A glimpse of the Syrian press or a taste of the heady official rhetoric is sufficient to indicate that Syria sees itself besieged by a legion of cunning enemies, working their will in part through Moslem Brotherhood militants who have taken up arms against President Hafez Assad's government.
A partial list of its enemies includes radical Iraq, conservative Jordan, the Christian Phalangists of Lebanon, and the three parties to the Camp David accords: Egypt, Israel and the United States.
In addition, there is the new Arab axis of Iraq, Jordan again and Saudi Arabia, which Damascus sees as an additional threat.
The local press describes Syria as standing alone, like David before Goliath -- Syria the stalwart of Arab unity, the main Arab base for the struggle against Israel, the counterweight to Israeli military might and the principal protector now of the Palestinian cause.
Close observers of Syrian political behavior are quick to warn a visitor, however, that the world portrayed in the media is not the world in which Assad lives or acts, and that few Syrian officials take the official rhetoric very seriously.
Discrepancies between word and deed abound. For instance, they note that while the United States ranks officially as the "number one enemy," Assad has carefully kept the door open to Washington. The U.S. ambassador here, Talcott W. Seelye, has no problem seeing top Syrian officials, and when private Americans with potential political clout come here, as Joseph Sisco and John Connally did in July, Assad receives them warmly.
His main interest these days reportedly is the U.S. election campaign. "He is intensely interested in American politics," said one source familar with Assad's conversation with Sisco.
Syrian behavior toward Israel is another good example. It is marked by extreme caution, particularly in Lebanon. The 25,000-member Syrian peacekeeping force has carefully avoided confrontation with Israeli raiding parties in the south.
Syria has also refrained from arming Palestinian guerrillas with either longrange artillery or ground-to-air missiles, which might provoke war with Israel.
Another example of the sharp contrast between Syrian rhetoric and deed came when Iraq severed diplomatic ties with Damascus, alleging it was sending military aid to Iran. The presscalled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein names, and Information Minister Ahmad Iskandar said that when Syria decided to topple him, "the road from Damascus to Baghdad will not pass through Tehran."
Yet, Syria did not break its diplomatic relations with Iraq in retaliation, and when asked if his country would now allow Baghdad to send oil in the pipeline crossing it from Iraqi fields to the Mediterranean coast, Iskandar replied, "Yes, unconditionally."
Damascus is an Arab capital with a difference. It is clean and orderly, with its wide, Paris-style boulevards washed down every night and traffic actually stopping at red lights -- something that does not come easily in this part of the world.
At least part of this achievement can be credited to American assistance for environmental engineering," as garbage collection is called in Washington parlance. A portion of the $450 million earmarked for Syria since 1975 has been used to buy American garbage trucks, and the government has trained Damascus residents to put their refuse in green bags.
Judging from the surprisingly clean state of Damascus, the American-style green bag system is working.
After months of closing Syria off to Western reporters, the government has begun allowing a few, anyway, to visit again under the close supervision of the Information Ministry.
Syria became so upset by adverse press coverage of Assad's difficulties with the Moslem Brotherhood that it began a campaign to intimidate some selected correspondents stationed in Beirut, who received anonymous warnings. But it denies any involvement in the shooting there last spring of Bernd Debusmann, chief of the Reuter news agency bureau. He was seriously wounded and left Lebanon afterward.
Correspondents allowed into Syria now are met at the airport and thereafter their stay is carefully supervised by the Information Ministry, which arranges and sits in on all government appointments and even those with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Travel around the country requires prior government approval. An attempt by this correspondent and a British colleague to visit on our own Aleppo, scene of several major disturbances, was forbidden. Tourists are permitted to travel freely, however.
All this is taken to mean that the government has regained enough confidence in its own stability to allow correspondents in again but not enough to allow them to work and travel freely.
Syria is also an Arab oil-producing country with a difference. Oil is its major hard-currency earner, accounting for more than $1 billion and 70 percent of the total value of exports last year. But oil is not a "net earner" for Syria.
Economics Minister Mohammed Atrash explained this curious phenomenon by the fact that Syria has to import roughly the same amount of oil as it exports each year, around 56 million barrels.
This is because Syrian oil is heavy and has a high sulfur content, unfit for its refineries without a mix of imported light oil, costing even more than its crude exports.
Syria was getting 14 million to 21.5 million barrels of such oil from Iraq before the war -- at world market prices. Because of damage to pumping facilities at Kirkuk, Iraqi light crude has ceased flowing. Oil from Saudi Arabia and Libya is taking its place, according to Atrash, and there is no sign of a shortage of supplies here in Damascus.
Syria appears to be walking a political tightrope between its political and military alliance with the Soviet Union and its heavy financial dependence on conservative Arab states.
Its biggest single source of aid is Saudi Arabia, which last year gave at least $400 million of the $1.6 billion it received in overall Arab assistance, covering nearly one-third of all government expenses. Most goes for defense, which accounts for 55 to 60 percent of the regular budget.
The new Syrian-Soviet treaty of friendship has raised questions in the Western diplomatic community here about continuing Saudi aid, given its apprehension about Soviet inroads into the region.
Atrash says there is no problem, however.
"We have explained to them the reason why this treaty is necessary and I think they understand," he said in an interview.
So far this year, anyway, Syria has gotten as much as it did in 1979 from its Arab financial backers, Atrash said, with Libya apparently offsetting Iraq's failure to pay the last installment of its promised aid.