After a marathon meeting with Hafiz al-Asad on Sunday, President Clinton was asked if he felt the Syrian leader had made a firm commitment to normalize relations with Israel. Without hesitation, Clinton replied "The short answer is yes." Well, maybe. A

After a marathon meeting with Hafiz al-Asad on Sunday, President Clinton was asked if he felt the Syrian leader had made a firm commitment to normalize relations with Israel. Without hesitation, Clinton replied "The short answer is yes."

Well, maybe. A look at Asad's actions over the past few years suggests it's best to retain some skepticism about his peaceable intentions. Just as in the bad old days when he served as a Soviet client, Asad still engages in a wide range of aggressive activities aimed mostly against Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, and the United States. These include:

  • Building up Syrian unconventional military capabilities. Damascus now has thousands of chemical warheads, appears to be near weaponizing anthrax viral agents, and is starting nuclear research. Scud-C missiles from North Korea reach most of Israel's population.
  • Getting more involved in the drug trade. According to a 1992 congressional report, top Syrian officials participate in trafficking drugs to the West.
  • Sponsoring Lebanese and Palestinian groups which attack Israelis and pro-Arafat Palestinians.
  • Sponsoring the PKK, a Kurdish Marxist group, in its assault on Turkey. While feigning to close down the PKK camps, the Syrians in fact continue to permit the PKK to use Syrian-controlled territory as a base.
  • Nurturing an alliance with Iran. So close is this bond, according to a report put out by the House Republican Research Committee, the Syrians have even helped distribute counterfeit U.S. currency produced in Iran.
In short, Asad's policies make Syria one of the Middle East's rogue states, along with Libya, Iraq, and Iran. Like those others, it sponsors terrorism, seeks to build weapons of mass destruction, and aggresses against neighbors. No less important, Asad represses his own people with a harshness second in the Middle East only to Saddam Husayn.

But while Washington pressures the other three rogue states by working to isolate them (shunning their diplomatic representatives, initiating United Nations resolutions to restrict their commerce and arms supplies, using force to punish their aggression), it woes Syria. Rather than isolate the Asad regime, it has tried for years to bring Damascus into the "family of nations." Our diplomats hold out small baits to encourage cooperation, for example last month permitting the Syrians to acquire American-made jets. Secretaries of state and other poobahs regularly travel to Damascus and now four U.S. presidents have met with Asad. American firms operate in Syria almost without restrictions.

Asad has eluded the harsh treatment meted out to Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi, Saddam Husayn, and the Iranian mullahs not because he's better but because he's smarter. He makes gestures at the right time and plays complicated double games. He has a refined sense of going to the brink without falling over. He keeps diplomatic links open and accommodates when necessary.

For example, note the benefits Asad has accrued simply by joining the peace process. It permitted him to devour Lebanon in May 1991 without so much as hearing a peep from Washington. One White House official told me at the time that delicate diplomatic negotiations meant it was not the moment "to get into a pissing match with Asad." Or, more recently, when the Turkish government protested Syrian support of PKK terrorism, the Syrians replied with seeming indignation: how can you raise such an issue while we're engaged in the peace process with Israel? Asad's remarkable political skills, in short, permit him to get away with malign policies that stigmatize lesser leaders.

Turning to U.S. policy, what if Asad's statement of two days ago that "in honor we shall make peace" with Israel turns out not to mean he has truly had a change of heart? In that case, the Arab-Israeli conflict is nearly over. Syria's acceptance of the Jewish state means Israel no longer faces an existential threat from its neighbors. While the Israelis will have a price to pay for this benefit-leaving the Golan Heights-they will have the opportunity to establish stringent safeguards.

For the United States, a Syrian decision for real peace with Israel means one less rogue state in the Middle East and tilts the balance of power in the region further in our direction. For Turkey, a breakthrough with Syria means a severe weakening of the PKK and a huge boost in the country's security. For Lebanon, it means a chance at independence again.

But what if, as is more likely, Asad's pleasant words in Geneva actually don't add up to much? Should that turn out to be the case, it will then be clear that coddling Asad does not work. Real improvements in Syrian behavior depend on our diplomats presenting him with a stark choice: "You're either with us or against us."

Forced to choose sides, Asad will either wholeheartedly travel the American route, which means closing down the anti-Turkish terrorist groups, kicking rejectionist Palestinians out, disarming the fundamentalist groups in Lebanon, shutting down drug-trafficking operations, and ending the military buildup. Or he marches down the Iranian path, which means continuing these nasty operations but knowing he's on a collision course with us.

Faced with this quandary, what would Asad do? In all likelihood, he will ask himself one key question: which route better assures him and his coreligionists, the Alawis, to continue dominating Syrian politics? It's a tough choice. The Iranian route suits his temperament but the American one holds out more promise. With his intelligence and discipline, Asad might well opt for the latter.

The by-now traditional American policy of approaching Asad with great patience and gentle words has produced little more than some nice-sounding promises. If we want real changes to take place, the U.S. government must adopt the sort of tough policy that a canny despot understands.