Assad steers Syria toward harder line

Western diplomats in the Mideast are concerned that Syria, which for the past five years has been moderating its policies in many respects, in recent months has adopted a harder line.

One small indicator of this shift of posture was glimpsed when the former Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Hammoud Shoufi, resigned in a blaze of publicity just before Christmas.

Ambassador Shoufi had voted in favor of a UN resolution on the Mideast Dec. 7 that called for continued negotiations. This had been close to the Syrian position until late summer -- though the Syrians called for a Geneva-type parley instead of the bilateral Egyptian-Israeli talks.

But since then, the Syrians' emphasis has been that the Camp David process should be halted, and only after that can further steps toward war or peace be discussed, according to diplomats in Syria.

A parallel hardening of the Syrian position has been noted on several other key regional issues:

* On Afghanistan, the Syrian Government has been one of the few Arab regimes not to have criticized the Soviet invasion openly. While Damascus remained eerily quiet on this issue, a Syrian-backed politician in nearby Lebanon was one of the few Arab politicians openly to back the Soviet action.

* On Iran, the Syrians have maintained the close links they forged with the Islamic revolutionaries during the latter's long years of exile. Soundings reportedly were made during a recent visit to Tehran by a top military aide to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, as to whether the latter could play a mediating role in the hostage crisis. But the Iranians apparently turned down the offer.

Syria meanwhile has been providing transit facilities for the Iranian volunteers wishing to serve with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) forces in southern Lebanon.

* In Lebanon itself, sources close to the fledgling Lebanese Army report that commanders of the Syrian peace-keeping troops here have firmed up their refusal to hand over locations in the capital to local Lebanese units.

The picture is not completely one of a headlong rush into political extremism , analysts here and in Damascus stress. Some other aspects of the move toward moderation that have marked Mr. Assad's presidency over the past five years still continue.

The shift in trade from Soviet industrial hardware to Western (mainly European) goods and production systems continues, as far as Syria's hard-pressed finances permit. So does liberalization of the internal economic organization.

The Syrians, meanwhile, have studiously avoided any action -- with the exception of transiting the Iranian volunteers -- which might spark a direct military confrontation with the Israelis.

But the overall shift toward a harder line in the country's regional policy has been deep enough to set analysts here searching for its causes.

The most plausible explanation presented to date has been that Syria's growing differences with its immediate neighbors has sent it back into greater dependence on the Soviet Union. And the Soviets, ever aware of thier many failures to wield real political influence even with their Arab "allies," have this time demanded a concrete political price in return.

A contributory factor to the Syrian regime's new regional toughness may be the constant pressure it comes under from Sunni Muslim extremists at home.

Mr. Assad may feel himself obliged to prove he is more Muslim than the extremists, in order to win back the allegiance of Syria's Sunni majority to his regime. Many feel the Assad government is unfairly dominated by members of the minority Alawite Muslim sect, of which he is a member.

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