Secretary of State James Baker's recent visit to Syria was the most cordial exchange between U.S. and Syrian officials in some time. And while relations between the two countries appear to be improving, at least on the surface, the United States would be well-served in maintaining a cautious approach.

There may be a temptation by many to read Syria's recent participation as a member of the allied forces in the recent Persian Gulf war as a softening toward the West. But as is frequently the case with Middle East politics, what you see and what you get are often different commodities.Just how strong was Syria's support for the allied effort? Not very, apparently.

After Iraqi SCUD missiles landed on Israel, Syrian officials warned that Syria might change its allegiance and support Iraq if the Israelis retaliated. During the massive air raids over Iraq that prepared the way for a decisive ground victory, Syria refused to let allied aircraft fly over its territory.

Are those the actions of an ally?

Syria has pledged to assist in gaining the release of Western hostages held in Lebanon. Yet despite the presence of some 40,000 Syrian troops in the tiny country, the hostages remain captive and the prospect of their release anytime soon is slim at best.

Even more disconcerting are the apparent likenesses that can be drawn between Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Syria under President Hafez Assad. Like Iraq, Syria has been an active proponent of world terrorism and like Iraq, Syria has a poor human rights record.

And add to that scenario the realization that Iraq's demise has left Syria, which has made no secret of its animosity toward Israel, the dominant Arab power in the Middle East.

The United States must move carefully and not get caught up in the euphoria over Iraq's crushing defeat. One thing the Middle East does not need now is a new-look Saddam dressed in Syrian clothing and armed with sophisticated Western weaponry.

Using the Persian Gulf victory as a stepping stone toward a resolution of other Middle East conflicts is a laudable goal, but it is one fraught with potential pitfalls.