DAMASCUS, JAN. 21 -- Syrian ministers have joined Saudi and Egyptian officials in pledging that an Israeli retaliation for Iraqi attacks will not force them out of the U.S.-led alliance against Iraq.

The defense minister, Gen. Mustafa Tlas, wrote an article in the official daily Thawra in which he addressed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, saying, "You are free to fight the whole world alone, but you are not . . . free to call on people to join you in this foolishness."

Last weekend, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa met ambassadors from the European Community and other nations, one of whom quoted Charaa as saying Syria agreed with Egypt's public statement that, if attacked, Israel had a legitimate right to hit back. Charaa reportedly added that such an act would complicate the effort to preserve a united front against Iraq. Asked if Syria would leave the coalition if Israeli retaliation were "100 times" harsher than a new Iraqi attack, Charaa was quoted by another ambassador as saying "that will not change our position."

Saudi and Egyptian diplomats expressed similar views in interviews, Washington Post correspondent Caryle Murphy reported from Riyadh. The diplomats said any Israeli strike at Iraq would seriously rattle, but probably not fracture, the coalition among Washington, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria.

Although these Arab governments would face strong domestic criticism for appearing to be allied with an Israeli strike on an Arab state, diplomats in Riyadh said the coalition would hold, Murphy reported. Riyadh and Cairo "have the understanding that if Israel is attacked, it must be able to defend itself," said a European diplomat in Riyadh. "The problem is how to {publicly} formulate that in a way that they don't get into trouble with their Arab brothers. They have sympathy for the situation in Israel."

In Damascus, some Western diplomats suggested that Syria's stand was perhaps less definitive than the comments from Tlas and Charaa suggested. They noted that only nine days ago, during the visit here by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Charaa had said Syria would reconsider its attitude if Israel joined the fighting.

President Hafez Assad "is keeping his options open," a Western diplomat said. But for the time being, a European ambassador said, Syria has little choice but to "stay in the coalition and close its eyes because the alternative is to be on Saddam Hussein's side and lose."

The government -- caught between its anti-Iraq stance and the popularity among Arab masses of Iraq's aggressiveness toward Israel -- has turned to belittling the negligible impact of Iraq's missile attacks on Israel. Charaa criticized them as "not militarily significant," and contrasted them with the elaborate Syrian-Egyptian assault on Israel in 1973. "War is a serious business and must be planned," he said.

Tlas and Charaa denounced Iraq's attacks on Israel as a "trick" to "reshuffle the deck" in the Middle East, rather than a serious effort to "liberate Palestine." But they also acknowledged that many Syrians -- and other Arabs -- were pleased by the attacks. "Emotionally, every Arab approves of missiles hitting Israel," Charaa said, according to a European ambassador.

In a sign of Syria's unease at its role, Information Minister Mohamed Salman today called in reporters to warn that foreign correspondents risked expulsion if they reported on domestic opposition to Syria's support of the anti-Iraq coalition. The warning came a day after 43 prominent intellectuals and artists -- including the president's cultural adviser -- signed a tract condemning the U.S.-led war and, by implication, the Syria's role.

The tract, reported by ABC Radio and French TV, said: "This criminal war affects not just Iraq, but the whole Arab future. That is why every Arab man, whatever he is and no matter what his capabilities, should condemn the U.S. criminal acts."

In his weekend meetings, diplomats said, Charaa stressed that Syria had exacted a "heavy price" for its cooperation: a commitment by the United States to back an international peace conference to resolve the status of Arab lands held by Israel. "There will no peace in the Middle East," he reportedly said, "if United Nations principles are applied to Kuwait, but not to the Israeli-occupied territories" of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Syria's Golan Heights.

Still, Arab officials in Riyadh told Murphy, Israel has built political capital with Washington by giving up its long-standing policy of quick retaliation. And, they said, Israel will likely try to use it to ward off pressure for concessions when the Palestinian issue returns to the Middle East agenda.

Israel "will say, 'Listen, we didn't interfere with your war effort. We did you a favor. Why don't you do us a favor?' " said Abdulaziz Fayez, a political science professor at Riyadh's King Saud University.

"It's expected in all corners," said a Saudi official, "that after this thing is over, the Arab-Israeli issue will be dealt with immediately. Now, it's very important for the Israelis to score points for this discussion."

Some officials added that Israeli forebearance might help alter Arab perceptions of the Jewish state that would ease future relations with its moderate Arab neighbors.

One member of the Saudi royal family predicted, "In the whole of the Middle East, people will start thinking, 'Oh my God, Israel really wants to be a responsible member of the region and not a bully, and to be part of the new order.' " Israeli restraint, he said, "will be greatly appreciated."