Damascus, Syria — THE Syrian Times, the propaganda organ of Syria's Baath Party, proclaimed ``1988: President Assad's Year.'' According to diplomatic sources and foreign observers, 1988 is definitely not Hafez Assad's year. ``Hafez Assad has bad relations with the West, the Soviets, and all the Arabs. You can't do much worse than that,'' a Western diplomat said with a chuckle. Although buffeted by the chaos in Lebanon, his failure to capture control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the West's stance against terrorism, and the Soviet Union's cooling ardor about backing regional conflicts, Mr. Assad is beset the most by Syria's alliance with Iran in the Iraq-Iran war. For it is this alliance that strikes at the very core of Assad's foreign policy - his demand that Syria play the central role in Arab politics. Western diplomatic sources in Damascus are quick to point out the precipitous slide of Syria's commanding position in Arab politics since 1979. When Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Camp David accords, Egypt, in effect, opted out of the Arabs' confrontation with Israel. Syria quickly filled the vacuum. Carrying the banner of Arab nationalism, Assad succeeded in intimidating the bloc of moderate and cautious Arab states headed by Saudi Arabia into supporting the Syrian-led rejection front against peace with Israel. By thwarting American designs for a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Syria in effect became the spokesman for the Arabs.
But Assad failed to maximize his position in Arab politics. When the Iraq-Iran war erupted in the fall of 1979, Syria broke with the Arab states supporting Iraq and allied itself with Iran. Assad, who aspired to the leadership of the Arab states, chose to back a country that has increasingly become the Arabs' great anathema.
Eight years later, the alliance is still intact. Syria is a socialist secular state increasingly out of step with an Arab world trembling with religious fervor, and Iran represents to the Muslims of the Middle East the success of religious revolution. This odd alliance is based not so much on strategic interests as on the ``bitter personal animosity between Assad and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, on the one hand, and Ayatollah Khomeini and Hussein, on the other,'' a Western diplomat said. And because it is an alliance with little solid strategic rationale, it is proving to be as much a detriment as an advantage to Assad.
Regional experts point out that Iran gains from the alliance because it presents Iraq with the possibility of a two-front war and it gives Iran a doorway to south Lebanon, where Revolutionary Guards and segments of the Lebanese Shiites push Hizbullah's war against Israel and the West. Syria gains from the alliance about 1 million tons of free oil a year, some financial assistance, and the same advantage Iran has of forcing Mr. Hussein to worry about two fronts in Iraq's war with Iran.
But Syria is paying a high price for its Iran option. The fact that Iran is not only non-Arab but is actively orchestrating the overthrow of moderate Arab regimes has made the Syrian-Iranian alliance an abomination to the very Arab governments Assad seeks to lead. At a time when Arab nationalism is riding the crest of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, Syria has in effect taken itself out of the Arab fold by retaining the alliance with Iran.
Assad has the option of cutting ties with Iran to ease himself back into Arab politics. But according to one Western diplomat, he is unwilling to do that, because, he said, ``the Iranian alliance is not the only policy the Arabs want Assad to change.''
The Arab states have never welcomed the Syrian role in Lebanon. In 1976, when Assad intervened in the war in support of the Christians to prevent a Palestinian victory, his actions were condemned. Almost 12 years later, Syria is bogged down in Lebanon. With 27,000 troops on the ground, Syria has tremendous power but is unable to end the war. Rather, Assad plays one Lebanese faction against another to keep Lebanon, if not in his control, at least unbalanced. Nervous regimes like Saudi Arabia and Jordan abhor disorder and see the Syrian presence as flirting with the fine line that separates Syrian and Israeli troops in Lebanon.
As in Lebanon, Assad has also lost out in his often brutal attempts to unseat Yasser Arafat from the leadership of the PLO. Control of the PLO has long been a cherished goal of Assad. He has pursued this goal by arming and manipulating claimants who, if they could seize Mr. Arafat's mantle, would do Syria's bidding. Syria has watched the Palestinians endure attacks in the Bekaa from the Abu Nidal faction, and has seen them survive three years of Amal's Syrian-backed ``camp wars.'' The Palestinian uprising on the West Bank and in Gaza provided Syria with the opportunity to end the war of the camps, a war it was losing. Arafat is not only in control of the PLO again, but Syria has effectively been neutralized in internal Palestinian politics.
And finally, Syria would need to meet the demand of its Arab brothers to distance itself from its major arms supplier, the Soviet Union. But this is an issue with which Syria may not have to deal. In an era when Mikhail Gorbachev sees the interest of the USSR in arms control with the United States, Soviet credits for weapons are drying up. This leaves Syria inadequately leveraged to pursue adventurous policies and more dependent on strength it can garner from its relations with the other Arab states.
As attention focuses on another round of intense activity to end the Arab-Israeli deadlock, Assad is in no position to play the strong hand in Arab affairs that he played in 1979. In the wake of the Iranian threat, Egypt has been readmitted to the Arab polity, pulling power away from Syria to its natural center on the Nile. With Hussein refusing to fall to Iranian threats, power in the Arab world now rests on a Cairo-Baghdad-Amman axis underwritten by the Saudis. Damascus sits alone.
Sandra MacKey, a free-lance writer, is author of ``The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom,'' 1987. She has recently returned from a trip to Syria.