Assad gains the upper hand in the peace stakes: As the PLO deal turns sour, Syria's wily president is playing for bigger prizes. Robert Fisk reports from Beirut

PEACE has a funny way of turning into war in southern Lebanon. In the week before President Hafez al-Assad flies to meet President Bill Clinton in Geneva, the villagers living between Mount Hermel and Tyre are preparing to flee their homes. Extra groceries have been stored in basements, UN troops have been reminded to wear flak jackets at all times, and hospitals have warned doctors to be on emergency call until 16 January, the day of the Assad-Clinton summit.

The Israeli army's northern commander, General Yitzhak Mordechai, has spoken ominously of 'a new wave of (guerrilla) attacks' this week. Already, Hizbollah attacks on artillery positions held by Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army militia have increased.

Israeli aircraft attacked a position belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, south of Beirut on Thursday. The SLA is now so nervous that its gunmen opened fire in broad daylight on two UN Finnish armoured vehicles on Friday.

The theory is simple: the greater the pressure on Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon, the stronger is Mr Assad's hand when he sits down with Mr Clinton in a week's time. Syria, along with Iran, supports Hizbollah. To escape guerrilla attack in southern Lebanon, Israel must listen to what the Syrians have to say. And if Mr Clinton wants to help his Israeli allies to avoid further Hizbollah assaults, he must take Syria off the State Department's 'terrorist list'.

This, at least, was the version of the summit going the rounds in southern Lebanon and northern Israel last week. The truth, however, is that the Geneva meeting is likely to be both more prosaic and more important than this.

Guerrilla attacks there may well be against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon this week - and quite possibly Israeli retaliation as well. But Mr Assad is going to Geneva with some familiar demands, fully aware that - with Yasser Arafat's PLO floundering amid its own peace accord with Israel - it is he, the President of Syria, who is emerging as the key Arab figure in the Middle East peace process, the man who not only controls Syria and, by extension, Lebanon, but also much of the Palestinian diaspora.

He is travelling to Geneva to remind Mr Clinton that the basis of the original Madrid peace conference was a global Middle East settlement with no separate peace treaties between the Israeli and Arab states. He is going to demand what he has always asked for: total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon, according to UN Security Council resolutions 242, 338 and 425.

Mr Clinton will seek full normalisation of relations between Israel and Syria, and the extinction of 'subversive' organisations (for which read Hizbollah and any other armed groups opposed to Israel).

Mr Assad may well agree to the resumption of Syrian and Lebanese participation in the multilateral peace talks. Both men can then claim that their summit is another step forward in the 'peace process'.

In reality, however, the Syrians are well aware that the Americans have made no great effort to ensure a global settlement, allowing Israel instead to strike its own bargains with individual Arab leaders. And Mr Assad knows - and the United States is now beginning to realise - that the PLO-Israel accord may end in tragedy rather than trust.

Ever since Mr Arafat arrived in Damascus last autumn to tell Mr Assad that he had struck a secret deal with Israel behind the backs of the other Arabs, it has been Syria's policy to watch the euphoria and hope slowly drain away, just as it did after Israel's equally separate unofficial 'peace treaty' with Lebanon just over 10 years ago.

On that occasion, Lebanese and Israeli officials agreed to mutual recognition and an end to all hostilities, in return for an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon - even though Israeli troops would remain in certain locations in the south. There would be mutual economic agreements between the two nations, leading to a full peace. The Americans spoke at the time of there being 'no turning back', of 'a new era of peace' in the Middle East, while the Israelis announced the 'beginning of the end' of decades of distrust.

The parallels with last year's PLO accord are not exact, but they are grimly familiar; and if the rest of the world has obligingly forgotten the doomed agreement negotiated between Lebanon and Israel on 17 May 1983, Mr Assad has not. At the time, he waited patiently to see whether there was any popular Arab support for this agreement, then allowed it to disintegrate, assisting the guerrilla forces that helped to destroy the unratified treaty.

If he repeats the policy he adopted over the 1983 agreement, Mr Assad is going to take his time over the Middle East peace. He has already watched Mr Arafat's status crumble away, along with that of the PLO's old guard. He has seen Mr Arafat's 'holy day' of the initial Israeli withdrawal pass without a single Israeli soldier leaving the occupied territories. He has looked on as Mr Arafat - for whom he feels distrust and distaste - has been vilified not only by the Israelis and Americans but by former loyal PLO associates as well.

He has also observed the results of an agreement without international guarantees: how Mr Arafat pleaded in vain - first with the Norwegians who helped to engineer the accord, then with the Americans - for pressure to be exerted on the Israelis. One of those whose help Mr Arafat sought, the overworked Norwegian Foreign Minister, Johan Jorgen Holst, who brokered the secret deal, has been struck down by a suspected stroke and now lies in hospital. These are fearful portents for Mr Assad.

For the present, therefore, the man whom the Israelis themselves have dubbed the 'Lion of Damascus' is likely to sit tight. He will maintain good relations with the Americans; already, a US congressional team has been allowed to visit Damascus to seek information on missing Israeli servicemen. And he will enjoy the limelight in Geneva.

There will be smiles for the CNN cameras. But euphoria would be out of place at this particular venue. And if you live in southern Lebanon, it may be a good idea to make sure your basement can withstand artillery shells.

(Photograph omitted)

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