Syria's pact with Moscow sends warning to fellow Arabs

Syria's Oct. 8 cooperation pact with Moscow seems to reflect that Arab country's regional isolation, concern over intenal unrest, and bitterness over the perceived "failure" of United States peace moves.

The treaty -- similar to Soviet pacts with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Marxist South Yemen on the Gulf of Aden -- is also seen as a warning of sorts to more moderate fellow Arab regimes that have been drawing closer to Iraq, a longtime Syrian rival.

The gist of the warning, as Mideast analysts see it, is that the other Arabs should not ignore Syria's regional importance.

The Syrian's formal merger with radical Libya barely a month ago was partly aimed at conveying this same message, experts believe.

The Syrians are said also to suspect that Arab moderates may seek a negotiated Arab-Israeli settlement behind the back of the vocally hard-line Damascus regime.

Among the key moderates is Islamic oil giant Saudi Arabia, a traditional Syrian bankroller that proclaims an aversion to communism. The Syrian treaty with Moscow seems sure to turn official heads there.

Syrian media and other sources have, over recent months, hinted at a daunting postscript to the warning message -- that if the Arab world insists on ignoring Syria's regional role, the Damascus regime always has the ultimate option of renewed war with Israel.

The government-controlled Damascus newspaper Tichrin hailed the treaty with Moscow in an Oct. 9 commentary as a ticket to "strategic balance between Syria and the [Israeli] Zionist entity."

Syrian President Hafez Assad has long cultivated close ties with the Kremlin, but has carefully tempered that relationship with an acrobatic and militant brand of nonalignment rejecting undue influence by either superpower.

To, Mr. Assad usually has been pragmatic on the Arab-Israel issue, considering continued links with the United States as essential to winning an acceptable negotiated peace.

But the US-sponsored Camp David negotiating framework worked out two years ago was, in Syrian eyes, a bitter rebuff of their hopes to win an acceptable Arab-Israeli peace through US pressure on the Israelis.

At the same time, Iraq managed to beat President Assad in the race to fill the Arab power vacuum created by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's separate peace treaty with the Israelis, and by Egypt's resultant isolation in the region.

On the home front, the Assad regime faced mounting internal unrest. Officially, Sunnite Muslim extremists (presumably irritated that the minority Alawite sect, of which Mr. Assad is a member, is in the Damascus driver's seat) were blamed for the violence. Yet diplomats say other opposition forces, including professinals and mere civil libertarians, also appear disenchanted.

With the internal rebellion still alive in at least one northern city, Aleppo , despite a summer of repression, Mr. Assad is presumably hoping that one spinoff from the Soviet treaty will be added support from Syrian leftist forces against the rebels.

Some analysts saw an additional significance in the timing of the treaty signature:

Officials in Iraq have increasingly, over past days, been accusing Syria of aiding Iran in the current fighting. They have even talked of the danger of a Syrian "second front" against Iraq, and have built up their forces along the Syrian border accordingly.

With the treaty with the Soviets signed and sealed, Mr. Assad must feel more confident that those forces, supplied and trained by the Soviets, will not spill over into Syria.

But the Syrians insist publicly their major foreign policy priority is the "Zionist enemy."

The Tichrin commentary on the advantages of the treaty in that respect also suggested a further tilt away fromt he US, an "imperialist" power the newspaper stressed was supporting the Israelis.

It is precisely because of Syria's front-line position bordering Israel that the treaty is so important.

The Soviets clearly felt pushed out of the negotiating ball game when Egyptian President Sadat's peace initiative in effect nullified chances of a Geneva conference chaired jointly by the superpowers.

Now, by taking a firm stand with Syria, the Soviet Union seems to be seeking renewed influence in Arab-Israeli diplomacy.

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