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Assad Seen as Master Strategist in Arab World

January 02, 1986|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — It has been a triumphant week for the policies of Syrian President Hafez Assad, but if he has been celebrating, it has been a characteristically private affair.

Within the space of three days, Assad has seen the two most nettlesome of his foreign affairs problems, Lebanon and the Middle East peace process, moving toward a resolution that would benefit Syria, at least symbolically.

Assad has been a canny gambler in the Middle East card game, and his stature in the Arab world appears to have been significantly enhanced as the one statesman who has consistently confronted Israel and prevailed. Even his latest gambit, deploying anti-aircraft missiles in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, seems to offer more potential benefits than liabilities for his regime, according to Western diplomats here.

'Must Deal With Assad'

"Once more, the bitter truth has been brought home to the West that to get things done in this part of the world, you must deal with Hafez Assad," a European diplomat commented.

Assad rarely shows his emotions publicly, but he could not suppress a broad grin before the television cameras after the signing of a peace agreement for Lebanon.

The accord was signed here Saturday by the leaders of Lebanon's three major Muslim and Christian militias. Agreement was based on political and military terms that were fashioned, if not dictated, by Damascus.

Assad's first vice president and personal trouble-shooter for Lebanon, Abdel-Halim Khaddam, also signed the agreement, symbolizing the relationship that now exists between the two countries.

Gemayel Going to Syria

Only three years ago, Israel occupied much of Lebanon and signed a peace treaty with Lebanon's Christian president, Amin Gemayel. Today, President Gemayel is expected in Damascus to give his reluctant approval to the Syrian-brokered peace accord.

Under Syrian pressure, Gemayel was forced to cancel his May 17, 1983, agreement with the Israelis. Syrian support for "national liberation forces" in Lebanon forced the Israelis to pull back from most of their area of occupation last summer.

If Assad is not celebrating his Lebanon victory just yet, it may be because the agreement is still a long way from being implemented.

An attempt to assassinate Gemayel on Tuesday and heavy fighting now raging in southern Lebanon between Muslim forces and an Israeli-backed militia are only two of the many problems that could cause the peace accord to fall apart.

Benefits Not Clear

Also, it is not yet clear what gains are to be counted from Assad's meetings in Damascus on Monday and Tuesday with Jordan's King Hussein. The visit was the first to the Syrian capital by the Jordanian monarch in six years.

The failure of the two sides to issue a joint statement after two days of extensive negotiations has led many diplomatic analysts to conclude that Assad and Hussein were unable to reach agreement on the presumed main point of the talks--approaches to Middle East peace. The king entered into a joint peace initiative last Feb. 11 with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In recent months, both Syria and Jordan have endorsed the idea of an international conference to resolve the Middle East problem, but it appears that Assad was unable to persuade Hussein to abandon either the Feb. 11 accord or Arafat, with whom Assad has a longstanding personal feud.

Ties With Iraq, Egypt

In addition, Jordan maintains close ties with Iraq and Egypt, both of which the Syrian government bitterly opposes.

Assad's most notable success, according to Western diplomats, was in foreseeing that the Middle East peace moves mapped out by Hussein last year were doomed to failure and that he needed only to stand by and wait until that failure became obvious.

"Assad is clearly vindicated in his apparent conviction that the United States and Israel would never let the peace process take place," a Western diplomat said. "Everybody has played into his hands."

With peace efforts apparently derailed, Assad can now return to what he has repeatedly declared to be the only suitable way for the Arabs to deal with Israel--achieving strategic military parity.

A Humiliating Defeat

On Nov. 19, the Syrians suffered a humiliating defeat when Israeli planes on a reconnaissance flight over Lebanon shot down two Syrian jets. Israeli officials said later that the engagement was a mistake, but Syria has seized on the incident to press ahead militarily.

Western and Syrian sources note that Syrian military officers have let it be widely known that the Syrian air force ground controllers involved in the incident have been imprisoned for incompetence. The suggestion is that the next time such an incident takes place, Syrian forces will be more inclined to fight.

Assad's decision to introduce mobile surface-to-air missiles into Lebanon appears to be more a political testing of Israel's resolve than a military stratagem, according to officials here.

Missiles Near Border

Between two and four batteries of SAM-6 and SAM-8 missiles have been deployed along ridges in the Bekaa Valley not far from the Syrian border. They are believed to form an anti-aircraft shield in conjunction with SAM-2 missiles deployed just inside the Syrian border.

According to most diplomatic analysts, Israel would still probably win any military encounter that might arise over the missile deployment. But Syria is steadily making it harder for Israeli planes to range freely over Lebanon, and even the loss of missile batteries might hand the Syrians a "moral victory" by seeming to be an unprovoked attack, according to these analysts.

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