DAMASCUS, SYRIA -- The Syrian goal in what looks like an inescapable war is a short, intensive conflict lasting no more than a week and causing few casualties, with a prominent exception: Saddam Hussein must go.
Contrary to some Western opinions, neither Syrian President Hafez Assad nor any high official in his government wants Iraq's army or its formidable industrial plant destroyed.
"We must not enlarge the prospect of Saddam emerging as a martyr or as a live hero," one source told us. That raises an agonizing question: How should the war be pursued so as to minimize Saddam's possible martyrdom?
Exactly that happened to Gamal Abdel Nasser after Egypt's humiliating defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. He survived and became an instant hero to Arab masses from Morocco to Iraq.
Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa have discussed this explosive point with U.S. diplomats, including Secretary of State James A. Baker III, as recently as last Saturday in Damascus. They believe the best way to reduce Saddam's postwar influence in the Arab world is to get rid of him quickly with the least possible damage to his country.
Baker agrees. But Baker is not President Bush, and Bush's judgment is not as admired as Baker's. The president is viewed here as a victim of his personalized hatred of the Iraqi dictator, while Baker is seen as a serious diplomat -- "wise and open-minded," one official told us. Baker is credited with being aware that the course of war and how it is fought will determine whether it leaves the United States hated throughout the Arab world.
That must be avoided, Syrian diplomats told us. The risk rises in proportion to the war's duration and the degree of Iraq's destruction.
"If we break Iraq, and we can, the West has no future in the Arab world for years to come," a European ambassador told us. "That maximizes Saddam's political power, whether he is alive or dead."
Far from thirsting for Iraqi blood, Syria has unexpectedly become a counselor of restraint and moderation within the U.S.-led coalition. Assad has passed word to the United States and Europe that he has no territorial designs on Iraq.
Israel is one reason for this unlikely demonstration of brotherhood for the neighboring country Syria opposed in the Iran-Iraq war. Assad wants Iraq's weight and military power on his side for the long-awaited day of territorial reckoning with the Jewish state.
That helps explain Syria's threat to leave the coalition if Israel attacks "Jordan or any other Arab country," in Charaa's words, even if the attack is retaliation for Iraqi missiles. Israel cannot be allowed into the coming Gulf conflict under any circumstances, period.
U.S. Ambassador Edward Djerejian's careful tending of Washington's closer relationship with Damascus has made Assad's voice one to be listened to by Baker. But Assad, who diplomats claim is now cleaning up Syria's record of terrorism, is no patsy for the United States. He said nothing derogatory of Saddam Hussein when Baker failed to elbow Iraq out of Kuwait during the six-hour Geneva talks last Wednesday. But in Cairo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as if on cue from Washington, ridiculed the Iraqi president in an interview.
When fighting starts as expected in the very near future, Syrian troops are not likely to see much action. They are under Saudi command, and all 15,000 of them are stationed in the western desert, nowhere near the Saudi-Kuwait border.
Assad rules out any offensive action by his small force. Why, then, are they there, and why did Assad join the coalition in the first place?
The answer is Syria's seat at the coalition table. That gives Assad a voice and a small vote, first in making war policy and then in establishing a postwar peace policy in Bush's headlong plunge into America's first war in the Middle East.