Mr. Peacemaker?

Hafez Assad the Peacemaker? The role hardly squares with the Syrian leader's history of intrigue and terror, repression and war. Often he has been portrayed as a tyrant in the mold of Saddam Hussein, only more cunning. Yet last week Yitzhak Shamir was comparing Israel's most implacable enemy to Anwar Sadat. In fact, Assad is neither Saddam nor Sadat: the first was impulsive in war, the other in peace. Assad's every move is calculated. His game has a persistent logic, but its twists amaze even his own people. The latest gambit-accepting the U.S. plan for a Mideast conference-is the most striking yet. Assad even finds kind words for George Bush. In an interview last week with NEWSWEEK and The Washington Post, Assad praised the administration's "experience and enlightenment," adding: "It's good for the region and for the world."

Has Assad changed? Hardly. As he said in the interview, he has long supported a settlement with Israel-on his terms. What has changed most is his relationship with Washington; clearly, he thinks Bush and Secretary of State James Baker are more evenhanded in their approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict than any of their recent predecessors. Logic, not the kind of "love" the United States has shown Israel, should rule the peace process, Assad said. And he can accept direct talks with Israel under the Baker plan without appearing inconsistent, because Bush has assured him that U.N. resolutions calling on Israel to return occupied land will be "terms of reference" for a conference. That counts heavily for Assad. "Without the return of territory, there is no peace," he said, adding: "We have not capitulated at any time in history."

Assad's goals remain the same as they were when he seized power in 1970: regaining territory lost to Israel, taking control of the Palestinian issue, giving Syria a dominant voice in Mideast affairs. Only his tactics have changed. Defeated by Israel, he made himself Moscow's most important ally in the region. He argued that Soviet backing would give him "strategic parity"-the clout to negotiate with Israel as an equal. But the world around him has been transformed. His ability even to dream of waging a successful war with Israel has evaporated. But he may now be dealing from a position of greater strength in the peace process than ever before.

Assad turned adversity into strength by quickly sensing the implications of the Soviet Union's decline. "He concluded the wave of the future is a Damascus-Cairo-Riyadh axis, with the United States the preeminent superpower," says a senior State Department official. Long before the gulf crisis, he had begun to mend relations with Egypt. After the invasion of Kuwait, he continued on the same course, turning away from former "radical" allies like Algeria and Libya.

It was a remarkable switch, but Assad had already shown great resilience in meeting challenges to his regime and its ability to confront Israel. As defense minister he endured the humiliating 1967 defeat by Israel, when Syria lost the Golan Heights. After the disastrous 1973 war, he saw Egypt sign a separate peace with Jerusalem that left him all but alone. Israel's 1982 Lebanon invasion shattered his Air Force. To the south, he saw Jordan's King Hussein and PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat working to make their own peace with Israel. Internally, Muslim fundamentalists rose against him. Saddam Hussein plotted his overthrow. Assad responded with tactics ranging from wholesale massacres to the measured use of terror, earning a reputation as a spoiler, a tyrant and a terrorist. He made war on the PLO and sided with Iran against Arab Iraq. Still, Assad prepared the way for his switch on talks with Israel by briefing Army officers during a recent speaking tour, according to Israeli sources who said the Mossad tipped off Shamir. And if ordinary Syrians were confused? "The wonderful thing about our president," says a Syrian journalist, "is that he doesn't give a s--- about public opinion."

Washington has long respected Assad; he keeps his agreements. "He had a first class mind allied to a wicked sense of humor," Henry Kissinger recalled in his memoirs. With Syria re-entering the Arab mainstream, the administration worked during the gulf war to bring him ever closer into the fold. In November, Bush and Assad met in Geneva-the first such meeting in a decade. "Bush told Assad, 'We want Arab armies to liberate Kuwait, and we want you to be there'," says one source close to the talks. Syria eventually sent troops and also helped behind the scenes. According to senior American officials, Syrian intelligence officers turned over information that helped thwart Iraqi terrorist attacks on allied targets.

For Assad, joining the allies was a gamble. He was bitterly disappointed after the 1973 war when he discovered that Kissinger was mainly interested in a bilateral settlement between Israel and Egypt. Assad's hopes for a comprehensive settlement under President Carter evaporated when Sadat flew alone to Jerusalem. But this time Assad appears more confident in Washington. "First, he thinks that Bush is much stronger than Carter, especially after the gulf war," says a Syrian diplomat. "Second, he doesn't have the same powerful ally [in Moscow] that can side with him in any crisis. So he is admitting that the U.S. is the only superpower on earth. "

Since the gulf war ended, the payoffs for Assad have come quickly. The gulf states have provided $2 billion for his ailing economy. The political rewards were still greater. For 15 years he had tried to bring all of fractious Lebanon under his control, only to be thwarted by Israel, Iraq and, to some extent, his ally Iran. During the gulf crisis, with those countries otherwise engaged, he successfully consolidated his power over Beirut and the countryside. For the first time in a decade and a half, there is peace in Lebanon, and it is a Pax Syriana. Meanwhile, Jordan and the PLO made the colossal error of tilting toward Saddam. In the aftermath of Iraq's defeat, they were the ones left isolated and vulnerable, in no position to defy Syria's desires.

Dominating the "peace process" could be the next step to Syrian preeminence in the region. Assad wins even if it leads nowhere. By accepting the U.S. initiative, he has put the PLO in an especially difficult position. In previous models for an international conference, the PLO would have had leverage, whether on its own or as part of a joint delegation with Jordan. But the two-track approach that the Arabs have now accepted deals with the Palestinian question apart from the territorial concerns of Syria and Lebanon. Without Syria's active support-which means bowing to Syrian control over conference strategy-the Palestinians risk being left behind.

Then there is Israel. By agreeing to talks, Assad improved his position in Lebanon; if Israel challenges him there militarily, it will risk being accused of scuttling the peace process. If Israel eventually says "no" to negotiations, Syria wins in world opinion. If Israel says "yes," it will start a process that could lead to the return of the Golan. Without giving anything away, Assad has neatly turned the new political reality to his advantage.