AMERICANS would feel more comfortable if they could place Syria and President Assad into recognizable categories -- friend or enemy, moderate or radical, pro-Western or Soviet client, terrorist or peacemaker. To most Americans, Mr. Assad jumps around like a grasshopper, and even the help he provided in resolving the hostage crisis left us uncertain whether he is with us or against us. Today, he is working to safeguard the Beirut airport against terrorism while at the same time unleashing terrorists in south Lebanon.
To understand something of Assad, one must recall that the Arab world has only recently become a collection of independent nations. Having lived for centuries in servitude to Ottomans and Europeans, the Arabs have been struggling for four decades -- not long, historically -- to find political values that fuse traditions with contemporary reality, to establish stability inside and out. Syria is looking for an identity in nationhood.
At the time of liberation after World War II, deeply embedded in Arab mythology was a premise that there would somehow reemerge a great ``Arab nation.'' A similar ideal, a ``Christian nation,'' once permeated Europe's vision. To Syrians, it was apparent Syria was the Arab nation's heartland, and Damascus its natural capital. But for 40 years, Cairo, Amman, and Baghdad pursued competing claims, while the reality of unity receded ever further into the distance.
Similarly, the Arabs had a clear vision of the boundaries of the ``Arab nation,'' within which there was no room for a Jewish state. That Israel disagreed was less of a surprise than the vigor with which, in six bloody wars, it has defended its existence. A mistake that we all tend to make, non-Arabs and Arabs, is to act as if our adversaries fail to grasp the meaning of actual events. It would be naive to maintain that in 40 years the Arab agenda has remained unchanged.
Talk of an ``Arab nation'' these days, in every Arab capital, focuses on a loose confederation, recognizing diversity at least as much as uniformity, a practical rather than an ideological arrangement. As for Israel, the goal of destruction seems long ago to have given way, for reasons of feasibility, to a debate over boundaries. There is evidence that Assad is guided by this new Arab reality. Since 1976 the Syrians' policy in Lebanon has been to keep the poison of civil war away from their frontier. T hey have not annexed a square meter of Lebanese land. Assad's objective in south Lebanon seems clearly to be to get the Israelis out so the territory can serve as a buffer. That is not a strategy to conquer the Jewish state.
Assad has made clear that, while he is willing to use Soviet communists and Islamic fundamentalists to attain policy ends, he has no fondness for either. Without doubt, his long-term goal is to build a Syria free of the heavy hand of both.
On a visit in Syria, it is apparent that the nation that concerns Assad is not some vague ``Arab'' abstraction but a finite ``Syria.'' His goal is a prosperous country, Western in style, secular in outlook. Assad is no democrat, to be sure. He can be a cruel tyrant when he chooses. But he has given Syrians 15 years of stable rule, a rising standard of living, an independent foreign policy, and a pride in being Syrian and Arab.
Assad's central role in the hostage crisis reminded us of interests held in common. We share with him the goal of limiting communist and fundamentalist influence in the Middle East. These goals, ironically, are also Israel's. Nor does Israel dispute Assad's objective of creating a Lebanon stable enough to enforce tranquillity along its frontiers -- the eastern frontier facing Damascus, as well as the southern frontier facing Jerusalem.
The principal difference between the two neighbors is the Golan Heights, Syrian territory seized by Israel in the ``six-day war'' of 1967. It is no small difference, and Assad will obstruct any peace proposal that ignores it. But Syria has indicated an openness to Sadat's Sinai formula -- the reassertion of pre-1967 sovereignty in return for demilitarization. It is not far from a conception some Israelis have expressed. There is a momentum for peace now. Assad recognizes it. His greatest concern is that
he may be left out, without allies and without the Golan.
Assad extended his hand in the hostage crisis, and it is in US interests -- perhaps in Israel's as well -- to grasp it.
Milton Viorst is a Washington writer specialing in the Middle East.