PRESIDENT Hafez al-Assad has won for Syria a major role at the bargaining table. By lending substantial military muscle to a new Arab "peacekeeping" force in the Gulf, the will of Damascus will carry weight. United States Secretary of State James Baker III, concluding his first postwar Middle East tour last week in Damascus, assured Syria that the US would try to influence Israel to accept a land-for-peace settlement with its Arab neighbors.
The US formula for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict is based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which require Israel to give up land captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war for secure and recognized borders. For Syria, that means an opportunity to retrieve the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied and later annexed.
Referring to the US-led enforcement of UN resolutions against Iraq, Mr. Baker said there would be "no double standards" when dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Syrian press, for the first time in decades, praised American moves to find a settlement of the conflict.
Baker met with Mr. Assad for seven hours last week, twice as long as expected. He said his mission sought to take advantage of the "window of opportunity now in the aftermath of the Gulf crisis 201&gt; to make significant progress in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"I sense there is a very serious intent on the part of the Syrian government to pursue an active peace conference and to continue to work toward that end with the coalition countries," he said. Baker promised the US would do what it could to get Israel to the table. "As a strong ally of Israel through the years, we should have the ability at least to reason with Israel, to help Israel understand 201&gt; that nobody benefits more from true reconciliation than does Israel."
Those comments mark a gain for President Assad, who may find it easier to justify his anti-Iraq, pro-Western stance in the Gulf war by the apparent US will to tackle the problem. Assad's decision to join the coalition after three years of hard-line anti-West rhetoric was not taken well by Syrians in the street.
While Israel has in the past said it would not return the Golan Heights, it could become a bargaining chip to win the recognition of Syria and other Arab governments. "The Golan is negotiable for Israel; it is not in the Bible," says a senior Western diplomat, comparing it to the West Bank.
In addition to its role on the diplomatic front, Syria plans to send military units to protect the weaker, petroleum-rich Gulf states. Under a deal mapped out two weeks ago in Damascus, foreign ministers from the six Gulf states plus Egypt and Syria agreed to a marriage of convenience: Egypt and Syria would provide at least 100,000 troops, deployed mostly along Kuwait's border with Iraq, in exchange for development aid estimated to total $15 billion.
Critics of Syria's new role in the region point to its 40,000 troops in Lebanon - ostensibly there on a "peacekeeping" mandate from the Arab League since 1976 - as evidence of its military adventurism. The Gulf states are uneasy because of Syria's support for fundamentalist Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran is edgy about Syrian involvement in the Gulf.
"Official Iranian newspapers say the Syrians can't even take back the Golan from Israel, how can they be the protectors in the Gulf," says a Western diplomat.
Problems with Syria remain: It is high on Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism; it has received Scud missiles in recent weeks from North Korea, capable of hitting anywhere in Israel; and 12 hostages remain in Lebanon, where Syria and Iran hold major influence.