Moscow — As world attention focused on events surrounding the hijacked TWA airliner in Beirut, one of the most powerful figures in the whole Lebanese drama, Syria's President Hafez Assad, flew into Moscow. His talks last week with Mikhail Gorbachev revealed that there was no new position in Moscow, and that the Kremlin had failed to shift Syria away from its opposition to Yasser Arafat, the resilient Palestine Liberation Organization leader.
Mr. Arafat is still seen by Moscow as the only man with any chance of imposing a semblance of unity on the Palestinian cause.
President Assad's talks, his first full-scale consultations with the new Kremlin leadership, ended with a general call for Arab unity but significantly the version published in the Soviet press made no mention of Assad's remarks on the future role of the PLO.
The Trans World Airlines hijack has been a clear reminder to Moscow that, while it does not want to be left out of any process that could lead to a successful settlement in the Middle East, it is often wiser to sit on the sidelines while others take the punches.
The Soviet news media, following Foreign Ministry instructions, have been content to watch the series of embarrassing imbroglios which have bedeviled Washington.
From the sidelines they have taken potshots at ``Nazi-like atrocities'' every time there are available television pictures of a United States-made Israeli fighter strafing a Palestinian refugee camp.
Western European diplomats in Moscow say Soviet officials are aware of the increase in sympathy in their countries for the Palestinian cause and are playing on it.
This is especially the case, they say, as the United States seems inseparably linked with Israeli policies over which the US often appears to have little control.
``There's nothing one big dog likes better than to see its toughest rival being wagged by its own tail,'' one commented.
It was noted with complacent satisfaction in Moscow when Jordanian Foreign Minister Taher Masri's March visit to Washington failed to get an agreement for US officials to sit down with representatives of the PLO.
When Mr. Masri visited Moscow last month, along with the foreign ministers of Iraq and North Yemen, officials had their sympathetic ears ready, even if the Kremlin was still too cautious to enter the game with big stakes.
Increasingly Moscow sees hope that all parties will eventually concede to get together at some form of international conference, which the Kremlin has all along proposed, including Israel and the PLO with the United States and Soviet Union as effective participating seconds.
For this to become a real possibility, however, Moscow knows that Assad's hostility toward Arafat must be at least tempered or another, mutually palatable PLO leader must emerge.
At present, however, there is little sign of such a development.
The Kremlin would also like to see an end to the mutual attrition of the war between Iran and Iraq.
The official Soviet news agency Tass has urged an end to the conflict as a means for all Arabs to concentrate their forces against the real enemy, described as ``US-aided Israeli expansionism.''
Moscow is adamant that it does not and never has challenged the right of the Israeli state to exist.
Soviet peace proposals for the region call on the PLO to admit this as well as on Israel, and by extension the United States, to respond by with reciprocal recognition for the PLO.