once the Arab boycott is ended.

Economic analyst Nabil Samman says the fear is part of the psychological adjustment to peace, and the uncertainty of how Syria will deal with direct competition from Israel. "The souk mentality is: I can compete with the whole world. But when you talk about the businessman, a strong businessman, he knows what Israel is all about and Israeli economy. Then he will say -- well, we are not as developed as the Israeli economy. We have a limited economic sector, industrial sector, and the Israeli economy is well-developed. Israel's economy -- per-capita income -- is about $14,500 while in Syria it is about $1,000."

Syrian businessman Thaer Laham works in food processing. He says facing the unknown is his biggest fear, but he believes Syrian businessmen are ready for the challenge. "We do feel we are untested, we have not been proven, we have not had a chance to prove ourselves. So I think Syrian businessmen and the Syrian people will have a chance to prove ourselves in the near future. We do not know what we are going to be faced with, and fear of the unknown is our biggest problem."

Laham says he is ready for peace, but he has experienced only war and hostility with Israel. He is not sure how he will react when peace is established. "I do not know if I will ever buy an Israeli product. I do not know if I will ever deal with an Israeli company as a businessman. I doubt it. At least not in the near future. However, just the prospect of talking about peace, I did not think about peace only four or five-years ago."

Another Damascus resident cites Egypt's 16-years of what he calls a cold peace with Israel and suggests normalization -- both trade and cultural -- will take generations. He says he gets upset when his child asks to watch cartoons from the Israeli channel on his satellite television.

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