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Cairo Exiles, Omanis and Abu Nidal : Rebels of Many Causes Find Home in Damascus

Times Staff Writer

With so much attention being focused on Abu Nidal, the notorious Palestinian terrorist, almost no one pays much attention to all the nearly forgotten or unknown causes that are directed from the second floor of the Cassion Hotel here.

In the lobby, the only clues to what goes on upstairs are the posters in the lobby of Syrian President Hafez Assad with the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian leader and Arab nationalist.

A visitor ascends the dusty, fly-blown staircase and emerges into a hallway that seems dark and foreboding after the brilliant afternoon sunshine in the street. On the right is the office of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, on the left that of the Popular Liberation Front of Bahrain, not to be confused with the National Liberation Front of Bahrain, which is next door.

Farther along is the office of the Egyptian exile organization, where a loud meeting is going on in the distinctive Cairo dialect. At the end of the hall, two men are slumped in chairs that belong to the Somali Democratic Salvation Front.

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These are just a few of the revolutionary groups that have found refuge in Damascus. Much has been made of Syria’s ties to alleged Palestinian terror groups, but it must be said that any number of other revolutionaries have also been given sanctuary by Assad’s government.

“It all ties in with the terror question,” commented a Western diplomat who attempts to keep track of the profusion of groups that have set up offices here. “The Syrians draw a distinction between national liberation and terrorism. They say granting sanctuary is part of their broader support for national resistance.”

Indeed, Syria’s ruling Baath Party is divided into two sections: a “regional” command that deals with Syrian matters and a “national” command that is supposed to deal with matters relating to the larger “Arab nation.”

In the course of a recent two-week visit, a reporter sought without success to get a spokesman for the national command to outline the party’s policy on liberation movements and terrorism. Even the list of groups represented here is a closely guarded secret, though it apparently includes dozens of them.

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Palestinians Most Numerous

The most numerous, of course, are the Palestinians. There is a veritable rainbow of Palestinian sects, running the gamut of the political spectrum from Saika, virtually a creation of the Syrian army, to the tiny Palestine Communist Party and the Abu Nidal group, which is known officially as the Revolutionary Council of Fatah.

Abu Nidal is a name assumed by the renegade Sabri Banna, who is wanted in Italy in connection with the terrorist attack on the Rome airport last December and whose organization exists outside the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization.

The only Palestinian group not represented in Damascus is the largest one, the mainstream Fatah faction led by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Assad and Arafat have been feuding since 1983.

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It was on the basis of “national liberation” that Assad recently justified the existence in Damascus of two offices occupied by the Abu Nidal group. Assad insists, though, that this group is limited to “cultural and political” activities and is not allowed to engage in terrorism.

The group’s principal cultural effort, a magazine called Al Thawra, recently brought out an English-language edition, and it is much in demand in Western embassies.

It is impossible for an outsider to gauge the veracity of what Assad says about the Abu Nidal offices. The group’s local representative is a soft-spoken historian named Walid who dresses in black suits and politely makes clear to visiting reporters that no statements are issued except by the group’s official spokesman in Lebanon.

Seven of the Palestinian groups represented in Damascus are under an umbrella organization known as the National Salvation Front. The front tends to support the Syrian view in regional affairs, though sharp disagreements are not uncommon.

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Most of the groups have large staffs, including propaganda and social welfare departments, and most have a printing press. Their relationship with the Syrians is an uneasy one: All publications must be submitted to Syrian censorship, and at one office, the leaders use the code word Alaska when referring unflatteringly to their Syrian hosts. Further, many Palestinians are prevented from freely leaving and re-entering the country.

Occasionally, the bureaucratic structure of these groups works to the apparent disadvantage of their cause: It can take days to get an appointment with even a low-ranking official. A couple of years ago, a Western ambassador planning a rare visit to a Palestinian group’s office was told at the last moment that the visit had been canceled because the leadership was drafting a statement on the death of Indira Gandhi.

Palestinian officials acknowledge that they have considerable private financial support--even the lesser leaders have chauffeur-driven Peugeots--but most of the other groups in Damascus are entirely dependent on the Syrians.

“They give us offices, apartments, cars and spending money,” one Arab revolutionary said, asking that he not be quoted by name. “They are very generous to our cause.”

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Source of Embarrassment

The existence of some of these groups can be embarrassing to the Syrians: Leaders of the Saudi Communist Party are here, but they are not allowed to have an office of their own, perhaps because the Saudis provide the Syrians with $600 million a year in financial aid.

More than 20 years ago, when Emperor Haile Selassie was on the throne in Ethiopia, the Syrians helped to organize the Eritrean independence movement. Now that the Ethiopian government enjoys close relations with the Soviet Union, the Syrians, who are also close to Moscow, might be expected to break with the Eritreans. But they have not.

“The Syrians give us strong political and material support,” Mohammed Nuur of ELF, the Eritrean Liberation Front, told a reporter.

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Scattered around Damascus in walk-up apartments are representatives of Moroccan students, Jordanian Communists and Chad liberationists. There is a coalition of Iraqi opposition groups and Kurd nationalists here, but that may change as a Syrian reconciliation with Baghdad gathers momentum.

Many of these groups appear to have a Marxist orientation, and their offices are complete with bookcases filled with the works of Marx and Engels in Arabic, printed in Moscow by Progress Publishers.

A visitor to the Bahrain National Liberation Front was told that the group is Marxist. The Popular Liberation Front says it is nationalist. They occupy adjoining offices and share a teapot.

Ali Jassem, who runs the National Liberation Front office, said: “The Soviets are not the enemies of our people. It is the Americans, with their bases.”

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According to Western diplomats, the National Front gets financial support from Iran, which once claimed the island of Bahrain as its own.

Since Bahrain is one of the most open countries in the Arab world, a visitor asked why more people simply don’t leave if they are unhappy.

“We don’t encourage refugees,” Jassem said. “In fact, I go home from time to time.”


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