FROM THE SPRINGBOARD of the Lebanon cease-fire, Secretary of State Warren Christopher should press on for peace between Syria and Israel. He should keep President Hafez el Assad in play.
But he should not expect immediate progress. Mr. Assad is awaiting the outcome of the May 29 Israeli elections. If Prime Minister Shimon Peres is re-elected, he will think about it. If Benjamin Netanyahu takes over, Mr. Assad will expect intransigence and understand the game better.
The firefight between Israel and Lebanon had many victims. Its only winner was Mr. Assad, the 65-year-old cunning dictator of Syria. Israel's reprisal for terrorists' rockets wrought misery on Lebanon and made enemies of the Lebanese people. Syria went unscathed. But whether it was Mr. Assad who had turned the Hezbollah terrorists on, only he could turn them off. His standing among Arab rulers went up. So did his importance to Israel.
This is not a new role. Since Mr. Assad reached a truce with Israel on the Golan Heights in 1974, not one shot has been fired across the common border. His control of his own territory is almost mythic. Small wonder Israel is demanding not that Syria leave Lebanon, where it keeps 35,000 troops, but that he shut down terrorist operations there.
Mr. Assad is a minority tyrant more concerned with his own rule than with the substance of external issues. Tension has meant security for him. The arguments for perpetuating war have gone steadily down since the end of Soviet mischief-making in the Middle East, and so he opened formal negotiations with Israel in 1991. There is no aid from Moscow, no Arab unity for isolating Israel, no likelihood of winning. Iran is a poor protector. In the long run, Syria needs better relations with the U.S.
But Mr. Assad has only opened the option for peace, not closed the other option. He will want all Golan in return for the least possible security guarantees. He will want to be seen driving a more advantageous bargain than Egypt or Jordan did. He will not be rushed. Once he has the Golan back, it will have lost value.
The only thing that has changed is that where Mr. Assad may once have believed peace to be impossible he probably now considers it inevitable. Either way, he has hardly moved.
Pub Date: 5/06/96