Regional Outlook : What Next, Assad? Will You End Up Like Saddam? : These are the questions being asked by Washington as the Administration moves closer to the Syrian leader.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A historic capital of the Arab world, still a power in the last decade of the 20th Century, the face of the leader looking down from murals on urban barracks of his formidable, missile-girded military.

This was Baghdad.

This is Damascus.

Syrian President Hafez Assad still has his 4,000 Soviet-made tanks, 500 warplanes, bristling air defenses and batteries of Scud missiles, and he placed his army on the winning side of the Persian Gulf War that humbled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, one of his rivals for leadership among the Arabs.

Assad, the former air force pilot and plotter in the Baath Arab Socialist Party who led his country off the Arab mainline in the 1970s and '80s, now stands shoulder to shoulder with populous Egypt and the super-rich Saudis, eager for a regional position in George Bush's "new world order."

But wait.

This is the same man and same regime that played hardball against the Western powers for decades, giving the Soviets their surest foothold in the Middle East in exchange for arms and the shadow of protection. This regime remains among the handful accused by the U.S. government of harboring terrorists. This president put down a domestic revolt in the northern city of Hama in 1982 with a brutality that still makes Syrians tremble.

Should Washington do business with Assad, trust him as one of the Arab pillars for a secure Middle East? Or will he become, like Hussein, a loose cannon, an Arab strongman fed guns and credit by foreign capitals that mistakenly thought they could control his appetite for power?

The Bush Administration is prepared to take the calculated risk, to build a power base for Arab influence on a Cairo-Riyadh-Damascus axis, working with it for stability in the region and, potentially, progress on the Arab-Israeli front.

The 60-year-old Assad has been ready to play ball for more than a year. He read the writing on the Berlin Wall. Syria's Soviet sponsors could no longer afford, financially or politically, to bankroll his isolationist stand in Arab affairs. Unable to play Moscow against Washington, the Syrian leader removed his self-imposed barriers and resumed diplomatic relations with Cairo, an early step in what his foreign minister, Farouk Shareh, calls the reshuffled deck of Middle East power.

Assad's pragmatism is what Washington is banking on. In the American sense, he practices international politics as the art of the possible, taking what he can, when he can. An example: With the Persian Gulf crisis holding the focus of the big powers last fall, Assad committed air and ground forces to crush the rebellion of Christian warlord Michel Aoun, a nemesis of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.

By contrast, the impetuous Hussein took what he wanted when he wished--and paid the price.

The two men have been called the binary dark stars of Arab politics, rivals for leadership of the secular, socialist Baath Party, a movement built on the dream of Arab cultural renaissance, modernity and unity. But their differences are more personal and nationalistic than ideological. Both brought social advances to their countries, and both have maintained power through a heavy application of secret police.

Mideast and Western officials who have known Assad and watched him work in his 20 years in power call him cautious, cunning and ambitious. It's important to examine his motivations, they say.

Assad's ambition is driven in part by his origins: He is the son of a poor family of a Muslim minority, the Alawites. Since his rise, Alawites have gained positions in the country's military and security services in sharp disproportion to their 10% of the population. The situation represents a key vulnerability of the regime and underlies the ruthless determination at the top. Assad still rides a tiger in domestic politics.

The other overriding motivation of the leadership is common to most Syrians--at least those over 40. They may not relate to the flowering in Damascus of early Islam's Umayyad dynasty, but they know of Greater Syria--that loosely defined part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire that, until the end of World War I, gave Damascus sway over what is now Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.

Syrian maps still show no boundary with Lebanon, which was carved out as a separate, Christian-dominated state by the French colonialists in 1920. Nor does Damascus see a need to establish an embassy in Beirut.

What Assad wants, said a diplomat who has worked in Damascus, could be seen on an Ottoman map. "All Syrians want Greater Syria," he said. "Practically, that means a total absence of Israeli influence in Lebanon, a weak Palestinian state under Jordanian influence and a Jordanian government that listens closely to Damascus. Nirvana? Nirvana would allow Assad to name the Jordanian foreign minister."

A regional diplomat here insists that Assad and other Syrian leaders have never let go of "their dreams of empire." But, he pointed out, Damascus no longer holds the military cards it did in decades past. Even with Egypt and other Arab states at its side, Syria could not dislodge the Israelis in 1948, '67 and '73. In 1982, the Israelis crippled the Syrian air force during their invasion of Lebanon. The Jewish state still holds a slice of the south and controls the skies of that part of "Greater Syria."

Moscow remains Assad's No. 1 military supplier but values its new relationship with Washington too much to play disruptive games in the Middle East, Western diplomats say.

With his offensive potential leashed, Assad appears less of a dangerous element to stability. And although Westerners may deplore his record on human rights and terrorism, his Arab neighbors are more shockproof on these matters. "This can be an ugly part of the world," observed one Western diplomat, referring to armed and radical political cells as a sort of mutual deterrence. "It sometimes pays to have some of these fellows around."

Realistically, the most that Syria can probably hope for is the return under a Middle East peace settlement of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, seized in the 1967 war and incorporated into the Jewish state after the 1973 war. And even that may be out of reach with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's rightist government holding forth in Jerusalem.

Earlier this month, when Health Minister Ehud Olmert and Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, the military chief of staff, made comments suggesting that Israel could swap the strategic Golan Heights for peace, Shamir squashed the notion like a bug.

American diplomats in the Middle East believe Assad when he says he will not strike a separate deal with the Israelis for the Golan Heights--not the man who led the Arab ostracism of Egypt for its separate peace with Jerusalem.

Publicly, Assad favors the idea of an international peace conference, but he seems in no hurry unless the result would fit his aims. A Palestinian state under the Palestine Liberation Organization and Yasser Arafat, a bitter enemy of Assad from their days of rivalry in Lebanon, would definitely not fit, Arab and Western analysts say.

Arab analysts insist that the regimes of Assad and Saddam Hussein are misread outside the Middle East. Although public opinion in the West assumes they would be pariahs for their domestic practices, both Syria and Iraq actually earned respect within the region for strong leadership that refused to bow to Western pressure.

And, in fact, both have found themselves wooed by the West--Hussein more so than Assad, who is now getting his first heavy rush of Western attention since then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger made Damascus a shuttle stop in the early 1970s.

When the current secretary of state, James A. Baker III, met with Assad for seven hours here two weeks ago, making headlines for the duration, old Middle East hands recalled that Kissinger and the Syrian leader used to talk for 12 hours at a stretch. Nevertheless, the new-look Damascus regime was laying it on for the Washington visitors. At a news conference with Shareh, the suave and suddenly moderate foreign minister, a senior Baker aide turned to a reporter and asked: "Have you ever heard the Syrians sound like this before?"

"The Syrians are going to work real hard not to come out of this (the Gulf crisis) as a heavy," said the former Damascus-based diplomat. He thinks Assad will be as cagey as ever, holding his cards close to his vest and looking for advantage. "Sometimes he overreaches," the diplomat said, "but generally he doesn't try for things he can't do."

There have been no signs yet that Assad would become another Hussein--blustering, rocket-rattling. Conniving, perhaps. But invading?

"Assad's too smart to walk into it," the diplomat said. "He is a predictable actor. Saddam wasn't. Syria plays the game by the rules."

Still, Iraq's defeat leaves Syria as the biggest gun in the east, Israel excepted. Although the Soviet Union has made it clear that it will not deliver Assad his cherished "strategic parity" with the Israelis, it will provide the weapons for a first-rate defense. Furthermore, according to Israeli and American sources, Assad has just taken delivery on 24 medium-range Scud-C missiles and 20 launchers from North Korea.

Mohammed Milhelm, an Amman, Jordan-based member of the PLO executive committee and a former West Bank mayor deported by the Israelis, says Assad's Syria is looking out for No. 1. "My personal belief," Milhelm told a reporter, "is Syria is playing a role that is neither favored by its own people nor the Palestinians nor the Arabs."

The PLO official pointed, as many Palestinians and Jordanians do, to the money that cash-hungry Damascus received from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates for sending 20,000 of its soldiers into the ranks of Operation Desert Shield--an estimated $2 billion, with the prospect of more when Syrian troops are detailed to the American-engineered, postwar Persian Gulf security force.

A well-armed Syria will be projecting its politics into the Gulf region with its participation in the force. But will it become the bully that Iraq was? Probably not, most analysts and diplomats now believe, but they quickly caution that it is also true that Syria is no nascent democracy. Consider:

* International human rights organizations give Syria low marks, reporting continued abuses and allegations of torture by its well-entrenched mukhabarat , the security services that most Syrian experts say form a government above the government.

* Corruption remains a particular problem in the army, where the temptations of gun- and drug-runners in Lebanon's Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley have made some ranking officers wealthy far beyond the limits of a military payroll, Middle East narcotics officers say.

* Assad's regime continues to provide sanctuary to Palestinian groups accused by Washington and other Western capitals as terrorists, including Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which has been unofficially implicated in the calamitous bombing of a Pan American World Airways flight over Scotland in December, 1988. During the Gulf War, however, Western diplomats in Damascus credited the government with keeping a close eye on potential terrorists beckoned to strike Western targets by Iraq's Hussein.

On the issue of Western hostages held in Beirut, Assad's government has earned the gratitude of American and British authorities for its role in pressing for release of some of the captives during the past 18 months.

Many diplomats are convinced that Assad cannot force the freedom of the hostages--the web of Lebanese militias and the allegiance of the presumed kidnapers to Iranian figures being paramount--but Syrian security can facilitate a release without incident. All released citizens of the United States and Britain have been turned over to Syrian authorities in Beirut.

With relations among the three countries improving in the wake of the Gulf War--London, for instance, has just reopened diplomatic relations with Syria--rumors are sweeping Lebanon of an imminent release of more hostages, but there was no firm sign of movement at week's end.

The Baath Party: Socialism, Not Communism

Baath socialism emerged during the 1940s when European policies toward Middle Eastern nations were particularly oppressive and when Jewish immigration to Palestine was a major Arab concern. The party's founders were three Paris-educated, middle-class Syrians--one a Sunni Muslim, one a Greek Orthodox Christian, and one a member of an extremist Shiite sect. Its basic tenets were pan-Arab, secular, and socialist. They rejected communism as contrary to pan-Arabism and lacking in the spiritual qualities essential to the Arab way of life. Their national socialist approach was meant to include all Arabs as a single indivisible political unit.

The Baath party (meaning resurrection) maintains that ethnic and linguistic differences among Arabs should be suppressed. Socialism is upheld as the only way to destroy the traditional Arab aristocracy and extend economic benefits to the lower classes. Private ownership of homes, businesses and agricultural plots is permitted, but the renting of buildings and tenant farming is not.

Baathist parties have their strongest power bases in Syria and Iraq. During the early 1960s the Syrian Baath Party, headed by Hafez Assad, and the Iraqi Baath Party, headed by Saddam Hussein, were united, but in 1966 they split over differences concerning international issues and party leadership.

Source: Congressional Quarterly

Times staff writer Doyle McManus in Washington contributed to this article.

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