Syria's President Hafez Assad has so far steered his country safely through the dangerous Mediterranean crisis following Israel's Oct.1 air strike on Tunisia and the subsequent Palestinian hijack of an Italian cruise ship. Both events, say Mr. Assad's advisers, ``show that Syria's so-called rejectionist attitude'' toward the foundering United States-Jordanian-Egyptian peace efforts with Israel was ``correct.''
The US, adds one Syrian commentator, ``let down its Arab friends, Egypt and Tunisia, and even [through intercepting the Egyptian plane carrying the hijackers] its NATO ally, Italy.''
Syrian analysts also noted with satisfaction that Jordan had signed a recent Saudi Arabian-sponsored accord with Syria that rejected any partial or unilateral peace agreements with Israel. On Monday, Prime Minister Shimon Peres made such a unilateral peace offer at the UN.
Damascus is now redoubling efforts to get Jordanian King Hussein to cancel his Feb. 11, 1985, accord with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, Yasser Arafat, to jointly seek peace. Ironically, the cancellation of this joint accord is also an Israeli goal.
Earlier, a spokesman for US Ambassador William Eagleton here thanked Syria for prompt and discreet assistance in identifying and returning the body of Leon Klinghoffer, the American who was killed during the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.
By accommodating US wishes in the Klinghoffer case, Syria helped publicize the embarassment of Syria's Arab adversary, Mr. Arafat. Official Syrian news media were mostly silent, but Syrian commentators did not hide their satisfaction at the discredit cast on Arafat and his friends and aides.
Leaders of anti-Arafat Palestinian factions based here deplored the hijacking as ``a major setback for the Palestinian cause.'' Few, however, seemed to care about the personal setback for Arafat and his wish to join in the stalled Jordan-Egypt-US peace efforts.
President Assad is sticking to a consistent strategy in the Middle East. He and his aides explain it to visitors roughly as follows:
``Egypt, Jordan, and Yasser Arafat deserted the front lines of Arab resistance to Israel's annexation of the Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese territory Israel has captured since 1967.
``Syria was never invited to join the `peace' games, . . . We were simply left out,'' said one Syrian official, referring to the Israeli-Egypt Camp David accord of 1979, a September 1982 plan put forth by President Reagan, and to subsequent moves.
``The games these so-called `moderates' have been trying to play with the United States and its Israeli ally since then have all proved futile. Only the guerrilla warfare of the Lebanese drove the Israelis out of most of the land they conquered in Lebanon.
``Therefore,'' the Syrian argument continues, ``only strength is respected. Syria must build up its strength to something like strategic parity with Israel. This may take two, three, or even over five years. Once we have achieved this, we will be able to deal ourselves into whatever political or peace games may then be under way as an equal player.''
Syria's Air Force has been been substantially reinforced with new Soviet fighter jets, missiles, radar, and electronic-warfare systems since June 1982, when Syria lost more than 80 aircraft in Israeli attacks during Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Syria has also fielded at least two new army divisions since 1982.
The continued arms buildup and force modernization are costly. They consume more than 40 percent of the published annual budget, and the country is now fighting a severe cash-flow problem and foreign-currency shortage.
Syria's ``strategic'' alliance with non-Arab Iran in Iran's war against Syria's Arab neighbor Iraq is in difficulty, too.
In 1982 Syria obliged Iran by closing Iraq's oil pipeline outlet to the Mediterranean. Damascus has been able to fill its oil needs by buying from Iran each year since then.
But it has been unable to pay for most of this oil. And deliveries are slowing to a trickle because Iraqi bombers have damaged Iran's Kharg Island oil tanker terminal in the Gulf. Iran's enemy Iraq, meanwhile, is exporting more than 3 million barrels a day through Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan.
Mr.Cooley, an ABC news staff correspondent based in London, was formerly Monitor correspondent in the Middle East and Washington.