Assad tries to placate Syria's hard-hitting dissidents

Centers of dissidence in northern Syria have been reported tense but quiet in recent days, after the clashes that rocked them in the middle of March. While the opposition movement fueled by Muslim fundamentalists continues to ferment in the capital, Damascus, and all points north, Syrian PResident HAfez alAssad has embarked on grandiose political gestures aimed at shoring up what remains of the once-wide popular base of his regime.

He has addressed mass meetings of officials, students, workers, peasants, professional, and even sports bodies. HE has responded to the growing unrest by announcing the arming of the country's workers and peasants, and the opening of the Syria-Israel frontier for the Palestinian guerillas.

But none of this activity has had much appreciable effect. And some Syrian dissidents now consider there is a serious chance that within coming months President Assad might play his regime's last card -- namely, reopening the front with Israel.

Military, the consequences of doing this -- either through escalating the tension Lebanon, or directly, over the Golan Heights frontier -- might well prove disastrous. But by risking a bit of terrain on the fringes, Mr. Assad might (so the game plan runs) hope to rally enough arab and world support to save Damascus, and with it his regime.

Until now, such a prospect seemed merely a dangerous fantasy. But sources close to the opposition in the ancient northern trading city of Aleppo now say the Assad government appears so stalemated it might reopen the Israeli front within the next two months.

Aleppo residents arriving here report that their city, a focus of opposition ever since the rebels killed 50 army cadets there last June, now is generally calm after a series of clashes between the security forces and rebels are there in recent weeks. But they also large sectors of the city in and around its historic markets are out-of-bounds for the government's elite special forces now garrisoned in the city.

Rebel leaders can circulate freely within the city, the residents say, guarded by a wall of popular silence that the Assad regime's extensive intelligence apparatus is unable to pierce. The security forces' awkwardness is illustrated in the story, told and retold in Aleppo, of how they already have announced three times the death of dissident leader Ayman al-Khatib, although no one knows for sure even now he is not still alive.

The rebels are well trained, many of them reportedly in camps established in northern Jordan, and increasingly well armed, after a series of daring raids on Army armories.

That the opposition movement spreads well beyond the walls of Aleppo, and encompasses many other elements along with fundamentalists of the majority Sunni Muslim sect, is indicated in the following incomplete list of incidents reported over recent weeks:

* The storming of the armory at a barracks near a village in the Homsbama region, with subsequent clashes between Army commandos and villagers killing an unknown number on both sides.

* The hosting of Iraqi flags over government buildings in the Jazira region of Syria, up near the Iraqi border.

* Widespread arrests throughout the country, often taking in known leftist critics of the Assad government as well as suspected Muslim fundamentalists.

* The burning of 16 government consumer cooperatives in Damascus, within a single night.

At least some indication of the scale of the opposition was admitted by President Assad in a recent bitter speech to the Syrian Sports Federation. He was attacking the outlawed extremist Muslim Brotherhood organization, which he claims has been prodded by "the Camp David parties" into stirring up the present unrest.

"They have destroyed the public and private sector," Mr. Assad said. "They have destroyed public organizations. They have burned, killed, and destroyed. . . ."

The remaining alternatives for the President to deal with this crisis, apart from reopening the Israel front, now are limited. Last January's new government has demonstrably failed to win back popular support for the regime. The Soviets , according to East Europeans, are wary of bailing out a regime they consider an unreliable ally -- unless they can secure firm guarantees of friendship such as Mr. Assad is unwilling to give.

There is reported to be a growing bloc within Mr. Assad's own minority Alawite sect that favors making more concessions to the sensibilities of the majority Sunnis, but Mr. Assad's brother Rifaat, considered a hard-line Alawist, still commands the layalties of the two elite Army formations, despite his absence for a somewhat diplomatic rest-cure in the West, and those formations are now the major buttress for the regime.

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