After Years in the Wings of Arab Politics, Assad Steers Syrians Onto Center Stage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The marbled lobby of the Damascus Sheraton hummed with heavyweight delegations. The Arab winners in the Persian Gulf War and their Syrian hosts beamed.

After long years of self-exclusion in the wings of Arab politics, President Hafez Assad had steered his regime onto center stage.

"He has made Syria a player in inner Arab councils," said a ranking Western diplomat here. "Now you have to look at the Cairo-Riyadh-Damascus axis in terms of the peace process."

It was a long time coming, but last week's meeting here of what diplomats called the "GCC Plus Two" (Saudi Arabia and the five other nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt and Syria) put a finishing touch on Assad's about-face, brought on by momentous changes in Arab and international politics.

Persian Gulf foreign ministers in Arab dress and dark-suited Egyptian diplomats met in the Sheraton to hammer out the principle of a new Arab order, built initially on the formation of a security force in the Gulf.

Assad's smooth foreign minister, Farouk Shareh, moderated the consultations of his counterparts. Confidence filled the meeting hall.

Syria, Egypt and the oil-rich Gulf countries were on the rise; Iraq was on its knees, and the Syrians were crowing. Said Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam on Friday, sticking it to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein:

"Saving Iraq was possible and certain, but arrogance and greed blinded the man who could have saved his country. This giant who used to boast about his strength and might suddenly became a gentle lamb who pleads for peace and gives all concessions. . . .

"The Iraqi people are being killed twice, once by being thrown into this war, then by slaughter for rejecting the result."

Having written off its old enemy with insults, Syria now is preparing for this week's visit by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a mark of its new position among the Arabs. "There is no room in the world except for the powerful," explained Khaddam.

Syria has always been a power, but now the nature of its strength is changing. It was for decades a blocking power, built on Assad's stubborn diplomacy, Arab handouts and Soviet arms. Efforts to resolve the Middle East's seminal crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, more than once ran afoul of Damascus. For instance, Egypt, now an ally, was shut off by Assad for its separate peace with Israel.

Assad's regime remains opposed to separate deals but apparently now sees the peace process revolving its way. The government newspaper Tishrin said in a Friday editorial, using a new tone toward Washington in reference to President Bush's call for movement on the Palestinian problem: "It's the first time that an American President speaks with resolve and determination of the necessity to implement Resolutions 242 and 338"--the U.N. Security Council formulas for peace.

But, it warned, "translating words into deeds requires a firm stand against Israel's stubbornness so that Bush's plan will not be buried."

Damascus' Arab credentials on Israel, which has annexed the Syrian Golan Heights it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War, are unimpeachable. It has fought in every war against the Israelis. But in recent years it has also kept the Golan front quiet, a signal of changing times.

Assad's position has been affected by developments beyond the Arab world, specifically the tempered policy of its military sponsor in decades past, the Soviet Union. Three years ago Moscow made clear to Assad that his demand for "strategic parity" with Israel was not in the cards. The Soviets agreed to supply adequate defenses, but nothing more.

More recently, the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe has forced Assad's government to look elsewhere for trading partners, a development that has colored its diplomacy as well. The end of the Cold War cost Damascus its superpower political leverage.

Change was under way here even before Assad took the fateful step of joining the American-led coalition against Iraq in the Gulf War. Increasing oil production has made Damascus less dependent on handouts; it now is a modest exporter of petroleum. The overall economy has also improved in recent months, diplomats say, as the regime moved to rationalize prices and free controls on the Syrian currency.

But it was the Gulf War that opened the door to political influence. At this time last year, Cairo and Baghdad, along with Damascus the historic centers of Arab power, were allied in the Arab Cooperation Council. Syria was the odd power out. But the ACC died with the invasion of Kuwait, and now Damascus holds the pivotal card in its alliance with Egypt in the winning coalition.

Furthermore, the crushing of Hussein's army has left Syria, which committed 20,000 troops to the conflict, statistically superior to its old enemies in Baghdad. Assad still has his 4,000 Soviet-made tanks, top-of-the-line MIG warplanes and strong air defenses. Using just a slice of his military power, Assad finished off the forces of Christian strongman Michel Aoun in Lebanon during the prewar Gulf crisis.

"Assad wants Syria to play an important role," the Western diplomat asserted. "Projection of military power is also a political projection."

And with his Gulf commitment, the Syrian president reaped financial benefit. No figures have been disclosed, but Damascus-based diplomats estimate that Syria received up to $2 billion from the Saudis and the Gulf states. More will come to Damascus in payment for positioning Syrian troops in the region as part of the Arab component of the postwar security agreement.

Several diplomats say Assad has already put some of the initial disbursements into the economy, arranging to pay off some soft loans from Japan and other non-Arab states in hopes of boosting his credit rating.

Putting the profits into butter instead of guns is a shrewd political move, the analysts say. An improving economy could assuage Syrian public opinion that, though suppressed, was confused and troubled by Damascus' alliance with Western powers against Arab Iraq.

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