DAMASCUS, SYRIA — For years now, friends and foes of Syria have been asking how does Syria (that is, President Hafez Assad) "get away with it?"-- it being a policy of negativism and pompous rhetoric carried out with, or contradicted by, malice and brutality--while still retaining its alliance with the Soviet Union and the financial support of Saudi Arabia.
The answer now is that Syria is no longer getting away with it. The Soviets and Saudis are beginning to make Syria pay, by forcing a shift in its policies.
Take the issue of an international conference on regional peace, currently the Soviet Union's prime objective in the Middle East--also a desire of Arab governments and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Syria, in principle, also wants a conference but has wanted indications beforehand that the United States and Israel were ready to make concessions. The Soviet and Syrian foreign ministers met last October at the United Nations in New York, and while the Soviet minister said work on a preparatory conference should begin, the Syrian official said nothing. But strong and prolonged Soviet pressure paid off: In the statement issued after Assad's visit to Moscow last month, the Syrians agreed to a preparatory conference.
The Soviets and Saudis have been pressing the Syrians to do something about reviving Arab unity, so as to enable an Arab summit meeting. Specifically, they want Syria to give proof of concern for Arab unity by ending Syrian opposition to Iraq in the Gulf War. The Soviets have extracted a concession from Syria on the general point but only a partial concession on the other. Assad recently told the Saudis' King Fahd, who will host the next summit, that if the king could get every other Arab head of state to attend then he, Assad, would also come--thus removing what was perhaps the major obstacle to Arab reunification. On the Gulf War, the Soviets obliged Assad to say in Moscow that he favored the end of hostilities rather than only a limitation of hostilities, as he has said previously.
According to Israeli propaganda, widely reported in the Western media, Syria made the further concession of a real rapprochement with Iraq. President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Assad, according to the Israelis, met secretly in tents in the middle of the Jordanian desert. Altogether too picturesque; the two leaders have not met, reliable sources say, although there have been meetings at official levels and possibly between the foreign ministers when they were both in Moscow in March. In the meantime, media in Syria and Iraq continue their mutual abuse. In fact, Syria has just renewed a valuable agreement with Iran for the continued supply of oil, some of it free.
Then why should Israel concoct the story of an Assad-Saddam Hussein meeting? Because it could be immensely damaging to Assad's reputation inside Syria, where it would be seen not just as a concession but as a political defeat; and Assad is Israel's immediate enemy.
As for the PLO, it was clear during Assad's visit to Moscow that the Russians had failed to gain Syria's acceptance of Palestinian reunification, achieved by the Palestine National Council at its meeting last month in Algiers. Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in a banquet statement, said he approved; Assad said nothing.
That wasn't surprising. What happened at Algiers was a shattering defeat for Syria, in its attempts to set up a rival PLO. The fact that Assad is not prepared to accept his defeat gracefully is evident from the formal meeting he had last Monday with the leaders of PLO factions still ostensibly "loyal" to Syria. Dr. George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claimed that Assad supports Palestinian unity--which is dubious, as long as Syria continues to support the dissidents.
Assad's feud with the PLO, in addition to alienating the Soviets and the Arabs, earned Syria world enmity after the cruel siege imposed on the pro-Arafat Palestinian camps by Syrian surrogates in Beirut. Even Libya, Syria's only significant Arab ally, has made up with the PLO in the wake of the Algiers meeting. The PLO itself wants to heal the rift with Syria because, whether one likes it or not, Syria is one of the factors in the Middle East power game, and also because of the presence of large numbers of Palestinians in Syrian refugee camps and even more particularly in Lebanon, where they are subject to persecution by Syrian proxies.
For some time ahead, Arafat can afford to play a waiting game, resisting pressure for more extreme policies from militant groups who have returned to the fold by saying that the PLO must help in the formulation of a common Arab line toward a peace settlement, to be worked out at the summit--which, according to Arafat, could be held by September.
The general impression here is that after a long period of stalemate, things are moving again. Syria is having to go along with the momentum that has been created by Soviet pressure backing up Saudi pressure--an improbable but effective combination. Syria is in no position to resist because of its now-total isolation in the Arab world, its humiliation by the PLO and, above all, by its disastrous economic situation, which can be relieved, but only temporarily, by Soviet and Saudi charity.