JERUSALEM, AUG. 14 -- By agreeing to commit troops to Saudi Arabia, Syrian President Hafez Assad is undertaking a daring political shift that may endure as one of the more remarkable developments of the Persian Gulf crisis, in the view of diplomats and analysts in the Middle East.
Although he is a bitter rival of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Assad's military alignment with the United States and Egypt cuts against the grain of his political identity and that of his nationalist Baath Party. For that reason, Middle East analysts believe Assad has launched an initiative that may boomerang against him if the U.S.-led effort to break Saddam does not yield results soon.
"Assad still portrays himself as the head of a radical nationalist Arab regime," said Itamar Rabinovitch, rector of Tel Aviv University and one of Israel's leading experts on Syria. "It does not behoove him to be seen as cooperating with the United States against another nationalist Arab regime."
For most of his 20 years in power, Assad has been the foremost representative of hard-line anti-Western opinion in the Arab world. He led Arab resistance to the Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel, worked to undermine the U.S. presence in Lebanon, and served as the principal military client of and surrogate in the region for the Soviet Union. He also has been the patron of radical Palestinian groups, including the one believed responsible for the bombing of a Pan American jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.
Nevertheless, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact as a rival to the West and the growing power and ambitions of Saddam as an Arab leader have dovetailed to make a shift toward the West Assad's only viable tactical option, analysts say. In their view, the refusal of the Soviet leadership under President Mikhail Gorbachev to back Syria's drive for military parity with Israel has left the regional diplomacy of the United States and Egypt as Assad's only hope of advancing his chief strategic aim, which is rolling back Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon.
At the same time, as the leader of a competing branch of the Baath socialist movement, Saddam has long been seen as Assad's most dangerous Arab rival. Syria supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, and last year Iraq retaliated by backing Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun in a bloody campaign against Syria's army in Lebanon.
By joining the Arab force in Saudi Arabia, Assad now hopes to realize several key aims in addition to blocking Saddam, analysts say. In the short term, Syria can be expected to demand major Saudi financial assistance for its struggling economy, and it also may request U.S. economic aid.
One expert predicted that Syria could demand up to $3 billion in payments from the Saudis, nominally in compensation for the economic cost of boycotting Iraq and sending troops to the gulf.
In the longer term, Assad clearly hopes that in the aftermath of the current conflict, Damascus will emerge as one end of an axis extending to Cairo that will form the new political center of the Middle East -- and that Syria's claims against Israel will figure in any post-crisis settlement initiatives.
"Assad will want to be rewarded by the United States," Rabinovitch said. "Above all, if the whole question of settling the region's conflicts comes up, he will want Syria and the Golan Heights to be included."
Israeli officials, who are warily observing the Syrian shift, argue that Assad may yet try to maneuver between the two Arab sides in the crisis, playing one off against the other.
As evidence, they point to negotiations in recent days between Syrian and Jordanian officials about the possibility of reopening an Iraqi oil pipeline that runs through Syria to the Lebanese port of Tripoli.
"He will probably not open the pipeline," one senior Israeli source said of Assad. "But the very fact that he was willing to negotiate about it, with the Jordanians playing as intermediary for Iraq, sends a signal.
"The message is that he is not comfortable in the role of ally to the United States. And the longer the crisis drags on, the more uncomfortable he will get."
This interpretation was disputed by other Middle East analysts, who pointed out that Syria's stand on the current crisis has so far been unambiguous. Damascus radio has been the most strident of the region in its attacks on Saddam, they said, going so far as to warn Saudi Arabia against compromising on Kuwait's sovereignty in the early days of the crisis.
Assad also protested against any delay in an Arab summit meeting called to act against Iraq, and today was playing host to the ousted Kuwaiti emir, Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah, in Damascus.
In addition to dispatching at least 2,000 troops to the Persian Gulf region, Syria also has begun deploying forces near its border with Iraq, diplomatic sources said, a move that could cause Iraq to shift some of its army now in Kuwait or along the Saudi border. Syria's army, while not as large as that of Iraq, is one of the most formidable in the region, supplied with thousands of Soviet-made tanks and intermediate-range missiles.
Still, some Israeli analysts say that by appearing to join a U.S. military drive against Iraq, Assad is risking the alienation of his own base in the Syrian Baath Party.
"There is a dangerous conflict between what Assad is doing and the ideology of his regime," said Pinhas Inbarri, the Arab affairs correspondent of the newspaper Al Hamishmar. "For the average Syrian Baathist, supporting the Saudi kingdom and the United States goes against everything they believe in."
"If Assad cannot show any gains from this policy in the near future, if the United States gets bogged down in Saudi Arabia or suffers a defeat, there could be a domestic rebellion against Assad," said Inbarri. "Saddam's popularity is growing in Syria as it is all over the Arab world."
Correspondent Nora Boustany added from Amman:
A prominent deputy in the Jordanian National Assembly says Assad is determined to "destroy Saddam." But Assad will not give an inch, by this account, before making the Saudis and the Americans pay a high price for his compliance with a pro-Western alignment.
Reports here suggest that Syria has turned down the Iraqi request to pump oil through Syria and the urgent pleas in the Jordanian press by Baathist leaders here to Assad to serve "nationalist interests" seem to have fallen on deaf ears in Damascus.
Assad apparently sees an opportunity not only to extract more money from the Kuwaitis and the Saudis but also for the demise of his old foe. "Defeating Saddam is not only a priority but a matter of survival for Assad," said a specialist in modern Arab history.
Reports from Damascus say Syria received Kuwaiti's Jabir as royalty today, treating him to a 21-gun salute and a full-dress ceremony to emphasize its support.