Syrian exile is back, but. . . not as before; his power base has been cut

Residents of Damascus awoke in the early hours of Monday morning to the unusual sound of automatic gunfire echoing through the streets of the Syrian capital.

As the volleys continued in the ensuing hours, it was clear that this was no pitched battle, but rather the sound of jubilation being expressed in the way that has become traditional in some parts of the Arab world.

When cars began to circulate with horns blaring and the slogan ''Welcome home , Rifaat'' daubed on them, it was clear whom the fuss was over: President Hafez Assad's controversial younger brother, Vice-President Rifaat Assad.

During the night, Rifaat arrived on a special flight from Paris and stepped onto his native soil for the first time in just under six months. He had been banished, along with his rivals, when the President had exhausted all other ways of stifling a succession struggle succession that was sparked by the President's hospitalization.

Rifaat is back, but not as before. During his exile, his elder brother trimmed the almost-independent power bases that Rifaat and his main rivals had set up.

Western military sources say his elite Defense Companies force has been cut back to some 15,000 to 18,000 men, from its peak of 60,000 to 70,000 men including reserves. Its special status has been further reduced by a 50 percent pay cut. (Its men used to get double the regular Army wage, with Rifaat dipping into his own ample pockets for the purpose.) The companies also now take their orders directly from the regular Army command, rather than having their own independent command structure as before.

At the same time, President Assad has scotched Rifaat's efforts to develop a university-graduates' association as a political vehicle rivaling the ruling Baath Party. Steps have also been taken to control the smuggling and racketeering that allowed Rifaat and his rivals to build up their power centers.

The apparent idea is that Rifaat should drop his mobster image and establish himself as a statesman - perhaps one reason why his return was timed to coincide with French President Francois Mitterrand's state visit to Damascus. The next congress of the Baath Party command, planned for next month, may provide the occasion for Rifaat's rehabilitation as a respectable party leader.

By cutting the contenders down to size and reestablishing the balance between them, President Assad certainly appears to have restored stability in Damascus. Some observers question, however, how long that stability will outlive the President himself, given doubts about Rifaat's ability to hold the country together in light of his many sworn adversaries. The rivals who were also exiled - including Special Forces chief Ali Haidar and Shafik Fayad, commander of the Syrian Army's Third Brigade - have been gradually returning in recent months.

His odyssey began on May 28, when President Assad packed Rifaat and his adversaries off on a mission to Moscow. Rifaat spent the intervening period largely in Switzerland and France, presenting the world with the puzzling picture of a newly appointed vice-president apparently unable to return to his own country.

Many Syrians also were puzzled by the ambivalence surrounding Rifaat's status. In September, Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas was quoted as saying that Rifaat was persona non grata in Damascus and might find himself ''a head shorter'' if he dared turn up there. Yet in November, the official daily Al-Baath carried a presidential decree confirming Rifaat as vice-president responsible for security affairs. It was clear that the way was being prepared for his return.

Western observers in Damascus have for some time believed it was essential for President Assad to establish the succession. Although he has fully reasserted his power and authority, a question mark continues to hang over his health.

''There was no real alternative to Rifaat as heir-apparent,'' one observer commented.

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