Syria's Assad maneuvers for a principal role in a Mideast settlement
Syrian President Hafez Assad sounds as if he is out to wreck the second Middle East peace initiative in two weeks. But Mr. Assad's motives may be less to wreck than to spoil until the US - and the Arab governments of the region - admit Syria as one of the main arbiters in devising an overall Mideast settlement.
This weekend, Mr. Assad seemed set on wrecking (or spoiling) the current mission in the region of US special envoy Philip C. Habib.
The week before last, the Syrian wrecking operation was at the Arab summmit in Morocco, at which Saudi Arabia had hoped to win endorsement for its peace plan, enunciated last August by Crown Prince Fahd.
Mr. Assad's last-minute failure to turn up for the summit is credited with having been the last straw that forced adjournment of the gathering without considering the Saudi plan.
One of Ambassador Habib's main aims in his current tour of Middle East capitals is to allay Israeli fears about the continued presence in Lebanon of Syrian surface-to-air missiles. He conferred in Damascus last week with Mr. Assad.
The Reagan administration is particularly concerned lest the Israelis, unhappy about what they see as Washington's insensitivities, take the law into their own hands and precipitate a crisis by military action in Lebanon.
* On Dec. 5, the Syrian government newspaper, Tishrin, launched a blistering attack on the US and the Habib mission.
''If Mr. Habib comes 1,000 times to Syria without bringing new ideas . . . he will not find that Syria has anything to say or add to what it previously said about the 'Syrian missile crisis in Lebanon.' ''
The most important words in that quotation may well be ''without bringing new ideas.''
Syria's foreign policy aim in the region is two-pronged:
* To ensure that it be a principal - and not just a supporting player - in any diplomatic effort involving the Palestinians and (eventually) peace with Israel.
* To safeguard its role as the major outside player involved in the continuing crisis in Lebanon - where Syrian troops are stationed in the official role of peacekeepers.
The problem of the Syrian missiles in Lebanon is likely to be subordinated by Mr. Assad to these broader considerations. All the more so since he needs always to prove his Syrian patriotism, given that he is a member of one of his country's minority sects, the Alawites. The latter are viewed with some suspicion by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority and are the target for violence from the militant, fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
To the Israelis, the Syrians are the most sinister and untrustworthy of their immediate Arab neighbors. But it should not be overlooked that in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israel war, then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated in 1974 an Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement on the northern Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
At the end of last month, both Israel and Syria agreed quietly at the United Nations to an extension of the United Nations force still policing that agreement.
In the intervening years, Mr. Assad has been irritated by his being left on the sidelines, first by the late President Sadat's initiative that led to the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and more recently by Saudi Arabia's moves to assume leadership of the Arab world.
Mr. Assad tried to compensate for this isolation by signing last year a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union, and by responding favorably to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's overture for political union between their two countries. Neither initiative will have endeared Mr. Assad to the Reagan administration.
Back in 1973, it was the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia who persuaded Secretary Kissinger that he could not ignore Syria, no matter how hostile it seemed, in the US search for a Middle East settlement.
This year, the Saudis lobbied persistently with the Syrians over the Saudi peace plan in the weeks prior to the Arab summit in Morocco. But it was not enough to win Mr. Assad over and get him to Morocco for the meeting.
It can be assumed that the Saudis went over this ground with Mr. Habib when he was in Riyadh Dec. 5 and 6.
One of the things that may have helped keep Mr. Assad away from the Arab summit is the tendency of his fellow Arabs to concentrate on the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Palestinian West Bank of the Jordan and Gaza as the only Arab lands under Israeli occupation since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. There is, after all, the third territory: the Syrian Golan Heights.
Even if there the US and the Saudis agreed on the need to woo Syria into negotiation, the challenge is greater than it was for Mr. Kissinger in 1973-74.
On the Syrian side, Mr. Assad would probably resist any bilateral negotiation with Israel today, given the general Arab and particularly Palestinian abuse heaped on the Egyptians for having taken that route.
On the Israeli side, attitudes have hardened since the mid-l970's. Menachem Begin's government makes no secret of its intention eventually to annex the West Bank and Gaza. It is hard to conceive of Mr. Begin being any less intransigent on the Golan Heights, whose topography enables whoever occupies their southern rim militarily to have much of Galilee at his mercy.