President Hafez Assad of Syria now gets to show whether he deserves his reputation for shrewdness. Before lies the diplomatic opening of a lifetime. Seizing it could give him the immense double payoff of contributing to a victory over his arch foe, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and a pivotal role in an Arab-Israeli peace settlement that would, among other things, restore the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. But does he have the strategic vision, diplomatic touch and commitment to his nation's real welfare that would let him carry off the prize?

Before the Gulf crisis, President Assad was in deep trouble. A new Soviet leadership, retreating from the old imperial ramparts, had cut the ground out from under his effort to gain "strategic balance" with Israel in order to command the one-sided Palestinian-Israeli solution of his choice. His Iraqi rival had gotten much the better of Iran in an eight-year Gulf war in which he had invested heavily on the losing side. He faced the humiliation of being unable to work his will even in tiny neighboring Lebanon. The West tended to dismiss him as just one more Third World tyrant, terrorist and torturer -- and overreacher.

With the Gulf crisis, Mr. Assad moved quickly to help contain the Iraqi invasion -- easy enough for anyone who hates Saddam Hussein. In so doing, he was able to join in a broader Arab fraternity that he had earlier reviled. And in the most far-reaching crisis reorientation of the whole region, he aligned himself tactically with not just one but two of the great powers. This is the shift that Secretary of State James Baker went to Damascus to cultivate on Friday.

The Syrians have their part to play and their interest in playing it in the Gulf. But there is no chance that Moscow is going to return to subsidizing Syrian fantansies of regional hegemony and no chance that Washington is going to hand Damascus its preferred Palestinian-Israeli solution on a platter. If Syria is serious about reaping real gains from this crisis, President Assad is going to have to be more humane and open in his methods and more modest and realistic in his goals. If this is too large a result to expect from a single meeting with an American official, it is not too large a prospect to keep before Hafez Assad's eyes.