THE next round of Middle East talks occurs in Washington at the end of this month. The Israeli-PLO treaty provides momentum. But it is clear the key to an overall Arab-Israeli settlement in the region is now held by Syria. Trade, exchange, borders, security - the essentials - must be worked out with the state of Hafez al-Assad. The United States can play an important role in the process.
There will be no peace without Syria. President Assad now sits, psychologically, between radicalized Gulf states like Iran - and the peace process conducted by the West. From a certain Western point of view, it seems the historic Arafat-Rabin handshake at the White House should mean that Assad would agree to economic development. Shouldn't he clamp down on disparate radical Islamic cells in Syria that can derail peace via Lebanon or through radicals in the occupied territories?
Would that it were so easy. Assad is at the point in his career where he must think about the future of Syria and the region without his presence. He wants to leave matters on an improved basis. He wants Israeli forces to withdraw from Golan.
Yet Assad can't just roll over and do the bidding of Western interests that want to capitalize on the Arafat-Rabin deal. Whatever he may think privately, Assad's public statements on the new peace accord are not encouraging. He was not informed about the negotiations and has likened the famous White House handshake to a betrayal; he allows George Habash, a radical whose express purpose is to destroy the Gaza-Jericho agreement, to operate out of Damascus.
By choice, Syria has always been on the periphery of the peace process. Its diplomatic corps is weak. Its suspicions of Israel are deep. The Gaza-Jericho deal, cut behind Assad's back, represents a big shift of momentum in the region. Assad is not a player yet. He feels isolated. One wise observer notes that Assad's chief fear is that the Arafat-Rabin deal is a kind of ``Trojan horse'' - a way for Israel to insinuate its will on the Arab states through Arafat, who signed in a state of weakness and bankruptcy.
It is in Syria's interest to pursue peace. But fears must be assuaged. Tel Aviv must look to this. Assad has offered Israel full peace for a full withdrawal from Golan. For Israel the deal lacks needed symmetry - withdrawal from Golan is concrete, peace is not. Israel can't sell a deal with Syria at home just now. But direct talks between Syria and Israel are needed - a ``walk in the woods'' allowing for positions to be aired frankly. The US can arrange such a talk.