SUNDAY'S Swiss summit between Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and President Clinton will mark an attempt by the US to infuse the Middle East peace process with new vigor.
It also represents a US return to what many American officials consider their rightful role: that of chief mediator between Israel and its adversaries. The Israeli-PLO peace pact that stunned the world last fall was facilitated not by the US but by Norway, in back-channel meetings far from the glare of Washington talks.
Jordan's King Hussein is also scheduled to see President Clinton soon. If these meetings go well, prospects for late-January negotiations between Israeli diplomats and their Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Palestinian counterparts in the US will surely be enhanced.
``We have structured a sequence of steps this month ... that we hope will energize the peace process,'' said a US official at a background briefing last week.
Success at the Geneva summit between Clinton and President Assad is not necessarily assured. The shrewd and ruthless Assad is very different from the earnest, genial, young US leader.
For Clinton, the meeting may be just one more three-hour chin wag after days of NATO discussions. Assad, on the other hand, at least professes to have high hopes. State-controlled Syrian media have reportedly been placing great emphasis on the chances for progress.
US leaders tend to want to get down to business in such short, high-level discussions. Assad may want to deliver an 8-hour monologue on all aspects of Middle East politics, followed by a general discussion in which important positions are revealed in subtle ways.
``Assad is very interested in broad strategy,'' says William Quandt, a Brookings Institution Middle East expert who dealt with the Syrian leader as a member of the Carter administration.
The most important item on the agenda will be the deadlock between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1973 war. Israeli officials say they will talk about withdrawal from the Golan when Syria promises peace; Syrian counterparts say they will talk peace when Israel promises withdrawal.
Clinton might be able to mediate this dispute. If he judges that Assad has indicated real willingness to talk about the Golan, he could relay a message to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that now is the time to make a serious offer.
The timing may be right for Assad to indicate flexibility. His anger over the PLO-Israeli rapprochement may have cooled, especially since Prime Minister Rabin and PLO chief Yasser Arafat are now having difficulty striking an implementation deal.
The PLO deal has already roiled Israeli domestic politics, however. Rabin might say to the US that he cannot also handle the controversy any pact with Assad might engender.
``If Rabin says `keep him on a string,' then the US has a problem figuring out what to do,'' Mr. Quandt says.
Another issue sure to arise in Geneva is that of Syrian support of terrorism. US officials have indicated that although Clinton is meeting with Assad, they do not plan to remove Syria from the official State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorists.
When the Assad summit was announced, the parents of a woman killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 sent the White House a bitter letter, charging that the president was planning to greet a man they held partly responsible for the death of their daughter. Many of the families of Pan Am 103 passengers believe Syrian-based Islamic groups helped carry out the bombing.
US officials hold Libya responsible for the bombing. They say they have no evidence Syria was also involved. Still, they promised the parents in a letter that Syria would stay on the terror list.
``The question of terrorism will be very much on the table in the discussion with President Assad,'' presidential advisor David Gergen said last week.
Washington has already made something of a concession to Syria in recent weeks. The US has allowed Kuwait to give Gulf-war-ally Syria three excess Boeing 727's. Since the planes contain US technology, US law requires that Washington have a say in their transfer.