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US-Syria ties: fresh thinking, not a rupture, is what's needed

THE United States should be careful not to isolate Syria totally, despite disclosure of Syrian involvement in the attempted El Al bombing in London. The terrorist plot was unquestionably a despicable act, and the US rightfully voiced its intolerance of such crimes by withdrawing American Ambassador William Eagleton and imposing limited sanctions. These moves, which followed a series of verbal warnings, sent Syrian President Hafez Assad a powerful signal that the US is finally prepared to follow up words with deeds.

In the Arab world, where personal insults carry great weight, this slap in the face could hurt more than a well-executed bombing raid. At the same time, it leaves room for positive change, which eventually might help revive peace efforts. If the administration can deal with Iran, it can certainly justify keeping the door open to Damascus.

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Many analysts and advisers may still clamor to sever ties with Syria - or do more. This move disregards long-term US interests. The possibility of a future Middle East settlement is sold out to the overriding emotions of the present. Once again American options in the Middle East are reactive rather than proactive.

Instead, the administration should pressure Mr. Assad to respond constructively. He has several options to signal a change of heart and policy on extremism. He could close the Damascus offices of the terrorist Abu Nidal organization and other radical groups and terminate arms supplies and intelligence information. And the Syrian President could remove terrorism operatives and link-men within his administration.

He also could use his influence in Lebanon, where at least 20,000 Syrian troops are stationed, to help end 11 years of strife. And he could use whatever clout he has left with radical Shiite Muslim groups in Lebanon to secure the release of the five remaining US hostages.

By allowing Syria a means of restitution for its misadventures, including direct or indirect support for various bombings and hijackings, the United States maintains a channel of communication with this key power broker in regional events.

Indeed, despite the shelving of President Reagan's 1982 Middle East peace plan and subsequent initiatives, the US still has an opportunity to rescue the lost momentum through a policy shift: an eventual rapprochement with Syria.

Factors both positive and negative may persuade Syria to change its policy of both aiding extremism and playing the role of spoiler with peace efforts. On the negative side, Assad may be ready to moderate his position, for although he is largely responsible for modernizing Syria, the country is still troubled.

Politically, Syria is not immune to the bullets of Muslim radicalism that have fractured Lebanon. He is also known to be worried about having lost control over various terrorist cells that are increasingly independent. And economically, Syria is in the midst of the worst crisis since Assad came to power.

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Militarily, Syria has the most sophisticated Soviet-stocked arsenal outside the Soviet Union, including a growing battery of SS-21 and SAM-5 missiles. But President Assad is aware that at the moment his poorly trained troops are hardly a match for the seasoned Israelis.

To his advantage, however, President Assad continues to rule Syria with unyielding and often brutal authority. Yet he has brought domestic stability and formidable regional prominence to a country that witnessed 21 coups in the 17 years before his 1970 takeover. Few viable leadership alternatives exist.

Assad has been strong enough to play the role of spoiler in previous peace efforts, through both political and violent tactics. He also almost single-handedly isolated Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat by promoting dissident factions.

Policymakers need to understand that Assad's actions, including support for terrorism, are driven by a combination of fear and idealism. His fear stems from the multiple external and internal pressures that serve as a constant threat to his minority regime.

And his idealism derives from his self-delegated role as the Arab ``conscience.'' Mr. Assad is actually not averse to peace. But he is not prepared to ``succumb,'' as he sees it, to a US-orchestrated settlement that is biased in Israel's favor. He ultimately wants a strategic balance, militarily and politically, between the Arab world and Israel before he concedes to any settlement.

In dealing with Syria, the US should never condone or forget what Syria has contributed to Middle East extremism. But the US also needs to be pragmatic about political realities in the region.

To isolate Syria totally would only diminish any hope of influencing Damascus and further obstruct the quest for peace in the region. For, feeling cornered, Assad is only likely to strike back. Instead, as Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy advised, the US should seek to ``convince Syria that supporting terrorism is not in its interest.'' The time is now ripe.

Mona Yacoubian, who recently completed a Fulbright scholarship in Syria, is a volunteer at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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