DAMASCUS, SYRIA — AS Syrian troops in Saudi Arabia begin digging in, many of their countrymen back in Damascus are privately troubled. ``We are not ready to defend American interests in the Gulf,'' says one former soldier. ``I would rather die with honor fighting on the side of one Arab leader who dares challenge the United States.''
Despite their government's stance, many Syrians here do not see the US move as a defense of Kuwaiti sovereignty. Many view the US buildup as an aggressive move to assert its authority over the entire area.
``The US has forced the Iraqi leader into this aggressive position, and now they are in Saudi Arabia defending their oil,'' says another resident.
Syria, a longtime foe of Iraq, was among the 12 Arab states that backed summit resolutions condemning Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait and calling for unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi troops. Diplomatic sources report that 1,200 Syrian troops are already in Saudi Arabia.
``This is the first time in my memory,'' says a young man born after the Suez crisis of 1956, ``that I have been really ready to fight for our Arab integrity.''
On nightly television, he and the rest of the nation witness the formidable US military force converging in Saudi Arabia. The sight does not make this young Arab feel secure. Rather, he says, it angers people. He says he is ready to fight on the side of Saddam Hussein, if necessary.
An experienced political observer here asks: ``How can the American administration not realize how, day by day, their own military moves are helping Saddam Hussein become a greater popular figure here.''
While few people in Syria express an ounce of affection for the man known to have acted ruthlessly against his own people, Saddam is indeed assuming heroic proportions here. Even many exiled Iraqis are less vociferous against the man they were committed to see ousted.
Jawad (not his real name) is an Iraqi artist living in exile in Syria: For 10 years he has dedicated himself to the overthrow of Saddam. He and thousands of Iraqi refugees here are unable to live in their country or to have contact with their families at home.
Yet Jawad and his Iraqi associates say they understand Saddam's popularity. They quote with approval his recent declaration: ``The widespread resentment we non-Gulf Arabs have for years felt toward those oil-rich people has now been given a political expression.''
Along with other Iraqi men and women, who expected to spend their lives fighting the Baghdad regime, he finds himself taking a very different view of Iraq. He says he wants to join forces to fight the US.
Many here in Syria and in neighboring countries, all poor by Gulf standards, resent the rich elites of the Gulf who have invested oil money outside the region. Some also suggest Gulf money is behind the growth of Islamic fundamentalist groups. So when Kuwait was first attacked, they were not sorry.
``I am not a pious Muslim,'' says one liberal Syrian. But this US military force in Saudi Arabia makes me feel deep anger.'' Saudi Arabia is still seen as holy land, and the sight of ``infidel'' military forces in the peninsula stirs deep feelings.
The Iraqi leader, who has appealed for all Muslims to unite against the US, has followed his call with yet another declaration designed to win Arab support. Saddam said he ``will quit Kuwait when Israel leaves all the Arab lands it occupies.'' This proposal highlights what is still a major issue for all Arab peoples: the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and US and Israeli rejection of any kind of Palestinian state.