Middle East

Farouk Al-Shara

Stepping into the Spotlight

Syria’s Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara, who once stated that the time has come to focus on the “battle of borders, not the battle for existence,” is a difficult man to analyze. Some observers see him as President Hafez al-Assad’s puppet in the peace negotiations with Israel—but others suggest that, in reality, Al-Shara is pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Al-Shara, 61, rose through the ranks of the ruling Baath Party until his appointment to foreign minister in 1984. In this position, he has proved to be a tough man with whom to parry in peace talks. He has academic credentials in international law—the focus of his studies at Damascus University and at the University of London before he turned to a
career in politics.

The Israeli press is eyeing al-Shara with skepticism bordering on open resentment, and many commentators have fixed upon his lack of charisma as the key to understanding the Syrian strategy. For many, he embodies “Syrian chutzpah.”

His arrogant behavior is said to be testing the nerves of enthusiastic supporters of peace. Meron Benvenisti of Tel Aviv’s liberal Ha’aretz notes his “dour expression, refusal to behave civilly and shake hands, and his avoidance of any direct public contact with the people he went to talk peace with.”

Al-Shara has been compared to “a man who has forgotten his indigestion tablets,” while craning his neck not to miss a word at the negotiation table. But contrary to Orli Azulay-Katz’s prediction in Tel Aviv’s mass- circulation Yediot Aharonot that Barak and Al-Shara would never take a dip in the hotel pool together or run side by side on treadmills—that is exactly what happened in January at the peace talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia: Barak went to the hotel gym and invited Al-Shara to join him in his a workout. Surprisingly, the Syrian accepted.

Al-Shara is the most trusted aide of the ailing Assad, who is preparing his country for an imminent power shift. If Assad’s son, Bashar, assumes the presidency, Al-Shara’s expertise in dealing with Israel is likely to provide a vital element of continuity.