Nicosia, Cyprus — In the Egyptian and Jordanian capitals of Cairo and Amman and in other Arab cities, Syria is the errant brother, controlled by dark forces lof "socialist secularism," dangerously unstable and liable to lash out.
Syria is the worrisome power with a hammerlock on Lebanon, casting a menacing shadow over Jordan, supporting opposition rebels in Iraq, dissenting where Arab and Islamic leaders usually concur, sending its MIGs to challenge Israel's fighters and cozying up to the Soviet Union.
Syria's durable strong man, Hafez Assad, has held the country together for 10 years with a mixture of social reform and military muscle. He is an Arab socialist (Baathist) and an Alawite Muslim -- the latter an important consideration in Syrian politics.
Alawites are a religious minority in northern Syria that have been discriminated against for years by the Sunni Muslim majority. Alawites have found the only route to success to be the Army. Now almost all of Syria's top soldiers are Alawites -- which, in a nation that changes government by coups d'etat, is where the Alawites get their disproportionate political strength. If Assad were to fall, Western analysts believe, he would be replaced by another Alawite.
Syrian foreign policy is influenced by three major factors: an internal rebellion, a policing role in Lebanon, and a stronger orientation toward the Soviet Union.
With the help of his youngest brother, Rifaat, who is national security chief and was schooled in Moscow, Assad has been able the past year to snuff out brush-fire uprisings that have arisen from the Sunni community.
Blaming the conservative Muslim brotherhood for his problems, Assad has accused Jordan of funding and harboring insurgents. Denying this, Jordan charges that Syria has infiltrated assassination squads into Jordan and kidnapped Jordan's charge d'affaires to Lebanon.
Jordan's ally, Iraq, meanwhile, called for an overthrow this month of the "sectarian and dictatorial regime of Hafez Assad through armed and other means." A coalition of rebels opposed to Iraq's Saddam Hussein are headquartered in Damascus.
Syria's one major Arab ally has been Libya, with which it was to have merged with Syria last year.Diplomats now say this scheme, like so many other attempted unions, has fallen through completely. Still, Syria, Libya, Algeria, and South Yemen are reported by South Yemen to be planning a strategy session this spring.
"What you're seeing is Assad becoming more and more isolated in the Middle East," notes a Western source. "He has his back to the wall and a rebellion on his hands. I'm not saying it could blow up in a week or a year, but sooner or later the chickens are going to come home to roost."
But even with all the invective and muscle being thrown around, Syria still has low-level links with its neighbors. The border posts with Jordan and Iraq are open and traffic is moving regularly, which works to everyone's benefit since Syria contains the major truck and rail routes from Europe, via Turkey, to the rest of Arabia. The port at Latakia is now one of the busiest in the Middle East, having taken over much of the eastern Mediterranean business that used to flow through battered Beirut.
The 20,000 to 30,000 Syrians posted in Lebanon have had a difficult peace-keeping chore since they first rolled through the Bekaa Valley four years ago. Lebanese and other Arabs complain that the Syrians have done little other than contribute to the tension by covertly supporting first one faction, then another, and by showing little respect for Lebanese institutions. Old downtown Lebanon is one huge Syrian bunker, with sandbagged gun emplacements every few feet.
Lebanese officials have been quietly asking that the all-Syrian Arab Deterrent Force be made multinational, fearing that otherwise Lebanon will eventually be absorbed into Syria. But so far policing alternative has been suitable to all parties.
The Palestine Liberation Organization is in the dubious position of having Syria now as protector in both Damascus and Beirut. When Syria staged a boycott of the Arab summit in Amman last November, the PLO was all but forced to go along.
"My gosh, what is an Arab summit all about if not the PLO?" asks a Western observer. "Sure, the Arab leaders were able to meet, but the main reason they were there was because of the PLO."
Adds a Jordanian: "They want to destroy the [Jordanian] regime's position vis-a-vis Iraq, and the leverage on the PLO is one of the ways."
Syria supports an independent European peace initiative in the Middle East (so far almost every Arab state does), though it is wary of the precise fo rm.