In deciding to visit Syria despite U.S. objections to President Hafez Assad's record on human rights and terrorism, Secretary of State James A. Baker III is adopting the old Middle East belief that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
U.S. officials acknowledged yesterday that Baker's planned trip to Damascus Thursday has as its goal firming up and, if possible, increasing Syria's support for the coalition of Arab states forged by the United States to oppose Iraq's occupation of neighboring Kuwait.
The officials said that the Bush administration's immediate, overriding priority in the Middle East is to prevent Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from asserting control over the Persian Gulf's oil supplies.
To achieve that goal, the officials added, Baker realizes that in embracing Assad, the United States is making common cause with a longtime bitter enemy of the United States whose reputation as a ruthless dictator matches that of his longtime opponent and rival for leadership of the Arab world's radical Baath movement, Saddam. But Baker has also concluded that Assad is a player whose importance cannot be ignored in any attempt to manipulate the region's power alignments.
The U.S. attempt to outflank Iraq's military strength by including Syria in a new Arab alliance dominated by Egypt and Saudi Arabia represents an almost total turnabout from the policy pursued by Washington during most of the 1980s.
From 1982 through 1984, the United States waged a fierce but ultimately unsuccessful struggle to prevent Assad from exploiting the bitter civil war in Lebanon to assert Syrian hegemony over that country. Syria instigated the terrorist bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine encampment in Beirut that forced the United States to pull its forces out of Lebanon, and when Baker's predecessor, George P. Shultz, brokered a 1983 peace accord between Lebanon and Israel, Assad's intimidation of Lebanese leaders scuttled the agreement.
Ironically, part of Shultz's strategy for countering Assad's influence among Arab leaders was to draw a contrast between Syria and Iraq, which the United States regarded at the time as a state abandoning support of terrorism and embracing moderation even while engaged in a bitter eight-year war with Iran.
In fact, one of Shultz's first acts after working out the Israeli-Lebanese agreement was to meet in Paris with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz -- who is now shuttling between European and Middle Eastern capitals to denounce U.S. "aggression" against Iraq -- and induce him to publicly praise the Lebanon accord as an important step toward regional peace.
Relations with Assad deteriorated further after Syria was implicated in a 1986 plot to bomb an Israeli jetliner at London's Heathrow Airport, and the United States withdrew its ambassador to Damascus for almost a year. During the same period, the United States continued to expand political and commercial ties with Iraq despite widespread charges of Iraqi use of poison gas against its Kurdish minority.
However, U.S. officials recalled yesterday, the situation began to change two years ago after a cease-fire between Iraq and Iran allowed Saddam to resume his campaign for leadership of the Arab world. That, coupled with the ending of the Cold War and the Soviet Union's subsequent reduction of military and political aid for Syria, left Assad feeling uncomfortably exposed.
Accordingly, he began to play down his past role as a patron of terrorist groups and the spoiler of U.S. efforts to promote an Arab-Israeli peace process. He quietly began a dialogue aimed at better ties with Washington and moved to mend his long-strained relations with such U.S.-allied Arab states as Egypt. The dialogue led to a joint U.S.-Syrian effort to find the basis for a new political order in Lebanon and to two 1988 trips by Shultz to Damascus for talks with Assad about peace with Israel.
None of these efforts produced results. But they raised the cordiality level to the point where Middle East experts were not surprised by the alacrity with which Syria was willing to join the U.S.-instigated alliance against its enemies in Baghdad.
Even Israeli officials and their supporters in the American Jewish community said yesterday that they did not regard Baker's impending visit to Damascus as reason to fear the Bush administration might try to secure Syrian support by promising to back its claims to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Concern among American Jewish groups that the administration's emphasis on courting Arab opposition to Iraq might weaken the U.S.-Israeli bond was alleviated greatly by the warm reception Baker and President Bush gave last week to Israel's new foreign minister, David Levy. As the representative of one Jewish organization said, "Everyone realizes that cultivating Syria is part of the necessary strategy for containing Iraq. But they also know that Jim Baker is under no illusions about the nature of the Assad regime."