Bright Lights Seem to Have Gone Out for Syria

Times Staff Writer

At a bookshop favored by foreigners, an obviously pained proprietor was talking with a visitor about the economy when the shop was plunged into darkness by a power cutoff that has recently become a feature of daily life in Damascus.

"Syria is so gloomy these days," the proprietor said as the handful of customers made their way to the exit.

In contrast to the buoyant mood of only four months ago, when President Hafez Assad appeared to be moving from one triumph to another on the international scene, life has indeed become downbeat for the ever-outspoken Syrians.

Assad's international standing has been undermined by a policy fiasco in Lebanon, where his efforts to arrange a peace agreement among the warring factions ended in a bloody failure, and by continued suggestions from the United States, its European allies and Israel that he is a sponsor of terrorism.

Shaken by Internal Violence

Also, the country has been shaken by a resurgence of internal violence, marked by a series of bomb explosions the government has blamed on Muslim fundamentalists.

For the average Syrian, however, the harshest reality is the steady erosion of the national economy, with inflation running at between 30% and 80% a year, depending on who is doing the arithmetic. The government has literally run out of foreign exchange, and there are food lines in many government shops.

This array of problems has led a number of outside observers, primarily in Israel, to question the strength of Assad, who took power in a 1970 coup. But Western analysts here say they have seen no sign of erosion in his power, such as trouble in the armed forces.

Assad, 56, has been in failing health since he reportedly suffered a heart attack in 1984. A lasting impression of the president's visit to Amman in May, his first in nine years, was the pallor he showed on television alongside Jordan's King Hussein.

But Assad is working his usual grueling schedule, visiting Yugoslavia and Greece as well as Jordan, and seeing a steady stream of visitors who come away impressed by his grasp of detail and his self-assurance.

"Things are slipping internally at the moment," a Western diplomat remarked. "It may mean that his ability to control each side of Syrian policy is lessened. But Assad is still very much the man in charge."

There is still considerable puzzlement here about the bombs that exploded on nine buses and a train on April 16, killing 140 people and wounding 149 others, according to an official statement.

The explosions, which followed a bomb blast in March aboard a refrigerator truck in Damascus, appear to have been set with the primary aim of hurting young men from Assad's minority Alawite sect as they returned home from military service for a long weekend, according to diplomats in the capital.

Demonstrate Organization

"It's clear that you don't get bombs to explode in nine different places at the same time unless you have considerable organization on the ground, which has to be most worrying to the Syrians," one diplomat said.

The government initially blamed Israeli intelligence and "their agents in Lebanon" for setting the bombs but then arrested three Syrians and two Turks and accused the Iraqi government of having a role in the plot.

Appearing on television in what diplomats described as a relaxed manner, the Syrian prisoners said they were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group, from Hama, the city where in 1982 Syrian army troops ruthlessly suppressed an uprising by the brotherhood, killing thousands of civilians in the process.

Before these disclosures, suspicion had focused on Lebanese Christians, whose enclave outside Beirut has been the scene of car bomb explosions since the Christian leadership rebelled against a Syrian-negotiated peace agreement for Lebanon.

After having undermined Israeli and American efforts at solving the Lebanese puzzle, Assad was given a black eye in the Arab world when the agreement collapsed in less than two weeks.

Assad has refrained from sending his troops, estimated at 25,000 in Lebanon, against the rebellious Christians; many in East Beirut had feared he would. He has even suggested recently that he is willing to see the peace agreement amended if all Lebanese parties can agree on the changes.

The bombings at home have focused attention on the discontent that has been increasing over the last few months with the nation's seemingly intractable economic problems.

A Minor Oil Producer

Since Syria is only a minor oil producer, it has not been seriously harmed by the recent downturn in oil prices. The great blow has been the deep cuts in the amount of money flowing from the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.

Many of the oil producers are angry with Syria's support for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, and of them only Saudi Arabia continues to provide promised aid, amounting to between $600 million and $700 million a year, according to an official of the Economics Ministry.

In addition, remittances from Syrians working in the gulf area--an estimated 10% of the work force and 60% of Syria's university graduates--have declined sharply as the oil boom has faded.

The shortage of foreign exchange has not only curtailed imports but also seriously affected Syria's domestic industry because of the shortage of raw materials.

The old economic joke about a nation's economic strength being inversely proportional to the stiffness of its toilet paper has been given new meaning in Syria: The country has run out of toilet paper, because of a reported shortage of materials at the factory.

The Syrionics electronics factory has stopped producing color television sets because there are no spare parts. The factory now turns out Teddy bears.

"A lot of factories have been shut," a businessman said, asking that his name not be used. "They're either losing money or can't import raw materials."

Even Syria's credit with its allies in Iran appears to have run out, now that Damascus owes Tehran more than $2 billion for oil purchases. According to Western reports, the Iranians have stopped shipping oil entirely and Syria has been buying on the spot market.

Power cutoffs have become a regular feature of life in the capital, now lasting four hours a day and scheduled to go to eight hours a day in the summer.

Turbines Out of Service

Officials blame a shortage of rainfall for the problem, but the real reason appears to be a combination of bad maintenance--six of the eight Soviet-supplied turbines at the Euphrates Dam are said to be out of service--plus a price subsidy policy that has resulted in demand for electricity growing at 30% a year with no increase in capacity.

"We keep hearing a lot of negative comments about Assad's March 8 speech calling on Syrians to tighten their belts so that the country can achieve parity with Israel," a Western ambassador said. "Syrians feel they have done their share, while the leadership drives around in limousines and lives exorbitantly."

After the U.S. attack on Libya in April, the Syrians were believed to have expressed concern to the Soviets about the poor performance of Soviet military hardware.

Early in May, a visiting Soviet general promised continued support for the Syrians. At the same time, newspapers in the Persian Gulf area reported that Damascus was preparing to take delivery of MIG-29 fighters from Moscow in an effort to improve air defenses.

"The Syrians were rather shocked about what happened in Libya," a Western diplomat here said. "It left them wondering whether this reflected Libya's relative lack of sophistication or exposed some intrinsic weakness in the Syrian air defense system. I imagine the Soviets got quite an earful."

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