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Bright Lights Seem to Have Gone Out for Syria

June 13, 1986|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — 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.

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