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

By Ned Temko, Staff writer of The Christian Science MonitorThe writer recently visited Damascus. / March 6, 1984

Damascus, Syria

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.

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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.

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.