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Lebanon war transforms Syria from radical to moderate

The winds of war sweeping through Lebanon have cooled Syria down from an Arab radical to an Arab moderate vying for the attention of the United States.

''Syria is willing to think about the diplomatic solution to the Middle East problem after the military option proved hopeless this summer,'' a Western diplomat said.

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Syria is disenchanted with its traditional ally, the Soviet Union. The Syrians blame their military defeat in Lebanon on Soviet equipment. ''They want the Soviet Union to equip and train them like the United States does Israel,'' another diplomat remarked.

''The Syrians would like to get out of their marriage to the Soviets. But they can't leap into the lap of the Americans and risk the Americans patching things up with the Israelis,'' the Western diplomat said.

The question of the military aside, diplomats - Western and Arab - say Syria realizes the US is the only superpower left on the Middle East map after the war in Lebanon.

At the moment Syrian officials are not readily seeing diplomats and journalists. Diplomats attributed this to a reassessment of Syrian policy which is in the works, but not ready for public unveiling and explanation.

Syrian President Hafez Assad traveled quietly in the early summer to Moscow just before going to Saudi Arabia to consult about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

''Apparently he asked the Soviets for more concrete backing and didn't get it , so he chose to improve his ties to the Saudis and therefore to the Americans, '' one diplomat said.

Evidence of the Syrians backing away from the Soviets has popped up often during the last few months. Diplomats said Syria has not consulted the Soviets on major points such as its decision to accept Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas, its own willingness to leave Lebanon, and its discussions with American envoy Philip Habib.

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When President Ronald Reagan announced his Middle East peace plan, out of habit observers waited for the other shoe to drop - for the Syrians to officially rail against it with stinging out-of-hand rejections.

It didn't and hasn't yet. In private, Syrian officials have taken the same line that Jordan and the PLO did: The plan ''has some positive elements.''

Two Syrian leaders have recently traveled to the United States. Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam and his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud Al Faisal went to Washington to see Mr. Reagan.

Diplomats said Mr. Khaddam did all the talking.

The Syrian President's brother, Rifaat Assad, also went to the American capital and bought a $1.1 million home. It was billed as a ''private'' visit although he met State Department officials.

Diplomats who are veteran watchers of the Syrian political process pointed out that such visits would never be allowed if they contradicted official policy.

Syria voted for what essentially was the Saudi Arabian peace plan at the Arab League summit earlier this month. Syria had begun itself on an isolation kick last year by refusing the same Saudi plan.

Syrian-Jordanian relations ''are not getting better, but they are not deteriorating,'' said an Arab diplomat.

However, diplomats attributed some of the continued iciness to a Syrian fear that Mr. Reagan's plan puts King Hussein on center stage.

''The Syrians don't like to be out of the limelight, and they don't want the Middle East problem settled with the issue of the Golan Heights at the bottom,'' a Western envoy said.

Similarly, the Syrians are not especially chummy with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the moment. Palestinian sources have said Arafat and King Hussein believe they should join forces to get the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip back diplomatically.

Arafat's first visit to Syria post-Beirut was not officially noted until he met Assad, and then it was dismissed briefly. An American television crew that flew into the Syrian capital to interview just Arafat after the Beirut massacres was refused entry.

Palestinian sources said they suspected the Syrians resented the attention Arafat was getting and did not want to lose their influence over him.

Although the state-run Syrian press never mentioned Bashir Gemayel's election as President of Lebanon, they noted that of his brother Amin.

That change was seen as tacit approval of the new government - even though it spells the end of Syrian domination of Lebanon and means a new anti-Syrian regime next door.

Nonetheless Gemayel's presidency is seen to be blessed by the Americans, so any opposition would not win the brownie points the Syrians appear to be looking for from the Americans, observers noted.

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