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Behind Syria's troop buildup: Assad's increasing isolation

Syria's buildup of troops on the Jordanian border is the direct result of the growing isolation within the Arab world of Syria's President Hafez Assad. The Syrian leader is clearly determined to make other Arabs pay attention to himself and his country after both were spurned at the recent Arab summit meeting in Amman, Jordan.

To some extent, Mr. Assad is suceeding. Jordan's King Hussein has countered with troop movements of his own to the Syrian border. Saudi Arabian King Khalid has sent his brother, Prime Abdullah, to Damascus and Amman, the Syrian and Jordanian capitals, to try to calm the atmosphere.

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And all this at a movement when a high-level Soviet delegation is in Damascus to exchange instruments of ratification of the recently concluded Soviet-Syrian friendship treaty.

Syria has always seen itself as one of the potential candidates for leadership of the Arab Middle East -- above all, intellectually. Damascus, the Syrian capital, purrs when others recognize it as "the beating heart of Arabdom, " a phrase that even the late Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt invoked when the short-lived Egyptian-Syrian union was initiated back in 1958.

But as 1980 moves toward a close, Mr. Assad is haunted by the prospect of Syria's regional influence being whittled away alarmingly by events.

In today's climate of heightened religious sensitivities, Mr. Assad has managed until now to hold his won within Syria against orthodox mainstream Sunni Muslim zealots of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is vulnerable to them because he and his immediate associates in the government are not from the Sunni mainstream but from the Alawite minority.

The faith of the latter is an offshoot of Shia Islam. (This partly explains Syria's sympathy for Shia Iran, now at war with Sunni-run Iraq.) Mr. Assad's professed reason for his current military pressure on Jordan is King Hussein's alleged backing for the Muslim Brothers in their terrorist campaign within Syria.

Naturally that is personal concern to Mr. Assad. But he also is caught up in the far bigger issue of the strubble for the whole Arab world. Since the end of World War II, Syria has had its eye on that role and has found its most persistent rival to be Egypt. But now Iraq has arrived center stage as a result of the widening of the area of active crisis in the Middle East to include the Gulf.

With his war against non-Arab Iran, Iraq's strongman, Saddam Hussein, is upstaging both Syria and Egypt by trying to make the Persian Gulf into "the Arabian Gulf" in both name and fact.

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That in turn has introduced into the piture an alternative to the Palestinians as a litmus test for other Arab states to prove the genuineness of their commitment to the Arab cause. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peace treaty with Israel in 1979 split the Arab world over the Palestinian issue. Now Iraq's President Hussein has provoked a second split likely to prove even more far-reaching in its effects.

That first split in the Arab world after Camp David was two ways: On one side was a lonely and spurned Egypt (seen by most other Arabs to have flunked the Palestinian test), and on the other the rest -- with Syria in a commanding position among them.

The new three-way split, brought into the open at the recent Amman summit, which was boycotted by Syria, isolates Syria from the rest. Mr. Assad now finds himself virtually on his own. Egypt is in a similar situation in another corner.

In the third corner is Oraq, backed by those whose support both Egypt and Syria separately covet: namely, the great bankrollers of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Arab states of the Gulf, together with King Hussein of Jordan, less wealthy but occupying a key position when it comes to Palestine.

As if this were not discomfiting enough for the now isolated Mr. Assad, both United States President-elect Ronald Reagan and Israeli Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, thought likely to be prime minister of Israel after next year's elections there, are hinting at a new peace initiative to involve King Hussein of Jordan in tackling the issue of the Palestinians.

If King Jussein responds favorably to any such moves, and carries the Saudis and other Arab moderates with him, Mr. Assad would feel more abandoned and desperate than ever.

His growing isolation led Mr. Assad, first, in September of this year to join Libya in announcing their intent to merge into a single state; and second, one month later, to travel to Moscow and sign at last the treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union that the Soviet leaders had long dangled before him.

Neither of these initiatives is exactly an unmixed blessing for the Syrian leader. Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi is an activist with a lot of oil money at his disposal. Yet most other Arabs -- and not only they -- view him as a capricious and irresponsible troublemaker. Colonel Qaddafi has still to make the visit to Damascus anticipated at the time of the merger announcement.

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