With near clock-like precision, Syrian-Israeli diplomacy makes front-page news every few months. Invariably, it's some new offer, and almost always it comes from the Israeli side. Most recently, in a meeting with President Clinton and addressing a joint

With near clock-like precision, Syrian-Israeli diplomacy makes front-page news every few months. Invariably, it's some new offer, and almost always it comes from the Israeli side. Most recently, in a meeting with President Clinton and addressing a joint session of Congress, Prime Minister Shimon Peres reiterated his government's intent to withdraw from the Golan Heights.

Then, with equal regularity, the issue disappears for several months. This odd pattern raises the question: Are Jerusalem and Damascus inching closer to a peace agreement, or has their four-year effort to make peace stalled?

The answer, actually, is yes and yes. Negotiations have made great progress, narrowing differences to very manageable proportions. At the same time, the signing of a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty appears as remote as ever.

On the positive side, the Syrian and Israeli governments -- despite their tense relations -- have quietly established the general contours of a peace agreement. In the four principal areas of negotiations, the two sides have no profound differences.

Extent of the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights: On this key issue, the two sides barely disagree. Peres has said that "The Golan Heights is Syrian land, and we are sitting on the Syrians' land"; he has made clear his willingness, in the context of an overall agreement and subject to a national referendum, to leave the Heights. The only question is where exactly the future border will run. Israelis insist on the Mandatory (or international) border of 1923; Syria's President Hafiz al-Asad demands a withdrawal to the 4 June 1967 border. The difference between the two amounts to just 25 square miles -- hardly a deal breaker.

Timetable of the Israeli withdrawal: Jerusalem started with a target of eight years in three stages while Damascus spoke of a complete withdrawal in six months. By the beginning of 1995, the one side had gone down to four years and the other had increased to eighteen months. A compromise here -- akin to the three-year withdrawal from the Sinai agreed to with Egypt -- seems likely.

Security arrangements (i.e., preventing a surprise attack on Israel): The Golan Heights have great practical value to Israel and great symbolic value to Asad (who was Syria's defense minister when they were lost in 1967). On the question of demilitarization, the Syrians began with a call for exact symmetry while the Israelis sought a nine-to-one ratio. By mid-1995, the Syrians offered a ten-to-six ratio and the bargaining was underway. The issue of Israel's maintaining an early warning station or two on Mt. Hermon remains highly contentious. The late Yitzhak Rabin declared that "on this issue there will be no compromise," while Asad made it equally clear he had to have all Israelis off the Golan. Asad did hint, however, that he might accept Israeli airborne surveillance.

Normalization: Jerusalem demands full normalization after the first stage of withdrawal. Rabin once defined this to include "an Israeli Embassy in Damascus, a Syrian Embassy in Israel, an Egged [i.e., Israeli] bus traveling to Aleppo, Israeli tourists in Homs, Israeli ships at Tartus, El Al planes landing, and commercial and cultural ties -- everything, and in both directions." Asad initially refused to discuss normalization, saying this would only follow a complete withdrawal. With time, he made two concessions. First, he signaled that Israel would receive much of what it sought, talking on one occasion about "normal peace, of the type existing between 187 countries in the world" and on another about "good relations with Israel, like Egypt and Jordan have." Second, he agreed to establish low-level diplomatic relations after a first, partial withdrawal of Israeli forces.

Only relatively minor differences may separate the two sides, the sort that could be dealt with in a matter of weeks or maybe months; nonetheless, a Syrian-Israeli agreement seems not likely then or, indeed, so long as Hafiz al-Asad remains in power.

Here we enter the realm of speculation: Asad totally dominates his government and no foreigner knows his exact intentions. All we can do is scrutinize his record and interpret his past actions. They can be read in two contrary ways: either that he seeks a lasting peace with Israel or that he wants only to appear to seek such a peace. The latter strikes this observer to be more likely.

Key to this reasoning is that Asad is recognized by few of the world's Muslims as a fellow believer. Rather, they see him as an 'Alawi, an adherent of a small, secretive post-Islamic religion found almost exclusively in Syria. This affiliation renders Asad an outsider in his own country. That 'Alawis have ruled Syria since 1966 has aroused great resentment on the part of the majority Sunni Muslim population.

As a small minority, 'Alawis fear they cannot rule indefinitely against the wishes of almost 70 percent of the population. Were the resentful majority of Sunnis to reach power, they would probably exact a terrible revenge. At any rate, that is the worry 'Alawis express in private. To assure the survival of his community, Asad must be a pragmatist who pursues interests rather than ideals. In this spirit, he appears to pursue two chief goals: control Syria during his own lifetime, then pass power on to his family and co-religionists.

Accordingly, the Asad regime approaches foreign relations less with an eye to achieve abstract goals than to survive. It does whatever is necessary to stay in power, whether that means starting a war with Israel or becoming an American ally. Asad's real interests concern not ideology but self-interest. A policy like anti-Zionism is an instrument, not an end in itself.

In this context, peace with Israel poses three threats. First, it would alienate such key constituencies as military and security personnel, Ba'th Party members, and government employees, most of whom appear intensely to dislike the rupture peace would cause.

Second, other Syrians (especially businessmen and liberals) may harbor too great expectations of peace that go far beyond relations with Israel. They understand it would mean that their country sheds totalitarian rule, with its repression, poverty, and isolation, and move into the American camp. As a young professor at Damascus University puts it, "We will expect democracy if peace comes." Asad probably fears that perestroika would do to him what it did to his Eastern European colleagues -- cause him to lose control.

Third, Asad has relied on the tools of the police state through his twenty-five year reign. The prospect of greater openness, more democracy, and even flocks of Israeli tourists in the souks of Aleppo must frighten him terribly. He surely fears such changes would endanger the position of his family and of the 'Alawi community.

If he does not in fact seek peace with Israel, why, then, does the Syrian president pursue negotiations with Israel in an apparently serious manner? He has, after all, come within striking distance of a peace agreement.

In all likelihood, he negotiates as a way to improve his standing in Washington. If peace itself spells little but trouble, the peace process brings many benefits. Asad's goal, then, is not peace but a peace process. He participates in negotiations without intending that they reach fruition. Engaging in apparently serious talks wins him improved relations with the West without having to open up his country. He can wink at us while maintaining his ties to Iran and hosting a wide range of terrorist groups. He offers the occasional flourish (such as his call last week to Mr. Clinton as the latter was eating lunch with Shimon Peres) but does not change on substance.

This approach worked best when the Likud was in power, for Yitzhak Shamir's government could be relied on to maintain a hard line. Matters became more complicated when Labor took over in 1992 and made the historic decision to return virtually all the Golan Heights. Faced with such flexibility, Asad has fallen back on stalling tactics. Understanding Asad's uninterest in a resolution with Israel helps clear up various mysteries, for example, why, until the final days of 1995, his negotiators met their Israeli counterparts in only one formal round of talks in twelve months; why he refuses unambiguously to signal his good intentions to the Israeli population; and why he claims to see no difference between a Labor and a Likud government in Israel.

That the point of the peace process is not to improve relations with Jerusalem but with Washington makes Asad susceptible to American pressure. U.S. policy should exploit his worries so that he sees complying with American wishes as the best bet to keep his family and people in power. Washington should abandon its soft, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger policy toward Damascus that has been in place since 1984, and instead adopt a much tougher approach.

An authoritarian leader like Asad responds to pressures, not to jawboning or goodwill gestures. When Asad engages in activities contrary to American interests, he needs to hear about it. When he does something right, Washington should not express less delight. Instead, with more equanimity, it should say "Thank you; what will you give us next?" Hearing these words, worried about hostile actions that might follow, Asad will probably make real concessions to American sensibilities and interests, perhaps including real progress on a peace treaty with Israel.