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'The Heroic Uprising Continues,' Newspapers Say : Syria Sees Palestinian Disturbances as a Vindication

January 27, 1988|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — For weeks now, Syrian newspapers have carried the same banner headline every morning: "The Heroic Uprising Continues."

For Syria, a neighbor of Israel long regarded as the most unyielding in relations with the Jewish state, the current unrest among Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories is viewed as justification for the Damascus regime's hard-line policy.

"The uprising is a clear vindication for us," said Atef Matouk, editor of the English-language Syrian Times.

"If Israel stubbornly resists the holding of an international conference on the Middle East, it should expect an uprising by the Palestinians," Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Talas said.

"The youths throwing stones in the occupied territories are creating a new opportunity for the rise of Arab nationalism," Talas added.

The ruling Baath Arab Socialist Party recently held a mass demonstration in support of the Palestinian struggle in the occupied territories. A party official, Suleiman Kaddah, said the Palestinians had "unveiled the reality of the oppressive and fascist regime of Israel."

According to Western diplomats here, Syrian reporting on the unrest--apart from such rhetoric--has been relatively free of anything aimed at inciting the people of the occupied territories to violence.

But the Syrians have added their own special twist: Most accounts of the unrest include among the "occupied territories" where violence has broken out not only the West Bank and Gaza Strip but also the Golan Heights, which Israel took from Syria in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. There has been no corroboration of the Syrian assertions in reports from Israel.

Another special feature of Syrian reporting has been its use of the uprising to attack Egypt for maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel. Syria broke its ties with Egypt after Cairo and Jerusalem signed a peace treaty in 1979 and is one of the few countries that has not restored relations with the Egyptians.

"We Syrians expected the Egyptians to take tougher measures toward the Israelis," the Syria Times editor said. "Why not show solidarity with the Palestinians by breaking relations?"

According to Western diplomats, the Syrians are gratified to see the Egyptians suffer a blow to their public prestige so soon after the Arab summit conference in Amman last November, when Arab leaders agreed to permit the resumption of relations with Egypt.

According to diplomats, Syria is not only castigating Egypt but sending a discreet warning to Jordan, which has been pursuing quiet diplomatic contacts with the Israelis, to beware of the pitfalls of becoming too close to Israel.

Diplomats said the Syrians are still extremely leery of the role being played in the current unrest by Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

There is strong personal enmity between Syrian President Hafez Assad and Arafat dating back to 1983, when Syria helped foment a civil war within the PLO ranks in an unsuccessful effort to oust Arafat.

In recent months Syria has reportedly come under extreme pressure from the Soviet Union to moderate its opposition to Arafat and the PLO.

A Syrian-inspired "Salvation Front" composed of six Palestinian groups opposed to Arafat's leadership has been allowed to wither since the PLO's reconciliation talks last year, according to Palestinian officials in Damascus.

Western diplomats said it was widely seen as a gesture to Arafat by Assad when the Amal militia in Lebanon, a Shia Muslim group with close ties to Syria, announced last Saturday that it was ending a 14-month siege of Palestinian camps in Beirut and Tyre without forcing PLO forces to surrender their positions.

Like others in the region, Syrians are uncertain to what extent the PLO is controlling events in the occupied territories and to what extent the uprising is spontaneous. After Arafat called for a general strike in the occupied territories, one diplomat said, Syria was startled by the degree of compliance.

Syria, however, is showing concern over the role played in the occupied territories by Islamic fundamentalists. In 1982, the Syrians ruthlessly suppressed an uprising in Syria by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the experience has left the Damascus regime extremely sensitive to fundamentalism.

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