Syria-Libya link may be aimed at Saudis, Soviets

Syria's latest experiment in "unity" with another Arab regime is advertised as a blow to the United States and Israel. But it may ultimately be aimed at two of Syria's own allies:

The Soviet Union and the Arab power-broker, Saudi Arabia.

The merger-in-principle with fellow hardliner Libya, announced with fanfare Sept. 10, also seemed a measure of Syrian President Hafez Assad's desperation. Mr. Assad's decade-old regime is isolated regionally, assaulted by violence and economic confusion from within.

When Syria gets desperate, other Arabs get scared. Some local experts fear the Assad regime could go even further in asserting its role in the Middle East equation than by formally lining up with Libya's unpredictable, Soviet-armed leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

Notably, Syria could help explode neighboring Lebanon, where it maintains some 30,000 "peacekeeping" troops alongside Palestinian guerrillas and Israeli-armed Lebanese Christians. Few Arabists doubt Mr. Assad would play this trump if he felt sufficiently cornered, in effect brewing up the stormiest Arab-Israeli battle since the 1973 war.

For the time being, he seems content to serve notice he remains a man to be reckoned with regionally, no matter how precarious his regime may look from outside.

Mr. Assad is no novice at using diplomatic coups to broadcast such messages.

His surprise merger -- unsurprisingly unsuccessful -- with rival Iraq after the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord was seen as notice the Arabs could still fight. His tightening ties with Moscow over recent months seemed partly a bid for leverage on the staunchly anticommunist, glitteringly rich, Saudis.

Since 1970 (setting a modern Syrian record for political durability), the Assad regime has managed to pose one superpower against another, one fellow Arab against another.

But Egypt's go-it-alone peace with Israel reshuffled Arab politics, helping create a relatively moderate alliance embracing the Saudis, Jordanians, Kuwaitis , and an uncommonly soft-spoken Iraq.

That left Syria out in the cold, forced to reckon with the fact that Arab diplomatic moves might take no account of Mr. Assad's particular concerns.

He has, meanwhile, been threatened from within.

This the regime conveniently blames on violent Muslim extremists of the dominant Sunnite strain, Mr. Assad and his top aides being minority Alawite Muslims. But diplomatic reports from the capital city, Damascus, also indicate widening opposition to the regime among some lawyers and civil libertarians, and among businessmen upset over alleged corruption inside government.

The latest merger, if successful, could pool Libya's awesome arsenal of Soviet weaponry with relative Syrian expertise in operating it. Theoretically, Libya's petrobillions also could help meet Syria's aid needs.

But most experts argue the merger will produce more rhetoric than practical effect, pointing to repeated past "unity" schemes involving Syria, Libya, and other Arab states. All failed.

In this context, what may matter most is the message in the merger -- seemingly addressed to the Saudis in Riyadh and to Moscow (the latter being mistrusted by most Arab regimes despite their shared fondness for socialist rhetoric).

Mr. Assad is uncomfortably isolated from the Saudis (important bankrollers), and uncomfortably dependent on the Soviets (suppliers of arms and intelligence help).

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