Damascus, Syria — For most Americans, the focus of Middle East interest may be the US Marine contingent huddled behind sandbags in Beirut. But before those marines can come home, most participants in and observers of the delicate and often frustrating peace process agree, the role of Syria must be more fully acknowledged.
This is clear from the recent visits here of United States envoy Donald Rumsfeld, from the assertions of Syrian officials in conversation this week, and from the private remarks of US and other Western diplomats in Damascus and Washington.
Damascus is a place where the chop of Soviet-made helicopters and the wail of calls to Islamic daily prayer can be heard simultaneously. It is these two symbols that are at the heart of Syrian policy toward Lebanon and the broader regional issues.
The Syrian Army now stands at 400,000 - the largest in its history - with more than 40,000 of these troops in Lebanon. Yet according to senior Syrian officials, Damascus does not covet Lebanese territory. Nor is there undue Soviet influence over Syrian affairs, officials stress, despite the large presence of Soviet arms and personnel here.
''We really want genuine comprehensive peace in the region,'' Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Farouq Share told a group of US reporters.
Yet Syrian officials also make it clear that their goals are far from compatible with Washington's aims as they see them and in particular the steps the US is trying to take. (Related story on why a United Nations peace force offers no easy way out of Beirut for US Marines, Page 7.)
For example, they say the troop withdrawal pact signed May 17 by Israel and Lebanon has no standing with them. And they add that the ''security plan'' sought by Mr. Rumsfeld (which would extend Lebanese forces into some areas controlled by religious factions) would simply be another in many Lebanese truces: quickly broken because it does not address fundamental issues such as Palestinian rights.
''The May 17 agreement must be abrogated,'' insisted Fawaz Saigh, a spokesman for the dominant Baath Arab Socialist Party here.
''We demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon ,'' added Syrian Prime Minister Abd Rauf Kasm in another interview. These and other Syrian spokesmen read the May 17 agreement as giving Israel certain rights of sovereignty over southern Lebanon.
Publicly, Syrian officials say they see no difference between Israeli and US interests in the region - strategic domination gained by the dividing of Arab states and the retention of minority Christian control in Lebanon.
American and other Western diplomats agree that Syrian President Hafez Assad is ''often portrayed as the spoiler'' in the region, as one put it. But these diplomats also ackno7hZD +txat Syria's long history of domination by foreigners is a legitimate concern that must be dealt with.
''Syria sees itself at a strategic disadvantage to the Israelis,'' said one Western diplomat. ''They believe the Arabs must stay together, negotiate together, and fight together. Syria wants to deal with the Arab-Israeli issue on a very comprehensive basis.''
From all indications, it does appear that time is on Damascus' side. A former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Neumann, argues in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that Syria ''has suddenly emerged from isolation and humiliation to seize the power switch of Middle Eastern diplomacy.''
An important factor here is the continued financial support of Syria by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Although Saudi Arabia has been more openly pressuring Damascus to help resolve the Lebanese situation, it has not done so to the extent Washington hoped for.
''The Saudis have not been willing to use their economic resources as a club against Syria,'' said one US official who specializes in the region.
Syria is also outspoken in its opposition to US-supported efforts to have Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat work with Jordan's King Hussein in seeking a resolution to the Palestinian problem with Israel. It is seen here as an attempt to divide Arab interests, as did former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's signing of the Camp David accord.
''This desire to have control over the whole Middle East peace thing explains why they've been persecuting Arafat,'' explained a Western diplomatic source in Damascus.
A high Syrian official here suggested that King Hussein is ''bound to face such risks,'' as did the assassinated Egyptian President. ''He's following the steps of Sadat before he (Sadat) went to Jerusalem.''
When discussing the government of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, the Syrians are a study in artful imprecision.
''This government is a Lebanese problem,'' insists Mr. Share, the minister of state for foreign affairs.
''But when this government takes very crucial decisions like the May 17th agreement, then we can't stand on the sidelines. It undermines our security.''