DAMASCUS, SYRIA — AS Iraq's military strength crumbled under coalition pounding this week, Syria is likely to become the strongest Arab ``front-line'' state facing Israel. And it wants to be ready, regardless of the political climate. To that end, President Hafez al-Assad sent Defense Minister Mustafa Tias to Moscow last month.
``Syria expects Iraq to be destroyed,'' says a Western analyst. ``General Tias is visiting Moscow before there are new regional security arrangements, which are sure to include arms-control deals.''
The Soviets - who had reportedly abandoned Syria as part of their recent policy of disengagement from regional conflicts - said the talks dealt with the ``means of establishing just and lasting peace in the Middle East.''
For the Syrians, that peace will depend on having enough military power to keep at bay an Israel made stronger during the war by sympathetic financial and military aid from the West.
Tias took a shopping list with him to Moscow.
``The Syrians are out there with their begging bowl, while Israel gets all the goodies,'' says another Western diplomat referring to the Patriot missiles given to Israel by the coalition as defense against Iraqi Scud attacks. ``They are very concerned with strategic depth, balance, and being left alone. They feel vulnerable.''
Soviet support during the cold war aimed to give Syria ``strategic parity'' with Israel - at Moscow's expense. Syria has amassed an impressive military machine that includes some of the best warplanes and complex air-defense systems the Soviets offer.
At the head of their formidable range of missiles are the same Scud-Bs that Iraq fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia. Syria can strike with them anywhere inside Israel.
Until the arrival of the Patriot, though, the Israelis had no effective defense against Syrian Scuds. ``The Patriots are a slap in the face to Syria,'' says a Western diplomat with close ties to the defense establishment. ``But the Israelis have been working on their own homegrown anti-missile system - the Patriots only brought that capability forward a few years.''
President Assad, nevertheless, realized that once the war was over there would be little chance to stockpile more weapons.
Syria's goal, however, throughout the conflict has been a lasting solution to the Palestinian problem, say officials and diplomats here. That would entail a Western-backed arrangement to restrain Israel from, in Syria's view, ``aggression against the Arab nation.''
By joining the fight against Iraq, Syria bet that the West - most notably the US and Britain - would keep its promise to call for a postwar international peace conference that will include Israel.
``The most important byproduct of the Gulf war for Syria is the push to end the Arab-Israeli conflict,'' says a senior Western diplomat. ``Syria wants the United Nations cranked up to treat the Palestinian issue with the same urgency that it did Kuwait.''
But the Syrians may be frustrated, predicts another Western diplomat: ``Britain has encouraged the US before to pressure Israel - but don't expect any fireworks from the Americans. We are all gradualists.''
That may be hard to justify to many Arabs, since coalition forces moved so quickly to implement United Nations resolutions against Iraq. Arab states accuse the West of double standards with Israel. UN resolutions call for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and South Lebanon. Syrian officials are convinced that US pressure can bring Israel to the conference table.
``We are very confident,'' says a Syrian official. ``We know our goals - no one can bargain with the Palestinian question.''
Still, Syria, which has spent more than 60 percent of its annual budget on defense in recent years, is hedging its bets.
``The Syrians are trying to get their hands on a lot of hardware,'' says a Western diplomat, ``not so much for their defense needs now, but to be used as a bargaining chip later with the Israelis.''