PRESIDENT HAFEZ ASSAD of Syria, in a revealing interview with this newspaper, denies involvement in terrorism and declares that the "verbal bombs" -- threats of retaliation -- of President Reagan, and the real bombs that the United States dropped in Libya, have frozen U.S.-Arab cooperation, including Syrian efforts to free American hostages in Lebanon. It is a version of events plainly intended to shift the onus for negative developments in the Middle East from Arabs, and specifically from Syria, to the United States. It is vintage Hafez Assad.
It rankles the Syrian leader to have the issue of Syrian terrorism arise. He would rather have Americans recall his help in freeing some past victims of Arab terrorism, remember the help he yet could provide in freeing the Americans still captive in Lebanon and stop nagging him to close the terrorist camp that Abu Nidal runs in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa valley.
But the British have offered highly specific information on a Syrian role in the attempted bombing of an El Al plane -- one with many American passengers -- in London last month. Nor was this an isolated incident. Mr. Assad now "condemns the hijacking or exploding of civilian aircraft." Perhaps it has been borne in on him that others may adopt for themselves what he calls the "rule" of Syrian policy: "Nobody can strike Syria and evade punishment."
These are not, after all, President Assad's best days. True, he has what satisfaction and political credit flow from having repeatedly embarrassed the United States in the Middle East. But he rules only by a degree of repression unusual even for Syria. His 10-year attempt to remake Lebanon has been frustrated. Falling oil prices have sharply cut the subsidies on which his economy depends. His support for Persian Iran in its increasingly successful war with Arab Iraq makes him an accomplice in what most other Arabs regard as an act of perfidy. His Gulf tilt plus the Egyptian-Israeli peace seem to ensure that in any showdown with Israel, Syria would be alone.
President Assad remains, nonetheless, a formidable figure. He has an army and a patron, the Soviet Union, to be contended with, and a readiness to play a spoiler's role when he feels Syrian goals are being ignored. That he receives American journalists and asserts both defiance and discretion suggest the terms on which he hopes that U.S.-Syrian relations will now move on.