Syria Plays Cards Close On Where Loyalties Lie

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.

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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.

``We still believe Israel is our enemy - a part of our territory is occupied,'' he says, referring to Israel's 1967 capture and annexation of the Golan Heights. ``But Syria does not believe you swallow up an Arab country in order to challenge Israel.''

Reports that Syria had reinforced its frontier with Israel appear unfounded. Well-placed sources say that the government has not sent additional troops to territory adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In fact, the 9th Division drawn from there to serve in Saudi Arabia has not been replaced.

Like Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Assad is said to be confident of the US-led forces' ability to crush Iraqi defenses. A Syrian official says the senior echelons are convinced that ``Saddam has had it. It's only a matter of time now.''

The two countries also share a hard line on the question of diplomatic efforts with Iraq. Says the official: ``Even if we wanted to do something, there must first be a decisive military victory for either side. Nothing decisive has taken place on the military front. We're waiting for results on the ground.''

But less than two weeks into the war against Iraq, the delicate fabric of Damascus is showing the strain. The public no longer trusts Syrian or Western news reports. Jordanian radio is said to be the most listened-to station.

In the past week, Syrian journalists working for foreign agencies were warned about overstepping official restrictions. Political arrests are also said to have increased.

Except for diplomats, the nationals of most Western countries have deserted Damascus. Steel-mesh barriers have gone up outside the French Embassy, and the American mission is said to be ``bunkered down.''

Western sources say that, on the day war began, members of the Beirut-based terrorist group Islamic Jihad met here. At that meeting, agreement was reached on the target of terrorist attacks: Western women and children.

With the foreign community sharply reduced and business slowed throughout the city, there is an uneasy sense of calm. There were unconfirmed reports last week of the staging of a pro-Saddam demonstration in one Palestinian district of Damascus.

The state controls its population so tightly, however, that suspicion arose that the protest may have been sanctioned. One Westerner referred to ``a letting off of steam,'' to prevent larger, uncontrolled outbursts.

But official doubts over Syria's role in the anti-Iraq coalition are bound to increase the longer the war continues.

``Obviously, if the war goes on and Saddam shows an ability to resist and inflict heavy losses on American forces, this will have an impact on the man in the street,'' says another Syrian official.

``Saddam is pinning his hopes on gradually receiving more sympathy from Arab masses, to appear as a great Arab leader, able to resist 29 armies.

``Saddam believes that if he can hold on for 100 days, public opinion will be mobilized on the streets of Damascus, of Cairo....For 40 years, we've been fighting the same enemy,'' he said.

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