Assad's rendezvous with history

Arab history has no reason to deal kindly with Hafez al-Assad. As Syria's ruler since 1969, he has orchestrated more failures of the Arab cause than Gamal Abdel Nasser. As an Arab socialist and pan-Arab nationalist, he brought Syria into a loose Federation of Arab Republics with Egypt. But the project evaporated in hostility after the 1973 October war failed to dislodge Israel from the Golan Heights.

Syria used to be the designation of the entire Eastern Mediterranean since antiquity. It included what is modern Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Mr. Assad's ambition to restore this historic hegemony has been frustrated, but not for lack of effort. Syrian tanks enroute to subjugate Jordan had to retreat in 1970 due to effective resistance, even while its capital was engulfed in a civil war with the PLO. Lebanon, which had come under Syrian control since its civil war in 1976, has now become Assad's Vietnam. The West European nations have committed troops to uphold a Phalangist-dominated and anti-Syrian Lebanese regime. They are helping to train a Lebanese Army that in time will be able to pressure Syria to leave by military means. Israel is in control of the vital region south of Beirut.

The Palestinians also have scores to settle with Assad. Syrian troops betrayed the Palestinian fighters in Lebanon when Syria suddenly switched its prior support to save the Phalangists from being overrun by the PLO. Repeated massacres of Palestinians by Phalangists, including at Tel Zatar, and more recently in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, were made possible when Syria agreed to armistice with Israel, while the PLO was still fighting to retain its headquarters in Beirut. Syria has now joined Jordan in taking up arms against the mainstream Palestinian national movement. More young Palestinian fighters and many innocent civilians are dying in the fratricidal fighting than in combat against the Israelis. The Muslim religious leader in Jerusalem called for Assad's assassination as an enemy of the Arab cause.

At home, Assad's reputation is linked to bloodshed. In Hama, Syrian troops exterminated much of the population to put down a revolt. Syria's own independence, not quite 40 years, is now mortgaged to the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia in return for limited military and financial aid necessitated by the consequences of Syria's repeated military and political misadventures.

Yet Hafez al-Assad has the power to reverse this cycle of failures. He could become founder of a ''Greater Syrian Federation.'' All that is needed is to make Israel ''an offer it cannot refuse.''

Syria, more than any other Arab state, has tried to erase Israel from the map. But each battle has left Syria weaker and Israel stronger. Not only did Syria lose the Golan Heights, but Assad's uncompromising tactics left him without sympathy when the Israelis decided to apply their own law to the Golan - a step just short of annexation. The presence of uniformed Russian troops in Syria is just one added sign of how much Syrian sovereignty has been compromised.

But why should Israel help rescue Assad's reputation in Arab history? He is personally disliked by Israelis, perhaps more than any Arab leader except Muammar Qaddafi. Syria's 4,000 Jews are being held as hostage and are not allowed to leave the country.

But Assad can offer Israel something that Anwar Sadat was unable to deliver. Recognition, plus an economically and militarily secure place within a Near Eastern federation. It would be modeled after the European economic union. Today's Syria is too small and too divided to take over what used to be ''Greater Syria'' by military means. But this historic regional concept could be restored by diplomatic means.

The details of such a federation would require a process of protracted negotiation. But some of the feasible features of such an arrangement need to be mentioned in order to assess the pros and cons of such a plan. It would be similar in drama - but no more implausible - than the decision of France and Germany to live in peace.

Syria would regain access to the Golan Heights, as the federal district of the new federation. A capital city would be built there to administer joint enterprises, including a federation university. Its predominant language would be Arabic. There are enough Israeli universities where courses are being taught in Hebrew. The federation university could serve the entire region, but cater especially to Palestinians. But unlike other Arab universities, it would utilize Israeli experts in its multinational staff.

The federation might handle diplomatic representation of both states in Arab countries and other places where it is not economical to maintain separate missions.

Palestinians would become a power bloc in the federation, on the basis of their population in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and in refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. The federation police force, which could include Palestinians, could be used to combat the kidnappings and assassinations now so common among the Arabs. In place of absolute sovereignty over a ministate, they would become partners in the federation on the basis of a negotiated arrangement to balance their national aspirations with Israel's security needs and Syrian interests.

For reasons of economic and geopolitical integration, Lebanon and Jordan would join this regional compact. Like the European economic union, it would provide a framework for needed regional cooperation in place of continued and expensive military rivalry.

Arabic is already the second-most-popular language taught in Israeli schools (after English). There is a lot more similarity between educated Israelis and Arabs than between many of them and their grandparents. Narrow nationalism is more outdated than its Middle Eastern advocates are willing to admit. Within a regional federation, Israel would retain its place as a significant power. It would be one of several major ethnic blocs that need to coexist rather than to injure each other in the feuds that now make such bloody headlines - the struggle of the Druze with the Phalangist-Maronites, the Shiite Muslims, and the Sunni, and many others.

''Greater Syria,'' adapted to current realities, makes economic and geopolitical sense. Without it, all countries are locked into a process of mutual exhaustion. Super-power interests will prevent any of them from achieving a decisive victory. But the idea will remain a ''nonstarter,'' unless reborn in a union of imagination and statesmanship. Both are in short supply.

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