FRUSTRATED by the Israeli-PLO agreement, Syria's President Hafez al-Assad is trying to reposition himself in his negotiations with Israel to regain control over the Golan Heights.
Mr. Assad's readiness to spell out his conception of ``full peace,'' apparently conveyed to Secretary of State Warren Christopher last August, may still hold true. The Israeli-PLO agreement, however, has thrown the Syrian negotiating strategy off balance. Feeling further isolated by Jordanian King Hussein's decision to join the peace parade, Assad must make good on his call for a ``peace of the brave'' or be a spoiler, which he can ill afford.
Having long championed the Palestinian cause, Assad finds it troublesome to have lost that card before getting an agreement with Israel. He could unleash extremist Palestinian factions to undermine the PLO agreement. But he risks US support. He can rein in these groups. But he risks losing control of them.
Hence, for Syria, time is of the essence. The longer Damascus waits, neither backing nor condemning the accords, the stronger the Israeli position and the stiffer Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's demands will become.
Assad's reluctance to spell-out his ``full peace'' is rooted in his view of himself as the guardian of Arab nationalism. Assad believes he alone holds the key to Arab claims against Israel. Recognizing Israel, and treating the Jews as equals, means abandoning 15 centuries of religious and historical attitudes toward Jews, who were treated by Arabs as a subordinated minority. Assad knows that only he can make the Arab-Israeli peace a comprehensive peace and that such a move has far- reaching historic implications. It could seal the fate of Arabs and Jews for centuries. For that ``heroic act,'' Assad wants to exact a dear price without appearing to obstruct talks.
Assad wants to refocus US and Israeli attention on the Syrian front. He understands that the proposition of ``full withdrawal for full peace'' must be the basis of the Israeli-Syrian declaration of principles. Syrian officials insist that only Syrian sovereignty over the entire Golan could remove the stigma and humiliation suffered by Syrians during the Six Day War in 1967. The conditions, however, are subject to negotiation.
Israeli and Syrian demands will not change drastically. Rabin is torn between the security imperative of the Golan, and the imperative of peace that might require a total withdrawal from Golan. Assad insists that nothing short of recognizing Syria's sovereignty over the Golan will salvage Syrian pride and allow him to reach a comprehensive peace.
The US can help shape an agreement that will meet public skepticism and concerns in Israel, and finesse the sensitive relationship between Arabs and Jews as seen by Assad. The Clinton administration should push for an Israeli-Syrian declaration of principles based on ``full withdrawal for full peace.''
The Israelis can digest Yasser Arafat in Jericho and Assad on the Heights if Mr. Rabin can assure them of Assad's absolute commitment to peace. The US will have to help sustain Israel's long-term military might, guarantee its security, and insure the full im- plementation of the peace agreement. For Assad to play the final arbiter in the Arabs' centuries-long history with the Jews requires the eventual, total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.
No matter how many delay tactics are employed, these requirements are the foundation of an Israeli-Syrian peace. A ``peace of the brave'' is exactly that. It requires an act of courage, no less dramatic and valiant than Saddat's historic journey to Jerusalem, which culminated in the Israeli-Egyptian peace, and no less momentous than the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn commencing the Israeli-Palestinian condominium. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.