Syria pulls out all the stops in bid to topple Iraqi leader

Syria wants so badly to bring down Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the loss of money and friends doesn't appear to matter.

Syria has always been the only Arab country to support Persian Iran against Arab Iraq in the 19-month-old Gulf war. But now, Damascus has gone beyond that to bind itself not only politically and militarily, but also economically.

The alliance flies in the face of Arab unity and comes at a time when the conservative Gulf states are convinced that Iran intends to subvert their governments, observers note.

Diplomats point out that Syria is risking not only its status in the Arab world, but also the bankrolling it needs from the Gulf.

''Syria seems to think it can tiptoe through the minefield and come out smelling like a rose,'' says one Western diplomat.

''The general impression is Syria couldn't care less (about its Arab relations and money),'' comments another envoy.

Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam signed an agreement in Tehran in March to buy 8.8 million tons of oil a year. Shortly after, Syria closed its border with Iraq and the oil pipeline carrying Iraqi oil through Syria to the Mediterranean.

Diplomats say the deal was financially advantageous to Syria, which received ''very concessionary financing terms.'' Information Minister Ahmad Iskandar Ahmad admits Iran gave Syria ''a special price,'' too.

The estimated $200 million Syria netted from the pipeline will be quadrupled if Syria's calculations work out, diplomats say. Syria hopes to sell the excess Iranian oil it refines for desperately needed hard currency, they say.

The closure also slices Iraq's foreign exchange earnings by 25 percent, according to Baghdad sources.

''The agreement was not predicated on money, it was to put the screws to Saddam Hussein,'' one envoy says.

Deputy Foreign Minister Nasser Kaddour said Syria allied with Iran because it supported the foremost Arab issue--the Palestinian cause.

One diplomat has called the move a ''master stroke'' by Syrian President Hafez Assad becausehe may get away with it--without losing the $1.8 billion the Arab League pledges Syria annually.

''The Gulf won't cut the Syrians off. They will be too scared to do it,'' the diplomat says.

It is hard to tell if the Gulf has paid, diplomats say, noting the payments are inevitably late. However, some believe Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have.

Kuwait has stopped its checks for the Syrian Arab Deterrent Force in Lebanon, saying it causes as much trouble as it stops, according to diplomats here. But they expect Kuwait to chip in its Arab League share.

Syria denies adamantly that its new friend threatens its Arab brothers.

''This special relation between us and Iran cannot be in return for bartering any Arab soil in any Arab country,'' says Mr. Kaddour.

''And the Arab states as well as Iran know of our attitude very well. Moreover, the Iraqi troops are on Iranian soil and not the opposite. If Iranian troops were on Arab territory, our position would be different.''

Diplomats agree with Mr. Kaddour in that they believe the friendship stems only from the adage of ''my enemy's enemy is my friend.''

Syria and Iraq are governed by rival sections of the Baathist Party, a commonly given reason for the vitriol between them. But political analysts contend the feud has boiled for ages. They said it is somewhat a matter of bad blood between tribes living side by side.

President Assad hopes to topple Saddam Hussein, bringing to power a successor more to Syria's liking.

Diplomats point out that Iran has much the same notion, foreseeing Ayatollah Khomeini as the natural heir to Saddam Hussein.

In secular Syria, an Iranian-style Islamic republic immediately next door would not be welcome, diplomats say.

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