Syria may move closer to Soviets

President Hafez Assad's regime in Syria, feeling ever more left out of what Mideast peace moves are under way, is considering moving deeper into the Soviet camp.

This is the verdict of travelers from the Syrian capital, Damascus, who say that such a move has been discussed by leaders of Mr. Assad's ruling Baath Party there for some months now.

Now, the travelers say, the Syrian President seems almost completely convinced that expanding this alliance with the Soviet Union is the only way out of his present quandary.

Confirmation of this view has come from no less a source than the Soviets' own Novosti press agency. Novosti in Beirut reports that officials in Damascus are seriously looking into the possibility of a "qualitative development" in Syrian-Soviet relations.

A Syrian daily newspaper echoed this view in a June 25 report that said Syria "is seriously preparing to take an advanced and qualitative step toward closer cooperation with the Soviet Union."

Such a step would mark a definitive end to the nominally "evenhanded" policy President Assad has tried to adopt toward the two superpowers since he came to power in a coup in September 1970 against his overtly pro-Soviet predecessor.

That policy included being associated with United States moves to find a Mideast peace formula in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israel war in the region. It received a first blow when Egypt's President Sadat launched his unilateral peace initiative with Israel in 1977.

Mr. Assad was deeply convinced that initiative promised nothing for his country, which has been smarting from the Israeli occupation of its fertile Golan Heights region since 1967.

When the US backed Mr. Sadar, Mr. Assad started a process of skidding back toward the Soviets, a process allayed only by his continuing good relations with the Europeans.

But now, that factor apparently has been removed.

Syria once was one of the most vocal states in the anti-Sadat Arab camp arguing for an increased European involvement in Mideast peace moves. But when the slightly watered-down European initiative finally made its appearance earlier this month, the Syrians were bitterly disappointed in it.

Their essential criticism of the European Community statement was that while it went further than ever before in recognizing Palestinian interests, it made no specific mention whatever of the continued Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.

Once again, the Syrians felt they were being left out of the international game, and their pique at this is seen as one strong factor impelling them closer to the Soviets.

Among other reasons suggested here are the regime's continuing problems from a widespread internal dissident movement and its relative isolation within the Arab camp.

Internally, Arab analysts acquainted with the situation say, the Assad regime has failed to stop the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, which now is deeply implanted in Syria's majority Sunni Muslim population.

Thorough crackdowns over recent months in several north Syrian cities have resulted only in mere hiccoughs in the Muslim Brotherhood's operation, which seems mainly centered on assassination of individuals linked to the regime. (About a score of Soviet advisers also have fallen victim to the brotherhood's hit men so far this year).

So concerned are the Soviets about deepening their alliance with such a fragile regime that they have put stringent conditions to the Baathists before they will concur with such a move, informed Arabs say.

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