Syrian President Hafez Assad, isolated abroad and facing persistent political trouble on the home front, has seized on the Israeli annexation of Syria's Golan Heights to try to rally renewed Arab, Soviet and internal support. But his initial efforts have produced mixed results.
This is partly because of Syrian extremism and partly, too, because inter-Arab feuds and the debilitating political effects of the Iranian-Iraqi war on the Arab world are proving extremely difficult for him to overcome.
The U.N. Security Council debate on the Israeli action is shaping up as a "major Syrian diplomatic fiasco," said a Palestinian scholar in Beirut prior to yesterday's vote on a diluted Jordanian resolution substituted for a previous, hard-line Syrian-inspired call for mandatory sanctions against Israel. In addition, there is no indication that Moscow is ready to meet Assad's request for a greater direct commitment to Syrian defenses in case of an Israeli attack.
In addition, Assad has not succeeded in mending his badly frayed relations with his two Arab neighbors, Iraq and Jordan, a step judged even by the Syrians as crucial to a more credible pan-Arab stand against Israel.
The one major success Assad has scored in his latest gambit for Arab world backing has been a surprising reconciliation with Saudi leaders who previously were furious with him for his refusal late last year to bless the Saudi eight-point Middle East peace plan.
"The Golan has pushed the Saudis and Syrians closer together, and both further from the United States," remarked one Arab political analyst here.
The Saudis, according to Palestinian and Syrian sources, are now ready to provide Assad with the additional funds he sought to buy more sophisticated Soviet arms to bolster Syria's already considerable military might.
The 53-year-old former pilot and Air Force commander has repeatedly stated his goal of establishing a "strategic balance" with Israel and his moves, such as now wishing to sign a strategic cooperation accord with Moscow, are often a mirror image of those of Tel Aviv in its relations with Washington.
"They honestly belive Syria has got to strengthen itself before it negotiates with Israel as otherwise it would be capitulation," remarked one Western diplomat who has carefully watched Syrian diplomacy here for the past two years.
The major danger of Assad's policy, according to many outside observers here, is that it may trigger an Israeli reaction to thwart Assad's achieving his proposed strategic balance.
Assad's initial strategy of trying to exploit to the maximum the Golan Heights annexation, as interpreted by Western analysts here, was first to present a resolution at the U.N. Security Council debate so extreme as to ensure a U.S. veto. This would serve to alienate the moderate Arab states, namely Saudi Arabia, from the United States and gain wider Arab backing for Syria.
Then, the Syrians wanted a meeting of Arab foreign ministers to prepare for an emergency summit of their leaders who would be called upon to declare their all-out backing for Syria and, above all, provide it with more money.
The Syrians have been complaining frequently about the downward trend in the payment of Arab subsidies pledged to them at the 1978 Baghdad summit because of their front-line role in the Arab-Israeli struggle.
Instead of the promised annual $1.8 billion, Syria last year probably got only $1 billion to $1.2 billion because neither Iraq, Algeria nor even its closest Arab ally, Libya, met its Baghdad pledge, according to Western sources here.
The Syrians are said by Western and other Arab sources here to be seeking a doubling of the original $1.8 billion in aid and will ask for this amount at the next Arab summit.
The summit would also be asked to take a very anti-American stand, possibly imposing economic and other measures against the United States in retaliation for its promised veto of the Arab resolution calling for an economic and military boycott of Israel.
In short, Assad planned to "cash in" both politically and financially on the Golan Heights, gaining acceptance in the Arab world of Syria's central role vis-a-vis Israel and obtaining massive new aid for arms and the country's nearly empty coffers.
The Syrian president, a past master both at brinkmanship with Israel and exploiting the collective Arab guilty conscience over inaction, initiated his strategy with what Syrian and Palestinian sources here say was a a very successful tour of the Persian Gulf states in late December.
In particular, he convinced the Saudis, increasingly worried themselves about the possibility of a surgical Israeli strike against the highly vulnerable kingdom, that "Syria remains the front line defending all the Arabs, including Saudi Arabia, against Israel," said one high-ranking official of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The size of the new Saudi financial commitment has not been disclosed. But Assad is said here to be counting heavily on the Saudis to obtain most of the $1.8 billion he hopes to get from the oil-wealthy gulf states. It is they that are already providing almost all of the Arab subsidy payments to Syria now anyway.
Assad's strategy of rallying the Arab world to his side with the help of Saudi Arabia began foundering on the hard rocks of multiple internal Arab feuds almost as soon as he completed his tour of the gulf states.
A brief illusion of progress came when Saudi Arabia and Libya agreed Dec. 31 to renew their diplomatic ties for the sake of "healing the rifts in Arab relations and unifying Arab action against the common enemy."
Less than a week later, however, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi bitterly attacked the pro-American Arab states, specifically the Saudi kingdom, saying they were far more dangerous than Israel and "must be fought and overthrown."
A day later, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein issued a flat "no" to the Syrian call for the closing of Arab ranks behind Syria to face the new Israeli challenge.
In a speech full of sarcasm and bitterness over the lack of Arab backing outside the gulf for his own war against Iran, Saddam Hussein said, "He who speaks of the Zionist annexation of the Golan Heights and wants their liberation through the participation of Iraq and the Arabs . . . first has to stop backing the enemies of the Arab nation."
Iraq has repeatedly accused Syria of siding with Iran in the gulf war, including sending arms to Tehran and allowing Iranian warplanes to use Syrian airfields to attack Iraqi positions.
Finally, last week Jordan, long at odds with Syria over the war and other issues, blamed the Syrians for a bomb that went off in Amman.
The resurgence of issues dividing the Arab world prior to the Golan Heights annexation seems to have doomed Assad's hopes for any effective Arab unity on Syria's behalf.
Asked if he thought the Arab nations would ever come together as long as the gulf war continues, one Syrian official silently shook his head and said, "There is no way."
Assad's ploy at the U.N. Security Council to court an American veto and use it to parlay Arab anger into action against the United States also seems to run into more difficulty than originally envisioned.
Not only was a Syrian-inspired Jordanian resolution calling for a military, economic and diplomatic boycott too strong for the United States to support, but Britain and France also were threatening to veto it. In fact, Syria could not even get the nine affirmative votes necessary for a majority.
A watered-down version of the original resolution making the boycott mostly voluntary rather than mandatory, which at first failed to rally nine votes, finally got nine yesterday, and a U.S. veto.
Assad's bid to extract a firmer Soviet stand on his behalf seems to have gained yet another promise from Moscow of more arms but not a commitment--at least not a public one--to help defend exposed Syrian military positions in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon.
Syrian troops, and now missiles, are stationed there as part of the Arab peace-keeping force sent to Lebanon after the civil war of 1976-77. Syria is reportedly arguing with Moscow that they should be considered as part of the country's frontline defenses and that the Soviets should help protect them in case of an Israeli attack.
Nor is there any public indication yet that Moscow is ready to sign a strategic cooperation agreement with Syria to counter the presently suspended U.S.-Israeli one.
Despite these obvious and apparent setbacks, the Syrian leader probably will push ahead with his present strategy, hoping that events will yet play into his favor. In any case, Assad does not seem to have any other realistic options, since virtually all outsiders here agree that he has no interest, or intention, of going to war now with Israel.