DAMASCUS, SYRIA -- Angered over what it sees as meager compensation for a risky step to join a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, Syria is giving warning signals that it may reconsider this uneasy alliance and is reviving criticism of Washington for adding to Israel's military arsenal.

Western diplomats here have expressed concern over a recent Syrian government and press campaign accusing the United States of exploiting the Persian Gulf crisis to provide unlimited support to Israel and the diplomats said they were closely watching the Syrian leadership to detect any policy shifts.

At the same time, there is growing evidence here of popular discontent with the decision by Syrian President Hafez Assad to send troops to Saudi Arabia to join forces with a Western-Arab alliance against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and the discontent is said to have reached into the army. Syria has had 4,000 troops in the gulf for several weeks and has delayed in sending a promised 12,000 more, although there were reports from Saudi Arabia yesterday that some might be coming Sunday.

A cross section of Syrian students, lawyers, engineers and writers interviewed here said they have a hard time accepting or understanding Assad's dispatch of troops to Saudi Arabia, since it goes against the grain of years of anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric.

Foreign Ministry officials insist Syria's stance remains unaltered in that Iraq should pull out of Kuwait and the Kuwaiti royal family should be reinstated. But high-ranking Syrian spokesmen shudder at the mere utterance of the word "allies," when it comes to the United States, and most go tight-lipped when asked what Syrian troops would do if war breaks out in the coming weeks.

"We? Allies? Who said we are going to fight with the American army? Syrian troops are there at the request of the Saudi government to help defend their Arab country," one of Assad's trusted spokesmen responded bluntly when asked to clarify Syria's commitments.

The government's description of the Syrian presence in Saudi Arabia as "an interposing buffer force between Arab brothers" belies the sensitivity in Syria to the prospect of a drawn-out battle against Iraq.

"The sentiment in the army is the same as that of the people. Nobody wants to see the potential of an Arab country destroyed," remarked an Asian analyst based in Syria. The most telling display of opposition was posters of Assad in a southern suburb of Damascus with black crosses painted over his face.

Mamdouh Adwan, a member of the Syrian Writers' Union, said the Syrian people know that the decision for a war is not in their hands.

"People here fear loss of life and they feel bad for the Iraqi people," he said. "There is not much sympathy for Saddam. A million people died in the Iraq-Iran war due to a political decision. The war was reversed overnight with a political decision. There can be another half-million dead and in the end," he postulated, "the Americans may reconcile with Saddam."

Diplomats said there may be significance in an announcement Monday that the Progressive National Front, which groups leaders of all the major parties in Syria, will convene shortly, because it meets under Assad and can deal with major national issues.

A Syrian promise more than a month ago -- to send an armored division of 12,000 men, 250 tanks, 50 other armored vehicles and a brigade of paratroops to boost the 4,000 Syrian soldiers already in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- has yet to be fulfilled.

A Saudi official said yesterday, however, that more Syrian troops are expected to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, although he did not know how many, Washington Post correspondent Caryle Murphy reported from Dhahran.

Some observers in Dhahran speculated that Syria had delayed transferring the additional troops because of its recent military operation to overthrow rebel Lebanese Christian Gen. Michel Aoun. But a Saudi source said one of the reasons for the delay was difficulty in finding transport for the Syrian troops and their tanks after the Soviets refused to ship them.

Syria's reluctance to commit more special forces from its 9th Division in Deraa, near the Golan Heights at the Israeli frontier, is seen by diplomats here, however, as having deeper implications than the logistical problem of finding ships to transport them.

"We were led to believe that Syria would bring up its contingent to 20,000 men, yet nothing has happened. I think it is a political decision, not a genuine lift problem," one ambassador here said, adding an unconfirmed report that "three army commanders have turned down promotions to become divisional commanders."

Becoming divisional commander here is usually seen as a prize promotion that comes with a special lot of land, cattle and free access to Lebanon. While the reported refusals of three officers to be upgraded do not necessarily signify a broad trend of dissension, diplomatic observers said, they could suggest discomfort with new regional alignments that have put Syrian and American troops on the same side against another Arab country.

Syrian displeasure with broadened U.S. military assistance to Israel has dominated editorials and commentaries in the press for the last week.

"This unlimited support to Israel cannot serve peace or aim at bringing about peace, but it reinforces aggression and occupation and encourages invasion and expansionism," a Syrian official was quoted as saying last week. "Linkage of these emergency decisions to Iraq's stand on Kuwait is . . . devoid of any logic," he added. "The matter requires all Arabs to ponder what is happening and to study positions carefully so as not to lose sight of all indications of danger and to define the appropriate behavior," he said.

A Western diplomat cautioned that "it is premature to say whether this constitutes a real shift or a signal to both domestic and international audiences that Syria cannot be taken for granted. We are observing, we are watching and taking all these signals seriously."

The high point of Assad's transformation in U.S. eyes from radical Arab leader to military ally came in a speech he delivered Sept. 12 to graduating parachutists in which he defended the deployment of his troops alongside American soldiers.

Assad ridiculed those who contended that it was wrong to send Arab troops to the land of other Arabs because foreigners were present there. "The problem is the occupation of Kuwait," he said. "The issue is not that of foreign troops because the problem started before the foreign troops came to the area and it was the problem which brought to us foreign troops."

While officials in Damascus stress that there is a separation in their minds between the issues of Israel and the gulf, editorials in Al Baath, the newspaper of the ruling Baath Party, suggest otherwise.

"When Syria warned of the ramifications and dangers of American support of Israel, it wanted to stress the separation between the gulf crisis and the Palestinian issue, because any kind of assistance to the enemy {Israel}, harms the Arabs' central cause," the paper said. It added that "an Arab solution" based on Arab League principles "is what would be most useful and soundest."

Syria's leadership is said to be extremely unhappy over the decision by the European Community to lift only partially sanctions imposed on Syria in 1986 for alleged international terrorism. While some economic assistance has been restored, the EC still limits the number of Syrian diplomats in its capitals and keeps them under surveillance.

Syrian officials complained recently that with the EC loosening sanctions against Iran and China, the response to Syria's overtures is inadequate.

"The Syrians feel they are being shortchanged in the Western world," one ambassador here said.

Saudi Arabia has pledged Syria and other gulf states another $1 billion in the recent crisis, however. Also, some Lebanese Christians and Israelis have suggested that the West's tacit acceptance of Syria's overthrow of Aoun was a partial payoff for Syrian participation in the anti-Iraqi military force.

"Maybe the Syrians are using the issue of American assistance to Israel more as a pretext than anything else, but they feel strongly that they have made a significant contribution to the Arab League majority on the gulf issue and this has not been adequately recognized," one Western diplomat here commented.