"Even a broken clock is right twice a day," said a western diplomat here, assessing somewhat ruefully Syrian President Hafez Assad's relentless consistency confronting Israel and the United States in the Middle East. "He basically maintains his position, and events have rotated around him."
Assad predicted that the United States would lose heart in Lebanon and that Israel would be worn down and forced out. As Syrians see it, events -- often prodded by his government's actions -- have proved him right.
Now the Syrians are predicting failure for the regional peace initiatives of Egypt, Jordan and Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.
Syrian officials cite the apparent lack of success the country's three Arab adversaries are having in getting Washington to support the initiatives as they have shaped them. These officials argue that Egypt, Jordan, the PLO and the Reagan administration will all be discredited in the Arab world as a result.
"I am glad I am not a friend of the United States," one senior official here said with a smile.
While other Arab states now look to Washington to influence Israel on their behalf, Syria is betting that this will not happen. It maintains that Israel never will withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967 unless the possibility exists that it could be forced to.
"Walk softly and carry a big stick," is the phrase Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas borrowed to describe the policy.
In pursuit of its goal, Syria is backed by Soviet arms, subsidized by Iranian oil and supplied with cash from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the name of Arab solidarity. But the only Arab governments strongly endorsing its militant posture in recent years have been South Yemen and Libya.
Israel's other Arab neighbors either have made peace with Israel, as Egypt did at Camp David, or, in Jordan's case, have indicated willingness to talk about doing so under certain conditions.
The rift between Assad and these countries often has been bitter, and his adversaries talk darkly of his ruthlessness. When a rocket is fired at a Jordanian airliner or a potentially influential Palestinian opponent of Syria's views is murdered, the Syrians tend to be blamed.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz, in a major speech on the Middle East last week, denounced the Soviet Union's "radical allies who continue to block peace and to threaten those who seek it" and warned that "there is no military option, there is no terrorist option" that can lead to peace with Israel.
But the Syrians, while they understand Shultz's remarks to be aimed at them, say they are quite unintimidated.
"Peace cannot be imposed here," Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa said in an interview. "When Shultz speaks about peace he only believes in the Israeli concept of peace, which means our surrender."
Sharaa asserted that Washington is backing a peace process that is piecemeal, supporting those who will come to Israel's terms, ignoring or attacking those who will not. He cited the peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon that was brokered by Shultz in May 1983 but that collapsed when Syria was able to pressure Lebanon into not putting the treaty into effect.
"The mistake Shultz made in Lebanon," Sharaa said, "he now wants to make in Jordan."
Sharaa said this was essentially the message given to Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy when he visited here for two days last week, including a five-hour talk with Assad. "The absence of consensus in the Arab and Palestinian arena make it very difficult to build peace. And if you build peace on the Amman agreement," he said, referring to the Feb. 11 accord between King Hussein and Arafat that began the new round of initiatives, "it is bound to fail and collapse."
Under that accord, the PLO agreed to pursue peace negotiations under the umbrella of an international conference, leading eventually to Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza territories now occupied by Israel. Israel and the United States already have rejected talks for that purpose.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt endorsed the Jordanian-PLO agreement and followed it up with his own proposals for a preliminary meeting between the United States and a joint Jordanian-PLO delegation -- which in effect would extend U.S. recognition in some form to the PLO -- as a prelude to Arab- Israeli negotiations.
If Syria opposes the current peace initiatives, Sharaa said, it is not because it wants war: "There is an alternative. That alternative is the Fez plan, and the mechanism is an international conference."
The Arab League declaration issued at Fez, Morocco, in September 1981 called for the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, a measure that the United States and Israel flatly reject. But the declaration also offers peace for all states of the region, implicitly including Israel, in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from the territories it captured and occupied in the 1967 war, including the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981 despite international protest.
This approach has broad backing from all the Arab nations, Sharaa said, including Syria.
The idea of an international conference is rejected by Washington and Israel on the grounds that it would be a fruitless propaganda exercise and that it would give the Soviets, as participants, a weight in the region that they do not deserve.
Sharaa argued that without such a forum, "the stronger will dictate to the weaker, and this is what Shultz wants."
When Washington sends special envoys to the region, "they come to extract concessions from the Arab side without pressing Israel on anything substantive," Sharaa said.