WASHINGTON — Reagan Administration officials were pleased to report early last week that the war against terrorism had claimed another victim: President Hafez Assad of Syria.
The Oct. 20 conviction of Nezar Hindawi in London, as an agent of Syria in the attempted bombing of an Israeli civilian airliner had, in the view of several U.S. officials, exposed Syria as the major backer of international terrorism. "We finally have bridged the gap between image and reality" said one State Department expert. "Now it is only a question of what we are going to do about it."
Indeed, especially now that Syria is pivotal in any release of U.S. and French hostages. Syria is reportedly once again the way-station between captivity in Lebanon and a return home as part of any secret hostage-swapping deals.
It was the British who, uncharacteristically, took the lead in rupturing relations with Syria. The evidence linking Hindawi to Syria's ambassador in London and the chief of staff of Syrian air force intelligence forced Britain's hand. And the decision to break all diplomatic relations amazed U.S. observers; few had anticipated such a harsh and swift retaliation. The British decision, informed sources said, was made at a Cabinet meeting three days before the verdict was in. "The British forgot to say 'heads up,' " complained one State Department official.
Still, the Administration wasted little time in announcing the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador to Syria, William L. Eagleton Jr. And State Department staffers made a point of contrasting the U.S. action with Canada's decision to bring its ambassador "home for consultations." The Canadian move, in diplomatic parlance, was relatively mild and temporary, whereas the U.S. action, according to one State Department official, meant "Eagleton will never again see Damascus."
But while the U.S. show of support was stronger than Canada's or the European community's--although West Germany will delay the routine replacement of its ambassador to Syria--it still fell far short of a diplomatic break.
More important, Administration options are--and have been--limited, whatever happens with the hostages. U.S. trade with Syria is minimal. And while there are American oil companies engaged in exploration, there is nothing like the investment in Libya before the imposition of sanctions against that country.
The most important reality, however, is that unlike the Libyan regime of Moammar Kadafi, Assad's Syria is a major Middle East player--some say the strongest. And none dispute that his can be the most ruthless Arab regime.
Even the Israelis, Assad's most formidable Middle East foes, have a healthy respect for his political acumen and are frankly in awe of his regime's staying power. One former Israeli official tells a story to illustrate:
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli air force in one strike knocked out the electricity grid for Syria's entire civilian sector. "The lights went out all over Syria," recalled this official, who had himself picked the target. "We waited, but nothing happened. How do you fight people like that?"
This was, in fact, the question Administration officials were asking each other early last week. Some continued to believe in dialogue with Assad. Extolling what one caustically labels the "basic premise of diplomacy: never shut a door," a few experts at State and the Pentagon have consistently argued that since the United States has no leverage with Assad, it is better not to antagonize him.
This argument has the greatest resonance in France where the government, much to the chagrin of the British at first, has not only led European opposition to sanctions but also reopened discussions with Syria. One French diplomat explained, "Sanctions would certainly shock Assad, but it is doubtful whether they would improve his behavior." On the contrary, "Assad would react strongly against such a message."
But if those Americans who argue in favor of dialogue could be tainted with charges of French-like appeasement, they were suddenly on stronger ground when there appeared to be real progress in the matter of hostages. France, like the United States, has actively courted Assad's assistance in gaining the release of its nationals held by Muslim extremists in Lebanon. "If we seek Syria's active assistance, we will never attain it by using a stick," said one French diplomat before the reports of a deal.
While some U.S. hard-liners have resented the influence that American hostages have on policy ("six people who shouldn't have been there in the first place," groused one official), they acknowledge their domestic impact. Hostage-release has to have a high priority in a democracy's policy agenda.