DAMASCUS -- So far, the only clear winner in the Persian Gulf standoff is the man who has ruled Syria with an iron fist for two decades -- Hafez Assad.
The crisis has fit conveniently into his plan to win back the Golan Heights from Israel. Some observers in Syria and Washington are going so far as to predict in classified reports that Assad will have what he wants in less than two years. That breathless prognostication would be absurd if not for the radical changes in the world over the past year -- primarily the Gulf crisis, the end of the Cold War and secret talks Israel has already begun with Syria over exchanging property for peace.
Assad has seen his near and dear patron, the Soviet Union, backing away from him, and he needs to make new friends. And the world alliance against Iraq's Saddam Hussein has provided him the entree.
His behind-the-scenes promises to the United States that he will renounce anti-American terrorism have led some intelligence analysts to conclude that Assad's short-term goal is a peace treaty with Israel along the Egyptian model -- a promise of peace in exchange for land.
Assad has never been a raving Arab ideologue. He is first and foremost an opportunist. Saddam, his archenemy, has provided the opportunity to join in a world alliance against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Assad is tired of isolation, and he is broke. So standing up to Saddam was a natural for Assad, and his reward for doing what comes naturally has been substantial.
Last month in Geneva, Assad was rewarded with a face-to-face meeting with President Bush, who knows that Assad sponsored the terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in 1983 and harbored the terrorists who blew up Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.
Bush was the first president to meet with Assad since Jimmy Carter in 1977. The intervening president, Ronald Reagan, shunned Assad for his refusal to renounce terrorism, and he still has not done it.
In addition to a meeting with Bush, Assad has won open and secret promises of the riches of the Gulf. Our intelligence sources say Saudi Arabia has secretly promised Assad at least $2 billion for sending Syrian troops to the Saudi front and for complying with the economic sanctions against Iraq. Exiled Kuwaiti leaders have promised him another $1 billion if things go their way.
Several Western nations are also whispering offers of aid, and Assad even has hope for some U.S. aid if he can get his name taken off the list of terrorist sponsors as Saddam once did.
Finally, the United States and Israel murmured not a word when Syria asserted ultimate control over northern and eastern Lebanon in October, destroying the last visible opposition from Christian Gen. Michel Aoun. The current Lebanese government now cannot make a move without asking Assad.
He has sought control of Lebanon for 15 years. Now that his enemy, Iraq, is about to get its comeuppance, it makes sense that Assad will concentrate all his efforts on achieving his goal for the past 23 years, the return of the Golan Heights, taken by Israel in 1967.
The pressure on Israel to give up occupied lands will be intense once the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait is resolved. The same worldwide coalition that demanded the withdrawal of Iraq will turn its attention to Israel. The United States, to prove its commitment to a "new world order," will be pressured to go along.
Assad -- with nothing invested in any new world order -- will always do what is best for him. Some State Department analysts in classified reports are predicting that Assad would make a private settlement with Israel over the Golan Heights if he thought the issue of the occupied Palestinian lands would bog down his own border talks.
One U.S. intelligence report warns that Iran and Syria have agreed to join forces to challenge future U.S. control of the Persian Gulf. It quotes "reliable sources" as saying that a September meeting between Assad and Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani ended with the two agreeing to oppose any post-crisis U.S. presence in the Gulf with belligerence and terrorism if necessary.
Assad is still a spoiler. No meeting with President Bush will change that. In an unchecked alliance with Iran after Saddam is out of the way, Syria could dominate the Persian Gulf with its own brand of aggression. If that happens and the United States is summoned to settle yet another Persian Gulf crisis, Bush will not have to look far for someone to blame.