Syria's Assad: a man on a tightrope

Syria's President Hafez al-Assad, long one of the Middle East's most masterful political tightrope artists, is being buffeted by increased Arab-Israel tension and repercussions from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

At home, President Assad is threatened by Muslim militants and other opponents of his oligarchic rule. Outside, he is threatened by his southern neighbor, Israel.

At the same time, he must stay on good terms with conservative Saudi Arabia, a major bankroller of Syria's troubled economy.

Emphasizing these contradictory pressures were the back-to-back round of political talks Jan. 26 and 27, first in Riyadh, with Saudi leaders, and then in Damascus with visiting Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

President Assad is no stranger to tight corners. He has maneuvered out of more than a few during his 10-year rule, a modern record for longevity in a country that was once a virtual carousel of coups and countercoups.

But as a member of Syria's small -- and traditionally downtrodden -- minority of Alawite Muslims, he has had to be tough at home in order to stay atop an increasingly resentful Sunni Muslim majority.

Abroad, as a Beirut newspaper phrased it recently, President Assad has "played the clever game of the pendulum, flirting with one or the other of the superpowers, according to the dictates of the moment."

But President Assad now seems under mounting pressure from all sides. This, Arab diplomats here suggest, helps explain Syria's recent redeployment of peace-keeping troops from south central Lebanon on its own western frontier.

Meanwhile, recent regional events have forced Mr. Assad into policies bound further to anger his enemies:

* Syria joined a tiny regional group that is boycotting the moves to condemn Soviet actions in Afghanistan. Although Syria -- like most other Arab states -- is historically suspicious of Soviet designs, President Assad depends heavily on Moscow's military aid.

* Although Syria simply abstained on a similar move at the United Nations, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood organization, already blamed for internal unrest over the past year, has reacted swiftly and angrily.

First, a bomb blast rocked the Damascus office of the Soviet airline, Aeroflot -- an attack linked by Arab press reports to the Muslim Brotherhood. Then Syria said Jan. 20 that the Muslim militants had murdered two Soviet military technicians.

The Muslim Brotherhood subscribes to the mainstream Sunni brand of Islam.

* At the same time, the US-sponsored peace between Egypt and Israel has nudged President Assad into an increasingly harder line on the Arab-Isaraeli conflict. Israel, while handing back the occupied Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, has given no indication it would return the Golan Heights, also captured in 1967, to Syria.

Long careful to play one superpower againts the other in a bid for US diplomatic pressure on the Israelis, the Syrian President has drawn steadily closer to Moscow since the March, 1979, Egypt-Israel treaty.

The Soviets seem to have reciprocated. Arab commentators have seen Foreign Minister Gromyko's visit as a bid to further cement ties with one of the few Middle Eastern nations not openly attacking events in Afghanistan.

One result has been escalated Israeli pressure on President Assad. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin earlier this month charged that a beleaguered Syrian regime, supported by Moscow, was planning to go to war again with the Jewish state.

Israeli military analysts later said privately that this did not seem to be true. Western military analysts agreed, and more than a few Syrian officials promptly assumed that the Israeli broadside might be a cover for its own intention to start a war.

As of this writing, there seems no indication that is true, either.

But as one veteran Arab Analysts put it, "The whole incident cannot help but drive home the fact that the danger of war between Israel and Syria has increased since President Assad took a leading role in opposition to the Egyptian treaty."

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