The announcement that Secretary of State James Baker is to visit Syria tomorrow for talks with President Hafez Assad on the Gulf crisis set my teeth on edge. Why should it? you might ask. After all, Syria is an essential part of the razor-wire fence the United States is trying to erect around President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

The problem is that when it comes to respecting their own people's democratic rights, civil liberties and the rule of law -- all those principles that U.S. troops should be out there risking their lives for rather than the price of oil or the sanctity of the emir of Kuwait's throne -- there is little difference between Assad and Saddam. And for Baker to pay court to Damascus at this particular time, without demanding progress along those lines, is to undermine the foundations of U.S. foreign policy.

But hold on a minute, you interject: during an emergency such as this surely the United States cannot afford to be choosy about its friends. Besides, haven't the Syrians resisted all Iraq's entreaties to let bygones be bygones in their own fratricidal dispute, refused to reopen a disused Iraqi oil pipeline to the Mediterranean and dispatched a small contingent of troops to the front (the rest are busy either occupying Lebanon or protecting Assad's back)?

One need not look back very far to counter this argument. Only days before the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, John Kelly, the administration's ranking Middle East official, was busy on Capitol Hill, managing another round in the Bush administration's strenuous efforts to block congressional trade sanctions against Iraq. Try as it might, Congress could not get any administration official to admit what was palpably the case: that Iraq was a textbook example of a country displaying "a consistent pattern of gross abuses of human rights," as defined by the Foreign Assistance Act. But the administration was convinced it knew better, confident that the way to handle Saddam Hussein was with the velvet glove, not with the mailed fist of sanctions.

The events of Aug. 2 changed all that. But the warm embrace now being given to Hafez Assad -- all set to be discreetly built up by the United States as a regional counterweight to his nemesis in Baghdad -- proves that the lessons of the Iraq policy debacle have still to be learned. Remember that for much of the 1980-88 Gulf war the United States saw Iraq as the bulwark to Iranian fanaticism. Indeed, a case could be made that Washington's support encouraged Saddam to believe he could get away with seizing Kuwait.

The United States has had a covert relationship with Syrian strongmen going back nearly 40 years. At rare intervals during this period have democratic considerations been a factor in U.S. thinking. True, for part of the Reagan era, Damascus was temporarily frozen out of polite Western society, but this was more on Cold War grounds than out of moral outrage over the tens of thousands of Syrians killed, tortured and imprisoned without trial by the Assad regime.

By throwing in his lot with the Washington/Cairo/Riyadh axis, Assad must have savored the benefits that would accrue to Syria's international rehabilitation, already advancing apace. These calculations appear, however, to have run afoul of an unexpected wave of popular sympathy among Syrians for Iraq's toppling of the super-rich Kuwaiti sheiks. Inconvenient, indeed odious, though these pro-Saddam sentiments may be for the Syrian dictator, they reflect the reality of the mood in much of the Arab world. King Hussein is facing the same problem in Jordan -- and has had to trim his sails accordingly.

The difference between Jordan and Syria is that whereas King Hussein is learning to accommodate himself to some extent to his people's opinions, in Syria dissent is not permitted -- in any form. Despite the risks, pro-Iraq demonstrations are reported to have been staged over the past few weeks in several parts of the country; as a result dozens of protesters are reported to have been killed by security forces.

Whatever the precise casualty toll, the demonstrations marked the worst violence since 1982, when Assad decided to make an example of the beautiful old city of Hama, a onetime stronghold of opposition. Estimates of how many died in Hama -- when tanks were ordered to fire directly at public buildings and men, women and children were pulled from their homes to be shot on the street in mass executions -- range from 5,000 to 10,000. Not surprisingly, as in 1982, the Syrian government is flatly denying that any protests have taken place lately, much less been suppressed in this fashion.

Getting hard information on what is going on in Syria is, admittedly, a problem. Openly tackling Assad, just about to commence his third decade in one-man power, on such matters is an even harder assignment. But that is no excuse for Baker to pass up a golden opportunity to assert U.S. principles and values when he is in Damascus.

Rather than more laser-guided missiles and "smart bombs," what the United States needs, as its expeditionary force charts its way across the Arabian desert toward Kuwait City, is a moral compass.

The writer is executive director of Middle East Watch, a New York-based human rights organization.