THE ornately gilded VIP lounge at Damascus airport has been busy lately. No sooner has one prominent visitor been ushered out of its richly carved paneling, it seems, than another is being welcomed in. Over the past two weeks alone, the Syrian government has hosted United States Secretary of State James Baker III, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Dutch foreign minister - who will be chairing the European Community for the next six months, and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh.
For a country that was an international pariah less than a year ago, shunned by the West for sheltering terrorists and spurned by its Arab neighbors for a variety of other reasons, this is a dramatic turnaround.
Syrian Information Minister Muhammad Salman sees the shift as evidence that ``Syria is not a closed island, but a basic center in determining the fate and future of the area.''
Foreign diplomats say rather that Syria is looking West because it has no other options, and that it has adapted its policies to fit.
``The government has made a series of very astute tactical moves that point toward a transformation into a strategic alignment,'' says one diplomat.
While there are probably elements of truth in both perspectives, the most remarkable aspect of President Hafez al-Assad's bid to place Syria center-stage is that he has done it without the help of his traditional patron, the Soviet Union. Out of a potential disaster for Damascus - Moscow's retreat from a major role in the Middle East - Mr. Assad has fashioned considerable success.
Both Western and Syrian officials trace Damascus's new relations with Washington - highlighted by Syria's membership of the US-led coalition against Iraq - to the October 1989 Taif accord to end the civil strife in Lebanon.
``When Syria saw in Lebanon that it could do business with the United States, that built confidence early on,'' says a Western diplomat.
A second opportunity to develop that confidence came last August.
``The Gulf crisis played a positive role in this respect,'' explains Muhammad Heir al-Wadi, editor of the government daily Tishreen. ``We found our principles were in common.''
The closer contacts over the Gulf crisis, and the meeting last September between President Bush and Assad ``helped the West understand Syria's position better,'' says Mr. Heir al-Wadi. ``They see now that Syria is playing a positive role in building stability, and that Syria is not hostile to the West.''
``For the first time in 20 years the American administration came to us to hear our point of view,'' says Information Minister Salman. ``When the West acknowledges Syria's importance in the region and takes steps to develop relations, that strengthens our trust that its interest in solving Middle East problems is serious.''
Until recently, complains Elias Najmeh, a member of parliament for the ruling Baath Party, ``Europe and the United States were trying to isolate us.
``Now they've stopped, because they are after oil and they have begun to see that Syria has a strong regime that is a factor of stability in the region,'' he says.
Western diplomats here see Syria's improved ties with their countries - Britain recently restored diplomatic relations after a four-year break and the European Community has lifted almost all its sanctions against Damascus - in a somewhat different light.
``Events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have determined the Syrian position,'' says a diplomatic source. ``There isn't the game of playing off one side of the Iron Curtain against the other any more.''
Another diplomat agrees. ``Assad needs Washington,'' he argues. ``He has made his geopolitical calculation that, in the light of some very important global shifts, if Syrian interests are to be promoted he has to make hard decisions,'' reconsidering relations with his historic adversary.
This seems equally true on the Arab-Israeli front.
``Assad may realize that if he is looking for a settlement [with Israel] it is not going to come just through Moscow, it's going to come from Washington through Moscow,'' says the European diplomat. ``And if you are going to work with the other parties, you have to present yourself as someone ready to play by civilized rules.''
As Moscow backs away from its traditional relationship with Syria - refusing to sell Assad offensive weaponry, for example, and demanding cash payment in hard currency for the arms it does sell, according to Soviet diplomats, Damascus is casting around for new partners.
High-level delegations from both North Korea and China were in Damascus last week, and Syria is widely reported to have bought modified Scud missiles from North Korea with some of the estimated $2 billion to $3 billion it has received from Gulf countries.
Assad is also keeping his options as open as possible closer to home, maintaining warm relations with an old friend, Iran. Mr. Rafsanjani chose Damascus as his first foreign destination as Iranian president last week, and Syrian officials are actively promoting Iran's role in a future Gulf security arrangement.
These moves appear to be partly an insurance policy in case relations with the US sour again, and the potential for such a development is clear. Last week the US State Department included Syria on its list of states that harbor or encourage terrorists, a slap in the face that served as a reminder, in the words of Salman, that ``we are not friends of the United States.''
That caveat, two months after Syrian troops fought alongside American GIs in Kuwait, indicates the depth of Syria's reservations about the new direction of its foreign policy.
``It's true that on the tactical level the problems and the enmity have diminished,'' says Baathist member of parliament Mr. Najmeh. ``But in general terms, so long as the United States remains in the Israeli camp, there is no chance of friendly relations.''