Beirut — Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once called him ''the most interesting man in the Middle East.'' Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, an archfoe, conceded he is ''not a fool.'' Other key personalities who have met him use words like shrewd, tough, proud, and daring.
But to all involved in the Middle East these days, Syrian President Hafez Assad is, most important, the kingpin of peace efforts, cleverly having manipulated all the trump cards into his hand.
The wily leader is a formidable character for United States Secretary of State George Shultz, who visits Damascus today. Assad alone has led to the logjam in US efforts to settle both the current Lebanese crisis and the 35-year Arab-Israeli conflict. He has often accomplished this by refusing to deal with US envoys, a simple but bold tactic typical of his 12-year rule.
Such moves should not have come as a surprise to Washington, in light of his record and political style. The jet fighter pilot turned politician purged his way to power with equal determination and daring, first through the armed forces , then in the Cabinet as minister of defense.
It was a bloodless coup that won him the presidency of the nation and the ruling Baath Party. And it has been a series of bold purges, some very violent, that have kept him there, not a small accomplishment in light of the period that preceded his leadership. In between independence from the French mandate in 1943 and his rise to power, there had been 21 coups d'etat, giving Syria a reputation for being one of the most unstable nations in an already volatile region.
It is all the more remarkable considering his humble roots. One of nine children, Assad grew up in the peasant town of Qardaha in northwest Syria.
He received only a village education before entering the armed forces after high school, one of the few options for the poor.
But perhaps the most significant influence on his life was being a member of a minority. The Assad family are members of the Alawite religious sect, usually described as heretics of the Shiite branch of Islam. Of Syria's 9 million population, only 11 percent are Alawites. They have traditionally been victims of oppression by the dominant Sunni Muslims, and are outnumbered even by Christians.
It is the bitter memory of persecution that has so affected Assad's outlook and policies, both domestic and international. Diplomats often talk of the feeling of underlying fear, almost paranoia, and insecurity behind many of his actions.
One envoy with long experience in Damascus said the Syrian leader often attempted to outwit others in large part because he suspected that they would otherwise attempt to outwit him.
This tendency emerged shortly after he took over. Despite pledges to end corruption and repression, liberalize the economy, and encourage political freedoms, Assad quickly and increasingly used agression - sometimes extravagantly - to enforce his policies.
The party of the people soon set itself above the people. The subsequent opposition led Assad to install Alawites and relatives into key jobs, not as much out of nepotism as out of genuine security fears.
Five brothers are all active in the Baath Party, while other cousins and nephews have key civilian and military posts. Brother Rifaat Assad, as head of the special forces, is now the second most powerful man in Syria.
It is also now difficult to succeed in politics without membership in the Baath Party, which is numerically strong but popularly weak, as reflected in a joke making the circuit in Damascus:
''Assad, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were riding in a jeep when suddenly they came across a lion sleeping in the road.
''Unable to drive around the lion or wake him up, each leader in turn went and lifted the lion's ear and whispered a few words. But it was only when Mr. Assad spoke that the lion jumped up and ran off.''
Asked by his companions what he had said, Assad replied: 'I offered him membership in the Baath Party.' ''
Assad, whose name means ''lion'' in Arabic, appears to have little sense of humor. He is intensely private, rarely appearing in public or granting interviews, using the state-controlled media or Cabinet officials as his mouthpiece.
When he does talk, it can often go on for hours, as Dr. Kissinger discovered and noted in his memoirs of the period during the 1974 shuttles to win disengagement between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights. The former secretary of state also noted how quickly Assad's initial ''affability'' would turn to ''icy sarcasm.''
The fact that some of Assad's suspicions have been confirmed has added to the atmosphere of tension within his government. Diplomats contend that he has still not recovered from the stunning news of the late President Anwar Sadat's ''defection'' from the Arab world to join the Camp David peace talks with Israel.
And domestically, the uprising in February 1982 by the Moslem Brotherhood in Hama again made him feel cornered. Assad responded by ordering the town sealed off to isolate the Sunni Muslim insurgents, who have been one of two main threats to his regime.
He then let loose the Air Force and Army. Bombing and artillery strikes left Syria's third largest city in ruins and at least 5,000 people killed, according to the most conservative diplomatic estimates.
The Syrian leader has also taken drastic steps to deal with others who, he feels, challenge him, either directly or by circumstance. Palestinian officials now openly blame the Syrian regime for promoting the mutiny within the PLO's Fatah faction.
They suggest that Assad is set on weakening the one Middle East leader, Yasser Arafat, who has more clout and who has recently been talking peace on terms that could leave Syria isolated.
Assad's relations with others in the so-called Arab heartland (Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), are also at an ebb, largely due to suspicions that their respective leaders have sought to usurp Assad's position in the Middle East.
The Syrian President seems to feel it is preferable to take the daring step of going it alone rather than to join the Arab world in resolutions that might end the regional trauma. At the moment, Assad's only genuine Arab ally is Libya.
To maintain his independence, Assad has also established a track record of defying pressure. Saudi Arabia's checkbook diplomacy has never succeeded over the long term in changing Syria's stance.
And despite repeated alarm bells in Washington about the Soviet Union's massive aid to Damascus, one US official in the region said he felt strongly that Moscow had about as much influence on Assad as Washington did over Israeli Prime Minister Begin. In other words, very little.
There is, however, a political basis for Assad's actions. He sees his government as the keeper of the Arab conscience, the only active frontline country that has addressed the issue of the balance of power between Israel and the Arabs.
In his eyes, the moderate monarchies of Jordan and the Gulf states have sold out to the US at the cost of Arab unity and self-sufficiency militarily. Assad feels they have too much blind faith in the US, which continues to supply Israel with armaments.
''The United States has no policy in this area. Rather there is only an Israeli policy which the United States is carrying out,'' he said last year.
The US-designed accord between Lebanon and Israel seemed to confirm those fears, for Israel is allowed a residual military presence and the possibility of normalization of relations in the future. For the suspicious Assad, those are not terms on which he is willing to negotiate withdrawal of his own forces from Lebanon - without exacting his own price.
Cornered and on the verge of isolation so often throughout his personal and professional lifetime, Assad is prepared to stubbornly stand up to the US - out of principle and suspicion - to get what he wants. In the past, Assad has gotten at least part of what he sought, and it appears he may yet again.