GENEVA, NOV. 23 -- President Hafez Assad, by meeting here today with President Bush, has maneuvered Syria back into the center of Middle East and international politics after a decade of isolation and hostile relations with the West.

For Assad, that was the ultimate meaning of this meeting, whatever the tone and content of the words passed in private by the two presidents. The photographs and television film of Bush chatting with Assad that were flashed back to the Middle East were easily worth the dispatch of a small Syrian military contingent to the U.S.-led coalition confronting Iraq.

For Bush, the incentive was the reverse. Speaking in Cairo before leaving for Geneva, the president cited Syria's status as a "front-line" ally against Iraq as justification for his meeting with Assad, whose forces were a target of military attack by Ronald Reagan and whose nation is still described by the State Department as a supporter of international terrorism.

But unless one of the toughest and shrewdest leopards of the Middle East has changed his spots, Assad will have come across to Bush as cautious, calculating and difficult to read clearly. Assad has survived for 20 years as the leader of a country once notorious for its brutal instability by playing his many enemies against each other, weakening them when he could but avoiding final showdowns that he might lose.

This is partly how Assad differs from Iraq's Saddam Hussein, his neighbor, bitter enemy and arch-rival in Arab politics. Assad, who has engaged Saddam in a long, mutual campaign of attempted destabilization, is a natural recruit for Bush's coalition effort to force the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, even if it means aligning Syria with Western nations that are habitually denounced in Damascus as imperialist supporters of Zionism.

But if achieving delicate, often ambiguous balances of forces is Assad's style, it also reflects the dilemma he faces in joining the anti-Iraq coalition. He probably would like to see the coalition destroy Saddam, but not Iraq's army. And Assad has to fear that military action could lead to the collapse of Iraq and chaos on Syria's eastern border.

"Iraq represents Syria's in-depth defense in the confrontation with Israel," a Syrian official said before today's talks began. "We cannot afford to have Iraq weakened too much. That is why we want economic sanctions to be tightened as much as possible, to save the Iraqi people from the destruction of a military attack. That is why we are using our influence with Iran to make sure they observe the sanctions."

The comment was intended to point up Syria's value as a broker with Iran and in Middle East politics in general. Assad may see the Iraq crisis as a chance to return to the central role in Middle East war-making and diplomacy that Syria played in the 1970s, when Assad was wooed by secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger and president Nixon.

Assad met with President Carter here in Geneva in 1977 in what turned out to be the high point of the Syrian-U.S. relationship. The Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that Carter brokered in 1979 and the Reagan administration's efforts to arrange a Lebanese-Israeli accord in 1983 drove Syria into hostile opposition to American efforts in the Middle East.

American warplanes attacked Syrian positions in Lebanon a year later. In 1986, the State Department put Syria on the terrorism list because of the role of Syrian officials in a failed attempt to blow up an El Al flight from London.

Bush was expected by the Syrians to bring up Syria's support for terrorism in the conversation with Assad. When Secretary of State James A. Baker III raised the subject in a meeting in Damascus Sept. 14, Assad replied that the United States would have to present him with convincing proof before he could act, according to a diplomatic source.

Such cool evasion is characteristic for Assad. His reputation among the Christians of Lebanon he has alternately befriended and fought for 15 years is that of a man who never completely embraces his friends and never completely dismisses his enemies.

He sent his army into Lebanon in 1976 -- with a green light from the United States -- to keep Palestinians guerrillas from overwhelming the Maronite Christian government there. His strategy then and throughout the Lebanese civil war was to keep Christian and other friendly forces either from being crushed by their foes or becoming powerful enough to do without him.

"Assad does not want to eliminate the Maronites, as is often thought," a Lebanese political leader who knows him well said recently. "Their survival is too politically useful to him, in making sure that no one group can dominate in Lebanon."

He shows the same sense of carefully gauging limits in confronting Israel with bitter rhetoric but avoiding crossing a set of "red lines" the Israelis say they have set down to demarcate their vital interests. Syrian troop movements into southern Lebanon, for example, would trigger military confrontation with Israel.

"Syria under Assad has become a tactical threat that we can contain," a senior Israeli official said recently during a visit abroad. "He knows there are some fundamental rules of the game that have to be obeyed. That is what makes him different from Saddam. Iraq is an unpredictable, strategic threat that must be dealt with now."

At home, Assad has dealt brutally to suppress any opposition before it could become a threat. He will expect the United States to overlook this if Washington wants his help against Iraq and in trying to win freedom for Western hostages held in Lebanon.