Damascus, Syria — Opposition to the presence of Soviet advisers to be mounting throughout this country -- despite the Syrian government's strongly pro-Soviet line. Latest evidence is a wave of killing of Russian personnel here accompanied by bomb attacks againts Soviet installations.
Twelve Soviet advisers have been assassinated since the turn of the year, according to reliable Arab sources here. Seven of those casualties were sustained in an ambush on a Soviet advisers' bus, these sources add. They say the assassins have carried our successful attacks in at least two northern Syrian cities as well as in this capital, Damascus.
Western diplomats in Beirut report that between 1,500 and 1,700 Soviets currently serve in the military mission in Syria. There are also reported to be between 4,000 and 5,000 civilians advisers from various East bloc countries.
The killing of Soviet advisers in Syria is not a new phenomenon. Various incidents have been reported at intervals since at least 1976. The perpetrators are generally thought to have been local muslim estremists opposed to what they consider the godless influence of the Soviets.
But the scale of the latest wave of killings and bombing shows a dramatically stepped-up campaign against the Soviet presence in Syria.
It comes at a time when resentments harbored by the country's Sunni Muslim majority againts the government also have led to scores of killings of Syrians associated with government policy. Syrians sources confirm that the center of the opposition movement is currently in the northern trading city of Aleppo. They add that some of the 5,000 crack Army troops dispatched there over the past month have come in for a serious beating at the hands of the rebels.
The mounting toll of Russian advisers also comes at a moment when the Syrian government has moved closer to Moscow on a whole range of issues. This has just been underlined by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's visit to Syria, which was apparently a political success.
Here in the capital, speculation is rife that one subject discussed at the Gromyko talks, which ended Jan. 29, could well have been cooperation in dealing with the deterioration in internal security here. Clearly this is a topic that now affects both parties directly.
So far, President Hafez al-Assad had successfully kept all foreign advisers of whatever leaning out of his country's extensive security services. But some analysts suspect he may now feel things have come to the point where he must seek outside help.
Other analysts here, however, believe Mr. Assad will resist any Soviet offers in this respect -- as he has successfully resisted all past Soviet suggestions that the two countries be linked by a formal treaty of friendship and cooperation similar to those the Soviets have with Iraq and South Yemen.
"In fact, Mr. Assad would probably not have moved as far toward the Soviets as he has done in recent months, if he were a totally free agent," one senior Western diplomat here commented.
"But his relative isolation in the mideastern regions has forced him to rely more on the remaining friends he still has," the diplomat added.
"It is therefore important that the West keeps its lines open to Syria, to strength our friendship when conditions in the region permit Mr. Assad to regain the balance in international affairs he would like to achieve."
Mr. Assad's dilemma is heightened by the fact that his closer ties with Moscow may themselves serve to increase his regional isolation. Syria and tiny, Marxist South Yemen were the only two Arab states not represented at the Islamic foreign minister's meeting in Islamabad, which on Jan. 29 denounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
One section of the joint statement issued at the conclusion of Mr. Gromyko's visit here explained Syrian thinking on the matter. It condemned "drummed-up campaigns by imperialist forces and their agents regarding the events in Afghanistan and Iran, in order to diwert the Arab nation away from its course of struggle and to break up Arab solidarity."
But Mr. Assad has meanwhile been careful not to burn his bridges with the conservative Arabs over the Afghans issue. Even as Mr. Gromyko was arriving in the Syrian capital, a Syrian official described talks Mr. Assad had had with King Khalid and Crown Prince Fahd in Saudi Arabia as "useful and friendly."