In the glorious aftermath of the gulf war, most of us have forgotten that Syria's president since 1969, Hafiz Assad, has been and continues to be just as despicable as Saddam Hussein as a leader with territorial aspirations who thinks nothing of killing and torturing his own people.

Before the gulf crisis, he was most closely associated in Western capitals with major-league terrorism abroad and savage repression at home. After he agreed to send troops to fight Saddam, of course, he became a comrade-in-arms.The fact that Assad detests Saddam and has long been his bitter adversary can be very misleading.

Yet the United States cultivates his friendship just as we once cultivated that of Saddam, partly as payment for his willingness to give token support to the victorious coalition in the gulf war. He has aleady received billions of dollars in pledges of aid from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as a reward for sending 19,000 troops.

Last week, Secretary of State James Baker met for seven hours of intensive negotiations with Assad in an effort to stabilize a Middle East peace. One thing that is important to the United States is Assad's sponsorship of terrorists, because he might be the best hope to gain release of the six Americans held hostage in Beirut, Lebanon.

In fact, Assad's direct intervention resulted in the release last year of hostage Robert Polhill - which brought a direct thank you from President Bush.

But we should be very careful in dealing with Assad. Ever since the 1970s, he has never hesitated to put down social unrest with swift and firm military suppression. He is an opportunist with Saddam-like scruples.

Internal problems in the Soviet Union have caused Assad to lose his great benefactor - his source for arms and equipment - and so he is doing the only sensible thing - turning to the other great superpower. His hope is that he can keep his military outfitted in the manner to which he has become accustomed.

That means that he has to moderate his radical politics in an effort to be more desirable in the West.

Yet we should never forget that this is the same dictator who was responsible for the 1982 massacre of some 20,000 civilians in the Syrian town of Hama while routing out Muslim fundamentalists - the same heinous act for which we have condemned Saddam.

Assad's grisly record makes him unfit to serve as anything more than a temporary ally.

It is also clear that he would jump at the chance to fill any power vacuum created by Saddam's defeat and become the unrivaled Arab leader. Considering Assad's success in asserting Syrian control over Lebanon late last year, his motives should remain in question.

Assad's methodical movements into Lebanon make him appear more discreet and less threatening than Saddam, but it is really only their approaches that differ. The future of civil war-torn Lebanon, where Syria now holds preponderant power, is an issue of great interest to the United States.

Syria has chemical weapons and the means to deliver chemical warheads to enemy targets, either by missile or by aircraft, and Assad is determined to keep his military hardware at a reasonable defensive level.

Assad wants economic help and political recognition as one of the most influential Arab states. In return he is expected to accept the integrity of Israel. Yet this is a man who came to power through a military coup and has maintained power through the consistent use of fear and savage repression.

The godlike image that Assad has unapologetically cultivated with his people makes him a fearsome negotiating partner. His long tenure is characterized by an unrelenting determination to achieve the same kind of wide-scale power in the Middle East that Saddam sought.

The parallels are scary. Assad is just a more palatable version of Saddam Hussein. He is smarter and his style is more low-key - but he is cut from the same cloth.

Bush and Baker beware.