Assad and the moving train

By , Talcott W. Seelye, former US Foreigh Service officer, was special presidential envoy to Lebanon (1976) and ambassador to Syria (1978- 81).

After the Camp David Agreement was signed in 1978, a top US official visited Damascus in an effort to persuade President Assad to keep open the possibility of eventually coming on board. Assad received the American visitor politely, listened to him patiently, and asked a number of penetrating questions. At the end of an hour and a half's meeting, the Syrian President commented matter-of-factly, ''I do not make it a practice of jumping on to a moving train.''

No doubt Assad views the Lebanese-Israeli withdrawal agreement, in which Syria played no part, as a train already having moved quite a distance down the tracks on to which he is now expected to leap. And, of course, he thinks it is moving in the wrong direction. This is not to say that he would have agreed to participate in withdrawal negotiations with Israel, but he presumably would have been prepared to set forth to a third party (i.e., the United States) his conditions for a mutual withdrawal from Lebanon. For one should probably accept at face value the Syrian undertaking, earlier conveyed in principle to the Lebanese and US governments, that Syria would withdraw from Lebanon if the Israelis did likewise.

What the Syrians clearly had in mind, however, was a complete and unconditional Israeli withdrawal, not one which permitted Israeli soldiers to remain in Lebanon or the Israeli proxy there, Major Haddad, to continue to operate in one form or the other in his south Lebanon fiefdom. Nor did the Syrians foresee that Israel would extract political benefit from the invasion. In ending the state of war, in calling for the establishment of liaison offices in each other's countries, and in providing that within six months after troop withdrawal the two countries will negotiate agreements to normalize the movement of goods and people across the borders, the Lebanese-Israeli agreement has all the earmarks of a peace treaty in the Syrian mind.

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''Shades of Camp David,'' declared Syria, seeing the deal between Lebanon and Israel as a further slicing away at the so-called Arab ''nation.'' One by one - first Egypt, then Lebanon, and maybe next Jordan - Arab countries are enticed into making separate deals with Israel. Deprived of the weight of the Arab whole in the negotiating process, each is successively forced to concede more than the Syrians think it should. Less and less leverage remains available to those still left on the outside, i.e., Syria and the Palestinians. Thus, continues the Syrian view, prospects for the return of the Golan Heights and for a fair shake for the Palestinians are increasingly doomed.

The foregoing Syrian position is better understood in the context of Syria's isolation from the Arab mainstream, of its belief that there is inadequate recognition of Syria's pivotal role in the area, of its resentment at having for so long been treated as a pariah by the US, of the humiliation suffered at Israeli hands during the Lebanese fighting last summer (when Syria lost over 80 planes while failing to shoot down a single Israeli aircraft), and of the frustrations and contradictions of proclaiming itself the premier Arab ''confrontation state'' while being forced to avoid a major confrontation with Israel in the knowledge that Syria would lose badly, with the regime's future thereby being placed in jeopardy.

So what will Syria do? Some see hope in the fact that, while Syria has rejected the Lebanese-Israeli withdrawal agreement, it has not refused absolutely to get out of Lebanon. Whether Syria will eventually do so is a moot question. If it does decide to withdraw, it will take its time - lots of time. The main reason for this delay would be to dissociate Syria from the Lebanese-Israeli agreement. Aside from opposing the terms of this agreement, Syria will do all it can to differentiate between its presence in Lebanon and that of the Israelis. Syria was invited in; the Israelis were invaders.

Second, Syria will seek to exact a price for its withdrawal, and given Hafiz al-Assad's shrewd negotiating record, this process will in itself take time. The price is likely to be two-faceted. First, Assad will insist on security guarantees for Syria and that they be more considerable than those provided Israel. These guarantees will involve some kind of a continuing Syrian security role in the Bekaa Valley, strategically important to Syria in defense against an Israeli attack. Assad can presumably obtain such guarantees from a Lebanese government which recognizes that Syria has a historically legitimate role to play in Lebanon and which agrees that Syria has had more right to be there than Israel. (Whether the Israelis would accept a Syrian security presence in the Bekaa greater than theirs in southern Lebanon is another matter.)

Third, Assad will probably seek to extract political concessions which accord Syria greater importance in the area in general and in the Middle East negotiating equation in particular. In the inter-Arab sense this might mean more deference being accorded to Syria, including a demonstration of willingness on the part of Syria's other Arab neighbors, Jordan and Iraq, to take steps to thaw their currently cool relations with Syria. It might also entail larger financial subsidies from the oil-rich Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. Inasmuch as the Arab consensus is to endorse Lebanon's sovereign right to make the best deal it can with Israel, one might reasonably expect Arab forthcomingness in both the aforementioned areas.

In addition, Assad may want commitments from the US, which he and everyone else acknowledge occupies the key role with regard to achieving comprehensive peace in the area. He may want a more solid affirmation of US determination to get Israel off the Golan Heights in the framework of a peace settlement and better evidence of US capacity to ''deliver'' Israel in this regard. On the other hand, Assad may have lost faith in the credibility of the US word insofar as inducing Israeli performance is concerned and may have decided that therefore there is no hope for peace in our time. In this case, he will merely insist that the US accord more importance to Syria, not ignore it in the overall Middle East scheme of things, and recognize what he considers to be a legitimate Soviet role in the area.

Obviously, it will be difficult for Assad to obtain the political concessions he appears to be looking for. The stridency and bombast of his informational media and of his spokesmen and the general negativeness of Syrian policy have hardly ingratiated Syria either with Arab governments (except for Libya and South Yemen) or with the West. If Syria's objective by this conduct is to convince others of the rightness of its positions, it has certainly gone about it in the wrong way.

The prospects for a Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon, therefore, look slim on the surface. Yet we should not be without hope, for how long will the Syrians be prepared to buck the Arab consensus and be accused of perpetuating what would become substantial, permanent Israeli occupation of Lebanon? And how long is the Assad regime prepared to remain in a high-tension confronta-tional situation with Israel? Even if Israel withdraws its troops to the Awali River in southern Lebanon, the continued presence in Lebanon and along the Syrian border of some 20,000 Israeli troops - together with an increasing Israeli propensity to harass nonwithdrawing Syrian troops - poses Syria with the omnipresent and real threat of a full-scale war which Assad doesn't want. On the Golan Heights at least Syrian and Israeli military forces are separated by the UN peacekeeping forces.

At best Syria will take its time before withdrawing, continuing to denounce the Lebanese-Israeli agreement but eventually settling for security and political guarantees of a somewhat lesser magnitude than originally demanded, in return for withdrawal. At worst Syria will refuse to withdraw either because it cannot obtain the full price it wants or because it refuses ever to reconcile itself to a residual Israeli presence in Lebanon, in which case war with Israel becomes increasingly likely and the de facto partition of Lebanon becomes de jure.

How events will turn out, as the Arabs say, ''only God knows.'' If Lebanon allows Syria a security presence in the Bekaa, if the US is patient (and sees to it that Israel is also), and if the US is more responsive to Syrian political concerns - including demonstrating by action that Israel does not dictate US policy - there is a chance that Syria will withdraw from Lebanon. Secretary Shultz has made a commendable start in his relationship with Assad. Let us hope that the secretary can build on this positive first impression and add to it some substance.

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