DAMASCUS, SYRIA -- The bride and the bridegroom, son of a wealthy antique dealer, kissed at the top of the stairs and descended, under an arch of sabers and torches, toward their guests seated by the Sheraton Hotel pool, far from any sign of the widespread want and consumer shortages that Syria's economic crisis has produced.

White pigeons released by the newlyweds fluttered over the heads of the revelers. Drinks flowed as a band played, a singer belted out local favorites and waiters served a sumptuous buffet. The feast followed traditional wedding rites that ended with a shower of rose petals in the synagogue of Damascus' Bab Touma quarter.

Joseph Safina Hamadani, a Syrian Jew, had married off his oldest son, Musa, with similar pomp last year and now it was Elie's turn. Hamadani said he had five more sons to go, and two daughters.

Similar extravaganzas are put on at least twice a week at the Sheraton. To an outsider observing such extravagance, or the crowds of shoppers in the lively Hamidiyeh souk, where peddlers sell anything from stuffed falcons, brassware and trinkets to leather slippers and aromatic spices, the spectacle can be hard to reconcile with complaints about shortages.

But the shortages are real, as Syria attempts to combat its most severe economic slump in more than a decade. Sugar, butter, cheese and tomatoes are sometimes nonexistent. Long lines form regularly in front of bakeries and butcher shops. Basic medications such as antibiotics, aspirin and cough syrup are not available.

Cotton, in a country ranking third after India and Egypt as exporter, is in short supply if it can be found at all. Tissue and toilet paper are embarrassingly scarce.

During the Moslem fasting month of Ramadan, residents in the poorer Damascus neighborhoods got up at dawn to stand in line for vegetables, rice, cooking gas and other commodities before work at government-sponsored cooperatives. Fistfights broke out over bags of sugar, flour or tea.

A wave of industrialization in the 1970s has faltered because of limitations in local resources and expertise, a minimal inflow in hard currency and ill-considered planning. The state-owned Sweida shoe factory, which used to produce 3,000 pairs of shoes daily, now puts out 800 and is operating at a loss because prices are fixed and the government is short of funds to import bare essentials such as glue.

Al Khumassiya, the biggest textile factory in Damascus, is now state-run and has 27,000 workers. It employed 6,000 when it was private and still making a profit. Machines that needed one man to operate them now have five.

Few observers think that the gloom over the economy will lead to any political instability. "If people have to constantly think of food and drink and worry about gasoline and medications, by the time they get all these things in their house the day will be over," one Syrian businessman joked.

Sixty percent of the budget goes to military and security spending. Military statistics are top secret, but it is clear that the financing of a 400,000-man military establishment is sapping Syria's scanty resources.

The average Syrian cannot understand how, in a country like Lebanon, which has been at war for 12 years, one can still find everything. Despite heavy-handed measures to curb smuggling, a lot of goods are transported across the border in ingenious ways. Syrian officials charge that state-subsidized medications are scarce because Lebanese middlemen buy them up and sell them in Lebanon at a profit.

Outsiders, however, cannot be blamed for everything. One chronic shortage is plastic for bottles. A foreign resident said he was baffled when he arrived in Syria this year because no one would sell him locally brewed Barada beer. "If you want Barada beer, you have to have empty bottles; but if I had never bought the stuff before, where can I get the bottles?" the perplexed West German wondered.

Yet there are some optimistic Syrians who argue that life is not all that bad.

"Look, if you can't find aspirin, you can take something else that has the same effect. It is in our nature to nag, but Syrians can adapt to anything," said a writer who studied abroad for seven years. "We are happy and we are not just scraping by. You can't buy bananas and apples, but cherries and peaches are in season now. I would not trade Damascus for anything."

Other Syrians are more troubled about the future. With the minimum wage at 800 Syrian pounds a month (equivalent to $205 at the official rate of exchange, but only about $30 at the black market rate) and government officials making not more than 2,000 to 3,000 Syrian pounds, many educated Syrians are looking for ways to leave the country, according to Damascus-based diplomats. Half of the approximately 120,000 Syrian students who travel abroad every year to study never return.

The dilemma for businessmen and merchants is far greater. They are caught between those who want to liberalize the economy and give more freedom to the private sector and Baath Party ideologues determined to stamp out corruption and to improve the economy and production levels through reforms.

"We don't know which pillow to sleep on," said a businesswoman whose husband, an engineer, was jailed five months ago for allegedly paying off a contractor who works for the government. She complained that one day, U.S.-educated Economy Minister Mohammed Imadi appears on television with Central Bank officials to urge the business community to fend for itself, while the next, Prime Minister Abdul Rauf Qasim "gives us totally different signals."

So many well-to-do Syrians are now in jail on charges of dealing in foreign currency, smuggling and bribing government officials that people are talking of the "golden age of Syrian prisons." Money-changers, black marketeers and residents caught leaving the country with U.S. dollars receive sentences of up to 25 years in prison.

A middle-ranking government official told a friend that his salary of 2,000 Syrian pounds a month is hardly enough for 10 days of groceries for his family.

Importers are strapped unless they have vast deposits of foreign currency abroad or in Syria. Money transfers for small businessmen are either impossible or dangerous. "No one accepts letters of credit from the Bank of Syria unless it is confirmed," a businessman said. "To get authorization you need to be importing an item on a list of high priorities. In other words, to get a letter of credit you need a lot of pull. If I run out of the merchandise I want to sell, how do I finance future orders?"

Even if Syria wanted to accommodate importers, there is little hard currency, known as "rare money," in Syria to transfer.

No one is allowed to import steel, iron, wood or pharmaceuticals, all of which are state monopolies. A Lebanese businessman who deals in the export of wood from an African country said Syria wanted to pay him back with cement.

Some Syrian tycoons, eager to help out, have entered into joint ventures with the state for tourism and some agricultural projects. Some have been able to benefit from special currency, labor and import restrictions. This step is seen by some as a first move in liberalization, while Communist and Baath Party hard-liners see it as a step back.

"Economic systems in Syria cannot cope with the needs of our country or with international development," businessman Saeb Nahhas said. "Some kind of updating was required and President {Hafez} Assad responded to an initiative by us that may be expanded to other sectors." Special laws and decrees have helped create companies with 25 percent public and 75 percent private ownership. One of these is Transtours, a Volvo taxi and transportation service doing business at Damascus' big hotels. The construction of tourist complexes outside Damascus also is planned.

Agricultural development projects are still experiments that may not be productive for several years. In these endeavors, the private sector puts up capital, the state offers free land and machinery.

"Lately, all government regulations issued are giving the private sector a bigger role," said Ahmed Hadaya, agent for the importation of General Electric household and office supplies and once a dealer in Renault cars and Suzuki trucks. "This is a very good beginning but has to be expanded. Personally, I feel the same should apply to any person or individual, not only large companies."

The importation of cars in Syria has been prohibited because of wild speculation in prices. Sayyarat is a public company that has a monopoly over car sales, including used cars.

To Leila Djabri, a lawyer and critic of joint ventures between the state and "the old bourgeoisie," Syria's "deficit is equal to the deposits of Syrians abroad." A member of the Communist Party, Djabri argues that Syria's class of rich people, who fled the country in the early days of the present regime, are now coming back with new clothes "just because they have a few dollars."

"We paid with our blood, sweat and in taxes. We went hungry and now the land is being given back to those with big fortunes," Djabri said.

Despite the objections of people like Djabri, there seem to be few ways to attract the capital of Syrians abroad, estimated at $52 billion, other than by liberalizing the system and building confidence in it.

However, liberalization and what the private sector wants are contrary to the basic tenets of Baathism and socialism.

"There is a whole set of hidden agendas operating," one western diplomat said.

Senior military and party officials are not as deprived as the rest of the population. Despite the ban on importing new cars, in effect for at least five years, the latest Mercedes and BMW models are somehow brought in for family members of important figures.

A popular joke is about a Syrian family that goes to vacation in West Germany. While their car is cruising along the autobahn one of the children exclaims: "Daddy, Daddy, you never told us all West Germans were Baathists. They all have BMWs and Mercedes cars."