Beset by internal and external pressures and problems, Syria's President Hafez Assad seems to be steering his country on a more conciliatory and flexible course. This is apparent in Syria's dealings with major players in the region and in its efforts to stabilize the turmoil in neighboring Lebanon. President Assad arrived in Athens Monday on his first trip to a Western country in eight years. Western diplomatic sources and Greek newspapers say the visit is aimed at convincing Western Europe that recent allegations that Syria sponsors terrorism are unfounded.
Hard-line Syria's growing rapprochement with moderate Jordan has fueled speculation about a possible break in the polarization that has immobilized Arab politics for several years. Much of the speculation focuses on Syria's alliance with non-Arab Iran, which Syria supports in its war against Jordan's ally Iraq.
In Lebanon, where Syria's peacemaking efforts have been frustrated by Christian opposition, Mr. Assad signaled a new, softer line May 9. He said Syria would not object if the Lebanese wanted to alter parts of a Syrian-sponsored settlement signed by the three main Lebanese militias last December. In January, the Christian militia and President Amin Gemayel revolted against the pact. Some Christian leaders say Assad's new position could lead to fresh peace efforts.
Tension and clashes between Syrian troops and Iranian-inspired Hizbullah (Party of God) militants in eastern Lebanon are seen by some observers in the region as one of several signs pointing to a deterioration of Syria's relations with Iran.
Other signs include recent statements from Syria's Communist Party and the country's Sunni Muslim mufti -- the spiritual leader of Syria's largest religious group -- criticizing Iran for its occupation of the Iraqi port of Faw and its refusal to negotiate peace with Baghdad.
Syria's intensive, if still ambivalent, new relationship with Jordan is also viewed with misgivings by Tehran. Jordan's King Hussein paid an unscheduled visit to Syria last weekend for his second set of talks with Assad this month. Little has emerged publicly on the outcome of the dialogue, but one of the aims is widely believed to be to prepare the way for holding an Arab summit.
Unconfirmed Arab press reports have said that King Hussein is trying to mediate between Syria and both Iraq and Egypt. Assad's hostile relations with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization are also said to be under discussion, although the King's own ties with Arafat are currently far from cordial.
The net result of any inter-Arab reconciliation would be to draw Syria back toward the Arab mainstream and away from its anti-Iraq alliance with Iran.
Informed sources point to another sign that could indicate a loosening of Syrian-Iranian ties. Since 1982, when Syria cut Iraq's vital oil-export pipeline that ran across Syria to the Mediterranean, Iran has provided Damascus with 120,000 barrels of oil per day on favorable terms (20,000 b.p.d. free of charge and a discount on the rest). But sources say that for several months, the Iranian supplies have been tapering off. The oil agreement between the two countries expired May 15, but the Syrians have not yet tried to renegotiate the deal, which is seen as one of the main pillars supporting the alliance against Iraq. Meanwhile, there are reliable reports that Damascus has approached Arab Persian Gulf states for oil aid.
Both Damascus and Tehran, however, continue to assert that relations are good. Despite the signs of strain, and Syria's overtures in other directions, there has been no definitive change of regional alignments.
Many observers see the mixed signals emerging from Damascus as a symptom of the pressures building up on Assad, both domestically and from outside. These include a military threat from Israel; psychological (and possibly military) pressure from the United States and others over the issue of terrorism; the repercussions of Syria's failure in Lebanon; internal-security problems; and an acute economic crisis that is threatening to worsen. The recent upsurge of tension between Syria and Israel has eased off for now. Some Israeli leaders dismissed it as ``media hype,'' but the potential for a collision clearly existed.
``There's an ever-present danger of a clash, especially in Lebanon,'' says a Western military observer who has watched Syria for years. ``There's nothing particularly new in that -- the circumstances have existed for months. But maybe there are more pressures on Damascus now than before.''
Some observers speculated that Assad might go to war against Israel in order to win Arab political support and, more important, funds to shore up his ailing economy. But even the Israelis conceded that the new emplacements built by Syrian troops in southeast Lebanon, with which Israel took issue, were defensive in nature.
``These things were certainly built, but they were purely defensive, and from Syria's standpoint quite understandable,'' the military observer says. ``Syria shows no sign of wanting to take the offensive -- it's the worst moment it could choose. Assad never does anything without thinking it out very carefully, and being sure there is a dividend at the end. It's hard to see a dividend right now.''
Despite denials from Israeli leaders, Syria apparently remains convinced -- as do many sources in Lebanon -- that Israel intends to deal it a major military blow sooner or later, to set back Assad's hopes of achieving strategic parity with the Israelis. This fear is seen as underlying both Syria's defensive measures in Lebanon and its maneuvers aimed at breaking its regional isolation.
Repeated accusations from the US, Israel, Britain, and others of Syrian involvement in terrorist actions have also fueled Syria's feelings that it is the target of a coalition of hostile forces. Reports of renewed Syrian efforts on behalf of American, French, and other Western hostages in Lebanon are seen by some sources as reflecting a Syrian attempt to stave off those pressures.
Another source of pressure comes from terrorism within Syria itself. Officials admitted belatedly that at least 140 people were killed in a series of explosions on board inter-city buses in northern Syria on April 16. A month earlier, a truck bomb caused several casualties when it exploded on the outskirts of Damascus.
The bombings have created what Syrian and foreign sources describe as a state of security paranoia and suspicion in Syria. Border security measures have been drastically tightened. Although the bombings were blamed on Israeli or Iraqi agents, several sources and two Arab publications have said they may have been the work of a former Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, who is said to have defected to Christian east Beirut.