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Syria's Hafez Assad goes out on a limb

Syrian President Hafez Assad is maneuvering desperately to try to ensure that the crisis in the Gulf war between Iraq and Iran does not leave him to face alone a possible Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.

That is what lies behind Mr. Assad's surprise visit to Libya and Algeria. He is hoping to get the Libyans and Algerians to block Egypt's return to the Arab fold.

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All Arab governments in Asia -- except that of Syria, which supports Iran -- want Egypt back to redress the balance in the Gulf war, which now appears to be swinging in Iran's favor against Iraq.

Israel's tough, hard-line defense minister, Ariel Sharon, is known to be straining at the leash to invade Lebanon and deal a knockout blow to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) bases there. He has been held back so far by Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

The proposed Lebanon operation is part of Mr. Sharon's two-pronged plan to smash Palestinian resistance to Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. The other prong is a campaign of repression and controlled terror against Palestinians within those two occupied territories.

Mr. Assad's initiative in soliciting Libyan and Algerian support (which in effect is an effort to keep the Arab world divided at this time) is fraught with risk -- for himself, for the rest of the Arab world, and for stability in the Middle East.

If he contributes to Iran's eventual victory over Iraq, he could be helping to open the rest of the Arab world to subversion by Ayatollah Khomeini and to the downfall of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

If he fails to break out from his own isolation and is the loser in any fighting with Israel in Lebanon, Mr. Assad's position at home -- already under intense pressure -- might become untenable to the point of his being overthrown.

For all their respective shortcomings, both Mr. Assad and Saddam Hussein -- mortal enemies -- have given Syria and Iraq political stability for the past decade. If either or both were unseated, the ensuing struggle for power in their respective countries would be to nobody's advantage -- except perhaps in the short run, Israel's.

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And again, if Mr. Assad and the PLO were dealt a knockout blow by the Israelis in Lebanon, the Palestinian cause -- which all Arabs profess to give highest priority in defending -- might never recover.

Former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has described Mr. Assad as negotiating ''daringly and tenaciously like a riverboat gambler.''

Mr. Kissinger writes in his latest volume of autobiography: ''I once told (Assad) that I had seen negotiators who deliberately moved themselves to the edge of a precipice to show they had no further margin of maneuver. I had even known negotiators who put one foot over the edge, in effect threatening their own suicide. He was the only one who would actually jump off the precipice, hoping that on his way down he could break his fall by grabbing a tree he knew to be there.''

Iran's latest successes in the war with Iraq have rung alarm bells in all the Arab countries of Asia, except Syria. The governments of the countries where the alarms are ringing believe that Ayatollah Khomeini's brand of Islamic fundamentalism, if allowed to achieve complete victory in the war with Iraq, would be more threatening to them than an Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Hence their moves to bring Egypt out of its isolation (for having signed the peace treaty with Israel) to serve as a counterweight in the Arab line-up against Iran. The Syrian President wants to prevent this so that he is not left to face the Israelis in Lebanon on his own. (It is one of the ironies of the situation that like Syria, Israel supports Iran in the war with Iraq and has been a source of arms for the Iranian forces.)

If the Israelis did mount a major operation against the PLO in Lebanon, the hostilities would be likely to draw in the Syrian ''peacekeeping'' force in the country, which is some 30,000 strong. In such a collision, the Israelis would be almost certain to trounce the Syrians, particularly if the latter got no substantial help from any other Arab source.

Egypt shares the views of the Asian Arab lands about the dangers of Ayatollah Khomeini's religious fundamentalism. Cairo is selling arms and spare parts to Iraq but is reluctant to let Egyptian troops get involved in the Gulf war on Iraq's side against Iran. Before deciding how he might increase Egyptian help to Iraq, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is waiting to see the outcome of the battle for Khorramshahr, the last major piece of Iranian territory in Iraqi hands.

Meanwhile Mr. Assad is unlikely to be responsive to any representations from other Arabs that his latest move is harmful to the overall Arab cause. He sees both Iraq and Egypt as rivals blocking Syria's fulfilment of its leadership role as ''the beating heart of Arabdom.'' Syria's traditional attitude has been that if other Arabs do not recognize this role, they must face the consequences.

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