US approves Syria's game plan for peace: President Assad has achieved important concessions at his meeting with President Clinton in Geneva, writes Charles Richards

PRESIDENT Hafez al-Assad never mentioned the Golan. Nor did President Bill Clinton. In the 11 pages of the official White House transcript of their press conference in Geneva on Sunday, the Golan was mentioned only once, in a question to the Syrian leader about whether in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, Syria would be prepared to establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel, including open borders and tourism.

Mr Assad's response was as global as it was non-specific. 'We are endeavouring for a comprehensive peace in order for it to be lasting, in order for it to be just.'

Syria is not just after recovering a patch of land here, a patch of land there. Its strategic goal has never been merely to recover the Golan, occupied by Israel since 1967. Its game plan has always been about the future geo-political structures in the region, about whose will will prevail, and whose influence will hold sway. Its aim has been to contain Israel behind its pre-1967 boundaries, which would be recognised as its international borders.

For Syria, this is merely a question of righting a wrong, of ensuring justice is done. Mr Assad repeated what he has always held dear: namely, that all Arab land be recovered in a comprehensive settlement. He invoked the coded language of successive UN Security Council resolutions: 242, 338 and 425. This diplomatic arithmetic is transcribed into Israeli withdrawal from first, the Golan; then south Lebanon, the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and east Jerusalem. Total peace for total withdrawal.

Israel's policy is to some extent a mirror image. It too is keen to ensure a real peace. It does not wish for merely a cessation of hostilities. In a sense, Israel achieved that in a limited way in the 1974 disengagement-of-forces agreement with Syria after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Hence its insistence on those elements of normal relations that pertain between friendly states: open borders, diplomatic missions, tourism, free trade, cultural exchanges.

The trouble is, neither Israel nor Syria enjoys 'normal' relations with any of its neighbours. Syria has a neo-colonialist relationship with Lebanon, open hostility with Iraq, a tetchy relationship with Turkey, and an overbearing attitude towards Jordan.

In Geneva, Mr Assad had three main achievements. First, he secured better relations with the United States. The announcement that their foreign ministers would meet regularly to discuss problems between the two countries was an important concession to the Syrians. In essence, this related to Syria's record as a sponsor of some of the more murderous and disruptive groups in the region, which have earned Syria its place on the State Department's Terrorism List.

Second, Mr Assad obtained a publicly stated assurance from Mr Clinton that Syria was key to a settlement in the region. This was music to Syrian ears, at a time when Mr Assad was frightened of being marginalised. And third, Mr Clinton made a public commitment to a comprehensive peace, lending his own authority to Syria's view of a wider regional settlement, not just a PLO-Israel accord.

This last Mr Assad extracted at a time of growing Syrian concern at the way Israel is seeking to lure the Palestinians and the Jordanians into a tripartite confederation. The Israeli Foreign Minister has been talking in grandiose terms about a new regional Benelux, which Syria fears Israel would dominate. It is concerned Israel would use the confederation as a bridge to the wider Arab world, thus threatening Syrian economic and commercial interests. Syria sent its Foreign Minister, Farouq Al-Sharaa, to Amman to persuade Jordan not to waver from its commitment not to make any separate agreement with Israel.

At one point, Mr Assad had been happy to wait to see how the 13 September accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis unfolded. But he soon realised Syria could not afford to be excluded from the central discussions about the future of the region.

What Mr Assad offered in exchange was this first public announcement of eventually establishing normal relations with Israel, within the context of a comprehensive settlement. He has said as much before, but never so publicly, in front of the television cameras, an American president at his side. In that, Mr Assad's statement was as significant as that of the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, in 1988, when he made his formal pitch for a peaceful solution based on the establishment of two states - one Palestinian, one Israeli - west of the River Jordan.

The onus is now on the Israelis. They have their own reasons to be cautious. The Golan remains central in Israeli thinking to the country's security. What it has to assess is whether Mr Assad's commitments are enough to ensure that Israel's security can be assured without continued Israeli control of the Golan. The issues are complex and politically difficult for both sides. Some very tough bargaining can be expected in the coming months.