Syria aims at Mid-East leadership role: Robert Fisk reports from Damascus on President Assad's hopes for his coming meeting with President Clinton

PRESIDENT Hafez al-Assad of Syria leaves for Geneva on Sunday in the hope that President Bill Clinton will recognise him as a regional political leader and the key to Arab-Israeli peace. A series of agreements is expected to follow the summit, which will include American assurances that the Golan Heights belong to Syria and not to Israel; a Syrian definition of what 'total peace' with Israel would involve; and a promise from President Assad that Syria will rejoin the bilateral Middle East peace talks.

Behind these important statements, however, lies a series of far more critical issues. President Assad will present himself at Geneva as a future guardian of regional security, able to involve Syria's ally Iran as well as Turkey and Jordan in a 'new order' that will guarantee lasting peace in return for Israeli military withdrawals and an opportunity for the regional influence of all Middle East nations, including Iran. The Iranians are understood to have accepted that the Hizbollah militia - Israel's most ruthless enemy - would in these circumstances be turned into an exclusively Lebanese political movement, since Israel would also withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon.

But the Syrians also want the Assad-Clinton meeting to be followed by a clear-cut Israeli declaration that the Golan is Syrian sovereign territory: in effect an Israeli revocation of its annexation. Mr Assad has already told Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, what he will tell Mr Clinton on Sunday: there can be no peace without a total Israeli withdrawal and the departure of all settlers from Golan.

But can Mr Clinton deliver Yitzhak Rabin - who will himself have to be satisfied with Mr Assad's definition of 'total peace'? The Israelis want promises of trade and diplomatic relations, about which Mr Assad is unlikely to want to be specific - the Syrians have refused to contemplate diplomatic relations with Israel until the latter has completed its withdrawal. President Assad will tell Mr Clinton that Israel should pull its troops out of Golan within 12 months. The Americans are expected to side with Israel's time-scale of at least five years.

One fruit of the summit is expected to be the creation of three Syrian-Israeli committees, the first to discuss 'regional security', the other two military withdrawal arrangements and political 'normalisation'. Mr Assad and Mr Clinton, however, will have to work hard to find a compromise that will resolve their apparently contradictory views on the already faltering Arafat-Rabin accord, hailed with such uncritical euphoria by Mr Clinton on the White House lawn last September.

Mr Clinton wants some positive sign of Syrian support for this Gaza- Jericho agreement, and the suppression of - or at least the withdrawal of Syrian support from - Palestinian opponents of the accord. Syria's signature four days ago on the Damascus Declaration - which states that Gaza-Jericho is a 'first step' on the path to peace - is apparently not sufficient.

It might just be possible for President Assad to state personally in Geneva that Gaza-Jericho is a 'step' towards peace, but what he is really looking for is American acknowledgement that the Arafat accord is failing. President Assad may well remind President Clinton of what the Syrians are hearing privately from some US diplomats in the region: that the White House itself now has serious reservations about the whole Arafat-Rabin peace and is searching, with ever-increasing concern, for an alternative. There is no doubt that Mr Assad would feel himself uniquely placed to give advice at such a time. Indeed, an important equation is already making its appearance in the Baathist drawing-rooms of Damascus: that the weaker Yasser Arafat becomes, the stronger Mr Assad grows.

Thus will the Americans be expected to show their interest in Syria's 'regional' role - as opposed, of course, to the failing timetable of the separate Israeli-Palestinian deal - as well as offer its support for Israeli withdrawal from Golan. Mr Clinton will raise the issue of human rights in Syria. There will, however, be no serious US complaints about Syria's military presence in Lebanon - which even Israel, according to US sources, now regards as essential to its long-term security. President Assad will insist that Israeli military withdrawal from Lebanon goes hand-in-hand with a withdrawal from Golan.

It sounds as dramatic as the Syrians hope Sunday's summit will be historic. But President Assad is not going to rush into peace.

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