Syrian moderation shows through cloud of rhetoric

Whether by choice, lack of options, or simply midwinter war weariness, Syria's enigmatic strong man, Hafez Assad, appears to be experimenting with a more moderate Middle East policy.

It may not be apparent from the rhetoric -- such as the call Jan. 7 by the Syrian newspaper Tishreen for military confrontation with Israel -- but in its acts and even its non-acts Syrian moderation can be seen.

Better relations with the United States: Before Christmas, Syrian United Nations Ambassador Dia-Allah Fattal worked closely with US Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to draft a resolution condemning Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights. Mr. Fattal also carried on extensive negotiations with Mrs. Kirkpatrick this week in an attempt to win over the US to a resolution calling for full-scale sanctions against Israel. At this writing, consensus on this much more controversial resolution seemed unlikely.

But American diplomats in the Middle East were encouraged by the Syrian-American dialogue that took place both during the UN negotiations and, earlier in December, when US special envoy Philip C. Habib held talks with Mr. Assad in Damascus.

Minimal Syrian sabre-rattling following the Israeli annexation: Despite the Tishreen militancy (which, like much of the bombast in the Middle East is meant for internal consumption), Syria has so far resisted the impulse to build up forces on its border with Israel.

Abu Jihad (Salah Khalaf), head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) armed forces in Lebanon Jan. 6 called on Mr. Assad to ''open up the Golan Front.'' He said the Syrians ''must not depend on resolutions by the Security Council and the Arab League, for they have no alternative'' but to fight Israel from southern Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

Arab and Western analysts, however, feel sure the call will go unheeded by Damascus, which has had a peaceful border with Israel since 1974. Abu Jihad's call is seen as more of a taunt to Assad than friendly advice. The PLO and Syria have a tense relationship going.

Syria's apparent interest in reconvening the Arab summit: Just after the Golan annexation occurred, it appeared that Syria wanted the summit resumed in order to line up Arab states militarily against Israel. But that appears an impossibility.

Meanwhile there have been persistent indications -- usually denied as soon as they are mooted -- that Syria is coming around to acceptance of the eight-point Saudi peace plan.

Many Palestinian and Lebanese sources here agree that Syria is considering the Saudi plan more seriously. They caution, however, that Mr. Assad still could be put in a position where he is forced to reject the plan again (as he did when the Arab summit collapsed in November).

This could occur if his soldiers or the soldiers of his Palestnian allies become involved in new fighting with Israel in Lebanon this spring -- in which case the Saudi plan's implicit recognition of Israel might be hard for Mr. Assad to swallow.

With rain and low clouds dampening the warrior spirit in Lebanon, Mr. Assad may not be so much holding out an olive branch to Arab moderates, the US, and perhaps even Israel. He may be compelled by circumstance to act cautiously.

There is great tension in his bailiwick. A small but elite segment of Syria's Army is tied down for the foreseeable future in a costly peacekeeping operation in Lebanon. At the same time, Syria is involved in a sometimes dormant, sometimes deadly secret war with Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization in Lebanon. And Mr. Assad's small Alawite Christian ruling base faces continued resistance at home from the still-active Muslim Brotherhood, which claims to respresent the majority Sunni population.

Around him, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan continue to be hostile because of Syrian support for Iran. Implicit condemnation of Syria was made Jan. 6 by both Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Jordan's King Hussein.

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