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Syria Plays Cards Close On Where Loyalties Lie

By Carol BergerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 1991


THE elderly artist had spent a profitable morning, completing another sketch in a series of Damascene water fountains. ``I go to the place. I stand and I remember. And then I draw,'' he says. The world's oldest inhabited city is changing. The marble fountains once common in its narrow streets have all but disappeared. ``I don't know Damascus anymore,'' he says. ``Physically, spiritually, everything: It's gone.''

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A visitor had asked him what he felt of his country's position on the war with Iraq. He replied: ``You go to bed in the evening and everything is all right. You wake up the next morning to find everything has been changed.''

Events have moved quickly since Iraq's August occupation of Kuwait. Within days, the Syrian government, Israel's archenemy and the bastion of anti-Americanism, had moved into the Western camp in the alliance against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Long at odds with Iraq, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad moved quickly to support the West's opposition to the occupation of Kuwait. His antipathy toward Iraq was not new. Alliance with the United States was.

But the radical shift toward the US has left the Syrian public angered. Unlike the rank and file of Egypt, Syrians are vocally supportive of Saddam. But the government, armed with its feared mukhabarat (secret police), has so far been able to control dissent.

At the same time, Syria is capitalizing on its new ties with Western and Gulf states. Saudi Arabia has promised aid of $1 billion, some of which has already reached the Central Bank in Damascus. In all, a total of $2.2 billion has been committed to Syria by Gulf states. The contributions are enormous by Syrian standards, where the most recent state budget was only $2 billion.

But there is a sense of tragicomedy as the government tries to conform with local sentiment while staying the course with the anti-Iraq coalition. There has been no official acknowledgment that up to 20,000 Syrian troops are now in the Gulf, alongside US forces. For public consumption, state-run newspapers still carry anti-American views.

``In October, they managed to `correct' the impression that Syria was aligned with America,'' says a Western diplomat. ``In order to satisfy the public they launched an anti-American campaign.''

It was so successful that some Western analysts read it as a signal that Syria would withdraw from the US-led coalition.

``The public also realized that Syria was strengthening its newly strategic relationship with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon,'' the diplomat says. ``The accent now is put on Saddam Hussein being responsible for all evil things that have happened in the Arab world. But they can't really explain the Syrian position. They are so ambiguous. They must lie all the time.''

In reality, the government has not altered its position. Senior government officials are sensitive to concern over Israeli participation in the war. But the worst-case scenario is still unlikely to radically shift Syria's current stand.

``Even if Israel is involved, nobody is going to do anything. What would we gain if we did? Destruction of our country by the Israelis?'' asks a Syrian official.