Lebanon: triumph for Syria, lessons for US; Syria's shrewd President rides high - needed by both superpowers

By , The writer recently visited Damascus.

For 13 years Hafez Assad has ruled Syria, a country whose earlier seesawing between coups and countercoups had made it seem well nigh ungovernable. And after a particularly difficult last few years - anti-regime unrest at home, military setbacks when Israel invaded Lebanon, and finally, late last year , the hospitalization of Mr. Assad himself - both the Syrian President and his nation seem again to be riding high.

Long intent on charting a course of militant ''nonalignment'' between the world's rival superpowers, Assad finds himself in an enviable position. Both superpowers need him at least as much as he needs them. The pitiful parody of power to which Lebanon's American-backed leader, Amin Gemayel, was reduced by Syrian-backed opponents in recent weeks has ensured a central role for Assad in any resolution of the conflict there. Unsurprisingly, the first step in that process involved Lebanon's cancellation Monday of its May 1983 peace accord with Israel - long a Syrian demand.

And while Assad is indebted to the Kremlin for the huge stocks of arms it has provided him since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Moscow has in effect run out of major Arab allies. To the extent the Soviets want a role in the Mideast - and they want this keenly - they will have little choice but to back Assad to the hilt in any future showdown with the Israelis.

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Hafez Assad's personal position also seems greatly more secure than for some time. Hospitalized in November, reportedly for heart problems, Assad returned to his desk at the end of January. He still seems to be taking things easy. He has avoided the kind of eight-hour marathon meetings with official visitors that he once favored.

An Arabic-language magazine reputed to be well informed on Syrian affairs recently reported plans in Damascus to name two vice-presidents to relieve Assad of ''routine'' duties. And in what seemed a final hiccup in ''pre-succession'' maneuvers by Assad's lieutenants following his hospitalization, posters of the President's powerful and ambitious brother, Rifaat, suddenly appeared in an area of the capital a few weeks back.

But they quickly disappeared, supplanted by a fresh crop of posters of the President. And Assad, since returning to work, has held substantive meetings with various prominent visitors - including a four-hour parley with United States envoy Donald Rumsfeld.

''The strong impression all of us have,'' said a senior Western diplomat in Damascus, ''is that Hafez Assad is again firmly, unequivocally running things.''

''Firmly and unequivocally'' are excellent labels for the leadership style Assad has evolved during his years in power. The string of worry beads inevitably found in his hands provides an example.

In the days before the worry beads, ''I used to smoke up to 100 cigarettes a day,'' Assad once explained to Karim Pakradouni, a Lebanese lawyer who figured in negotiating Syria's temporary alliance with Lebanon's Phalangist Christians in the late 1970s. ''I stopped cold. Since then I haven't touched a cigarette.''

Yet if decisive, Hafez Assad can also be patient and, above all, pragmatic.

When outgunned politically or militarily, he may give ground - or simply wait out his rivals. The typically methodical Assad, who was at that time the Syrian Air Force chief, seized power in two bloodless coups - one, in 1969, when he was denied full victory but greatly bettered his political position, and the second, final stroke in late 1970.

When Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel in 1973, Assad pragmatically agreed to a US-mediated disengagement of forces. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that claimed enormous losses of Syrian military materiel, he pulled back Syrian troops in Lebanon from the Israeli advance. When the major fighting ended, he gradually secured a huge Soviet reinfusion of arms.

At home, too, Assad has wedded patience and pragmatism with decisiveness. A member of the country's largely rural Alawite minority, Assad has pursued a relatively conciliatory line toward the mostly urban Sunni Muslim population. Nominally ruling through the dominant Baath Socialist Party and a driving force in a land-reform program intended to benefit the peasantry, he has also taken care to allow leeway in the economy for city-bred entrepreneurs as well.

His close ties with Sunni Saudi Arabia in the 1970s were in effect a move to undercut Sunni political activism at home, just as his Soviet alliance has been aimed in part at defusing any threat from the local communists.

Yet when Sunni extremists became a threat to his regime in the early 1980s, Assad responded with a ruthless assault on their major stronghold - Hama - despite the thousands of civilian casualties that ensued.

As a negotiator, Lebanese lawyer Pakradouni has written, Hafez Assad is quiet , minutely well informed, and a skillful listener. He does not raise his voice. Like a good poker player, he avoids tipping his hand. He prefers a slow pace - one reason, say some Western diplomats, that the more rapid-fire tone of recent US contacts with Assad has badly misfired.

Also, Assad avoids, in most cases, irreversible alliances or enmities. If there are exceptions, Iraq's Saddam Hussein is the one most often cited: The two men detest each other. Yasser Arafat, some Syrian sources say, has in effect been added to that list since his struggle with Syrian-backed rivals inside the Palestine Liberation Organization. But in Lebanon, for instance, Assad has carefully balanced his ties with a host of rivals, even shifting alliances when Syrian interests so dictated.

What Assad wants, ultimately, is regional superpowerdom. He is particularly sensitive to the danger that other Arabs might seal separate peace deals with the Israelis - leaving Syria to fend for itself. For if Israel has given little sign of willingness to compromise on the Jordanian or Palestinian fronts, the Israelis have virtually ruled out a deal over the strategic Golan Heights.

Syrian sources suggest Assad is determined to prevent King Hussein next door in Jordan from embarking on a ''separate peace'' with Israel. The pragmatist in Assad makes a direct military response to such a move unlikely, Damascus-based foreign diplomats suspect. In any case, a peace initiative by Hussein - much less, a joint move with PLO chief Arafat to make peace with Israel - does not exactly seem imminent.

But Assad's ability to calibrate tension in Lebanon does afford him a ready means to derail, or at least complicate, Arab-Israeli diplomacy made at Syria's expense.

''We have a pan-Arab vocation. . . . We are distinguished by an interventionalist (Arab) nationalism,'' Pakradouni quotes Assad as having told him.

''Syria is the core of the problem and the key to the solution'' of the Middle East conflict.

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