Syrian television chose an odd film to mark the anniversary of the original Baathist seizure of power in March 1963.
At the end of a gory, uninhibited documentary on the Lebanese civil war, a commentator told viewers: "The pictures you have just seen are precisely those that the enemies of Syria are trying to reproduce here . . . ."
One does not have to look very hard to see that the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party is in deep trouble. Its own propaganda, taking on a wild, contradictory quality, is enough.
On the ond hand, Syria, citadel of Arabism, is said to be solid as a rock; a few "criminals and agents" are vainly trying to hinder its triumphant progress; there has been "some tension" in the north city of Aleppo (site of anti-regime bombings and assassinations in the past year) because of the "reactionaries'" displeasure with new regulations; in Hama, a leader of the fundamentalist Moslem Brotherhood was shot dead after violating traffic regulations.
On the other hand, President Hafez Assad has been attending emergency conferences of trade and professional organizations; he has been making nervous, violent speeches that are almost Sadat-like in their rhetorical excess; peasants and workers, teachers and civil servants have been invited to join militias to defend the revolution; the Damascus municipality is setting up "national committees" in every quarter and bazaar to safeguard "the city's eternal Islamic heritage, its history of Arab struggle, and its glorious future."
How can a country which, by its rulers' own implicit admission, is close to civil war, singlehandedly take on Israel? It cannot. But the rulers doggedly insist that it can.
If, ultimately, it is on the home front that Assad is most exposed -- with little or no chance of taking creative or daring initiatives to turn the tables on his adversaries -- he does have room for maneuver, though not much, on the external front.
It is there that, for some time now, he has been engaged in initiatives that are evidently designed to overcome, or at least divert attention from, his difficulties at home.
The initiatives are designed to tell the Americans that unless they make a radical change of course, abondoning Camp David for a truly "comprehensive" peace-seeking diplomacy, Syria will resort to drastic means to force such a change.
Though linked, the initiatives fall into three distinct parts; a sudden and startling new closeness to the Soviet Union; a partial withdrawal from "peacekeeping" responsibilities in Lebanon; and a calculated buildup of tension of the "eastern front" with Israel.
According to Hamad Shoufi, the recently resigned Syrian Ambassador to the U.N., Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam told Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in New York last year that if the United States continued its attempts to dragoon the Arab world into the Camp David alliance, Syria would be forced to seek salvation in the arms of the Soviet Union. More recently he told visitors that Syria was ready to join the Warsaw Pact.
Syria is not a faraway country like Afghanistan. It is in the cockpit of the world's most implacable conflict. Assad knows it; he knows that the Americans know it.
Syria's "redeployment" in Lebanon is as audacious in its way as the new relationship with the Soviet Union, and there can be little doubt that the Soviets, who opposed the entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon, had something to do with it. It is a confession of weakness and failure by a regime whose strategy has been designed to create the illusion of strength.
None of Assad's official aims -- protecting the Palestinian resistance, preventing Christian-inspired partition, restoring state authority -- has been achieved.
While it would be foolhardy to predict the consequences of eventual, full-scale Syrian withdrawal from Beirut and environs, the Palestinians will certainly be more exposed than ever to whatever military strike Israel may have in store for them; the Christians will be freer, should they so desire, to throw in their lot with Israel; and President Elias Sarkis, to maintain himself at all, will have to achieve the national accord which has eluded him and his predecessor for the past five years.
After it strained every nerve to preserve its positions in Lebanon, Syria's sudden decision to retreat is a form of blackmail directed against the Lebanese themselves, the Palestinians, the Arab community and the United States.
It is a well-established American fear -- and one of the reasons why the United States encouraged Syria's "peacekeeping" pretensions in the first place -- that Lebanon could be the region. It is a dangerous game for Assad because the first place where the fire would spread is Syria itself.
But it is not as dangerous as what is shaping up as the third element of his external strategy: brinkmanship on the eastern front would of course be dangerous at any time, but it is more than ever so when, as a result of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, the balance of military power has shifted so drastically in Israel's favor.
After long complaining about Soviet stubborness over the supply of arms, Information Minister Ahmad Iskandar now says that militarily Syria is "in a good position, on the way to strategic parity" with Israel. It is now officially acknowledged that the main reason for the Lebanese "redeployment" is the better to face Israel.
Naturally, and no doubt truthfully, Syrian officials say the moves are essentially defensive. But it is clear from the manner in which they make their denials of belligerent intent that they want to create alarm both at home and abroad.
So far Syrian brinkmanship has been exploratory. It remains to be seen whether, as well-informed observers suggest, it plans to engineer a "limited" war.
Syria will be calculating that Israel will not escalate from limited to full-scale war, thereby deploying its overwhelming superiority. The Israelis have made little secret that, for them, full-scale war would be designed to change the map of the eastern Arab world; to break the back of the Syrian Army, smash the PLO's politico-military infrastructure, and reestablish Maronite Christian ascendancy in Lebanon.
In the context of Lebanon, Menachem Begin and his ministers never cease to affirm their determination to come to the aid of "the Christian minority" against the "liquidation," "genocide," or "pogromization" which, according to them, the Moslems threaten. Nor is it just a question of the Israeli-created south Lebanon border enclave under the nominal control of Maj. Saad Haddad; some Israeli leaders project all of Lebanon as the potential platform of their intervention.
If the Syrians do seek "limited" war on the eastern front, their calculation that Begin will not escalate will be a bold one. Arab observers here all but take it for granted that the more Begin antagonizes the international community, the more the Israelis will be susceptible to their classic temptation of seeking a military way out of a diplomatic, political, or economic corner.
The more Syria's domestic situation deteriorates, the more Assad will be tempted to goad Begin into it.