Why Syria is ready and willing to keep troops in Lebanon

In the lounge of the Omar Khayyam Hotel - a quaint vestige of Ottoman ambiance in the heart of Damascus - a well-placed Syrian friend talked about Lebanon:

''Do you really think people here are happy about Lebanon? They hate it. They don't want their young men to die - do you want to die? People here are like everywhere. They want to have fun . . . to make money.''

Another Syrian, this one a journalist, interjected:

''Syria will never leave Lebanon. We have been there seven years already. After all, historically it's ours.''

Discontent is a principal element running through the Syrian national psyche these days. An uncompromising sense of history is another.

As in Israel, discontent runs strong among the upper classes of society - the urban Sunni Muslims, Christian Arabs, and Armenians. These are the people who complain bitterly about the high travel tax (more than $100 in Syria), yet who find the money to vacation abroad - exactly like their Israeli counterparts.

These are the people who are sending their sons abroad for education, so as to keep them out of the Army, where they might have to serve in Lebanon. According to the consular sections of foreign embassies in Damascus, more student visa applications are being received than ever before. Moreover, it is a common practice to pay 10,000 Syrian pounds ($1,800) for a five-year work permit in the Gulf, which effectively buys one's way out of the Army.

Equally powerful is a very Syrian sense of history. An official in the Ministry of Information pointed out that Syria ''cannot tolerate any kind of Israeli influence in Lebanon because Lebanon and Syria are the same.''

Lebanon was always part of ''Bilad ash-Sham'' (greater Syria). Only in the Ottoman era was it granted special privileges as a separate ''sanjak.'' And only during the period of the French mandate did it achieve its present dimensions. Yet very few Syrians think of Lebanon as another country.

A third factor is also conspicuous in society here: fear, as symbolized in one word Syrians whisper almost as a mantra - ''Hama.''

In the northern Syrian city of Hama the ''special forces'' of President Hafez Assad's brother, Rifaat, crushed an uprising of the ''Akhwan'' (the Muslim Brotherhood) in 1981. According to Western diplomatic estimates, up to 35,000 people, most of them civilians, were likely killed.

Driving behind a slow-moving Army bus, a taxi driver was asked why he couldn't pass it. He pointed to the photo in the rear window of the bus - of Col. Rifaat Assad - and said: ''That's a special forces bus. I'm not going to pass it.''

Yet the Assad regime has not survived for 13 years in this formerly coup-ridden capital through fear alone. Escape valves have been provided.

Like the Likud government in Israel, the minority Alawite Muslim regime here has kept the urban, upper classes well-stocked with luxury goods - but at a price.

Thousands of new Japanese Mazda and Mitsubishi cars have arrived in Syria. They had been paid for in installments over the previous two years. The cost was some $10,000 per auto, and the government made an enormous profit in taxes. But as a Syrian said: ''I don't care. At least now I have a new Japanese car.''

In addition, like many socialist, third-world governments, the one in Syria turns a blind eye to a flourishing black market economy, which keeps the wealthy supplied with such things as home computers smuggled over the border from Lebanon.

And unlike societies in Eastern Europe, there is a relatively free flow of information which the government does little to impede. People talk a lot in private, and Jordanian television, Lebanese newspapers, and Israeli Arabic-language radio are popular.

These escape valves have continued to work throughout the seven-year-long Syrian occupation of Lebanon. This is partly because the intervention into Lebanon has not placed as heavy a financial burden on Syria as it has on Israel.

''Syria has managed to achieve a higher rate of development than neighboring countries, despite a state of near permanent war over the past decade,'' said Dr. Kamal Sharaf, minister of planning in President Assad's Cabinet, in an interview.

As any Western economic attache in the Syrian capital will tell you, there is nothing phony about Dr. Sharaf's figures. More schools, hospitals, roads, and electricity lines have been built since President Assad came to power in 1970 than in the previous quarter century. By more than doubling the number of schools and hospitals, Syria's planners are actually winning the battle against one of the world's highest birthrates - 3.8 percent, according to United Nations statistics.

Syria has been able to do this for the following reasons:

* While war costs Israel millions of dollars in civilian production losses, the state-controlled Syrian economy is so inefficient that civilian production may actually increase during wartime.

A local economist explained: ''Israel's economy employs about the right number of people, so when reservists are called up, production suffers. But here , the government employs about twice as many people as it needs, so reserve call-ups not only don't hurt, but they may make factories more efficient by bringing the number of workers down to the proper rate.''

* Syria gets most of its major military hardware from the Soviet Union for free, or just about.

* Syria gets more than $1 billion annually from the Arab oil-producing states for ''confronting'' Israel. Though this is much less than was promised at the 1978 Baghdad summit, it is still sufficient to nearly balance Syria's trade deficit.

''This is an economy which can handle war indefinitely. There is not much incentive economically speaking for Syria to make peace,'' a Western diplomat said.

From this follows the Assad government's strategy vis-a-vis Lebanon. As a Western diplomat in Syria, who often travels to the Bekaa Valley, explained: ''The Syrians have deduced that as regards Lebanon, time is on their side. So why should they change the status quo?''

''Time,'' meaning the wonted sectarian violence that will continue to chip away at what is left of the Lebanese central government. ''Time,'' meaning the unabated public debate in Israel over Lebanon, which the Syrians hope and expect , after a time, may result in a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.

Such a situation will depend on the ability of the Palestine Liberation Organization to continue to inflict casualties on the Israeli Army, even after the Awali River redeployment. Officials in Damascus believe the difficult terrain south and east of Jebel Barouk will facilitate more hit-and-run raids. These attacks would help Syria in yet another objective - to further consolidate its grip on the PLO by offering Palestinians the one thing Yasser Arafat cannot offer, a land base from which to attack Israeli troops.

Viewing the Middle East from Damascus, time seems to be running against everyone but Syria. Although discontent here is likely to grow, it will be neutralized by the factor of fear, so Assad will still not feel the burden of time like his adversaries do.

However, with an expanding class of nouveau riche, Syrian society is becoming more and more fragmented, in a manner not dissimilar to Israel's. But rather than work against the government as in Israel, Syria's wealthy are continuing to do as they have been doing for some time - stockpiling their money abroad where many of them eventually settle.

Concomitantly, the less-educated, rural Alawite minority of 12 percent - who rode to power in 1966 with the radicalization of the Baath Party structure - are filling more and more high positions in the armed forces. Any change in government in Syria therefore, is likely to come from within this community of Alawite Muslims rather than from without.

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