Syria Tries to Shore Up Weak Position

By , a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

No one will have followed Israel's election with more intense interest than President Hafez al-Assad of Syria. For him, the success of Benjamin Netanyahu and the right wing is a dark cloud that carries a distinctly silver lining. Put starkly, the peace process pursued by the late Yitzhak Rabin and Prime Minister Shimon Peres is stopped in its tracks, which is precisely where Mr. Assad wants it.

Mr. Netanyahu as prime minister, prodded by superhawk Ariel Sharon, has promised to "strengthen and develop" Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. They favor sending troops into all parts of Palestine to root out "terrorists." They approach the Palestinians with a clenched fist. The Arab world is shaken. Assad, having argued all along that Israel could not be trusted, will say he has been proven right. His dwindled credit has been enhanced. Eclipsed by Jordan and Egypt, which have made their own peace with Israel, Syria will claim afresh to be the true center of Arabism, faithful to Arab interests and defying false compromise.

Syria isolated

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This spring has moved Assad farther to the margin. He has no friends in the region. He is at daggers drawn with Iraq. Jordan has pulled away. He is in trouble with Turkey. Russia is not supplying the strategic support he had so long received from the Soviet Union. Only Iran has helped him in financing and supplying Lebanon's Hizbullah, which nips at Israel's heels. But the Peres government's brutal response to this bloody nuisance without the slightest interference from Syria has raised the question of what 35,000 Syrian soldiers are doing in Lebanon. And Assad's air force has stayed away, obviously afraid of another knock-out blow like the one Israeli fliers dealt it in 1982. This nonperformance casts doubt on the future of Syria's dominance in Lebanon.

Altogether, it is a dark picture, which may now be somewhat relieved by Assad's appearing as an Arab David standing against the Goliath of Israel's right. Much will depend on the new government's approach to the Palestinians. The thinness of Netanyahu's victory may move him to caution. But Assad and the Palestinian extremists resident in Damascus will use their radio stations and other influence to stir up a new intifadah (uprising).

As things stand, Syria's prospects are bearish. The oil production that has buoyed its economy has peaked; but more urgent and frightening is the issue of water. Turkey, where the Tigris and Euphrates rise, is the largest source of water on the Arabian peninsula, and relations with Syria are the worst ever.

The Turks hold that they can do what they please with their water, and a decade ago they set to work on a huge agricultural-development program in southeast Anatolia. The keystone of the project, the enormous Ataturk dam, is already in place. In all, 21 dams and 17 hydroelectric power plants are planned on the headwaters of the two great rivers. The Tigris flows only through Iraq, and the Euphrates flows through Syria and Iraq before they join at Basra to empty into the Persian Gulf. Their waters are vital for both countries, as they have been for Mesopotamia since the dawn of history.

When the Turks began building the dam, Damascus allowed Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to operate from Syria. The PKK has tried with guerrilla war and terrorism to carve an independent Kurdish state out of eastern Turkey. It has a few thousand activists among the half-million Kurds living in Germany. When they provoked riots after Kurdish New Year celebrations in March, Mr. Ocalan threatened attacks on the German police and on German tourists in Turkey.

That was followed by Kurdish threats to assassinate German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. And when an attempt was made a few weeks ago on the life of Turkey's President Suleyman Demirel, some wondered about a connection.

The Turks see Ocalan as their archenemy acting hand in glove with Syria. They accuse him also of subversion in the Turkish province of Hatay. France gave this region, the Ottoman Sanjak of Alexandretta, to Syria after World War I, but returned it to Turkey in 1939, which Syria protests to the present day. At the end of January, Ankara demanded that Ocalan be extradited for trial.

Syria never responded and Turkey began to play hardball. In February, it signed a military- training and cooperation agreement with Israel. The two had long maintained intelligence links, but this was the first time each allowed training flights over the other's territory and the use of each other's naval bases. It is said to provide for military high- technology transfers, and there is speculation about what might not have been made public.

Turkey gets rough

Ankara accused Damascus of plotting a Greater Syria and threatened to "teach it a lesson." In April, Turkey announced it would, for four days, cut the flow of the Euphrates by 60 percent. The dam installations, they said, needed annual servicing. Turkey can obviously repeat this at will.

Assad may well feel the ring tightening. It includes an incipient US-Jordan-Israel alliance. Jordan is forging military links with Israel. A US Air Force contingent is newly based in Jordan to spend two months monitoring the "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq. It could stay longer. US planes based in Turkey have long overflown northern Iraq.

Assad is a patient man but old now and with physical problems. So far, sheer nerve has pulled him through. Now, Netanyahu's narrow victory is, in the paradox of the Middle East, a bit of luck - although it will not be enough to help him in the long run.

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