Syria is beset with so many problems that even some of its government officials approach Western embassies about the possibility of emigrating, say diplomats in that nation's capital. ``I've been with the ambassador when he meets a provincial governor or some other official,'' one Damascus-based Western diplomat says. ``Then, a few weeks later, the same official will approach me and ask about the possibility of emigrating. It's incredible - even they are looking for a way out.''
Whether the number of Syrians seeking to emigrate has, in fact, substantially increased this year is impossible to tell. Such figures are not available from the Syrian government.
But what the diplomat's tale captures is the mood prevailing among Damascenes that 1986 has been disastrous for them and their nation. There is a growing sense that Syria's foreign policy is in disarray and its economy is in a shambles.
The almost palpable sense of gloom in Syria only deepened when Britain broke diplomatic relations with Damascus last month and publicly accused the government of sponsoring terrorism. The Syrians have strongly denied the British allegations that Syria participated in last April's plot to smuggle a bomb aboard an Israeli passenger jet in London.
But the denials did not stop the United States, Canada, or Belgium from recalling their ambassadors from Damascus.
Worse, from Syria's perspective, is that it may still face joint action from European states. The European Community is scheduled to again discuss Britain's request for sanctions against Syria Monday.
``Everyone is mad at the Syrian government these days, even the Syrians,'' says a young Syrian businessman who spoke on condition he not be named.
The sense of growing isolation leaves Syrians feeling vulnerable and exposed. If the Europeans took concerted action against Syria, denying it credits and loans, the regime's only choice would be to rely even more heavily on the Soviet Union and the East bloc, diplomats in Damascus say.
Turning to the East bloc is a disquieting solution for the Syrians, both because they value their relative independence from the Soviets and because their arms and aid requests frequently get turned down or trimmed.
The depth of discontent among Syrians is impossible to measure, because in Syria there is no way to publicly express opposition to policies followed by the Baathist socialist regime.
Since Britain announced it was severing diplomatic ties, the government-controlled newspapers have been filled with stories about messages of support being sent to President Hafez Assad's government from other Arab states and Syrian organizations. But, in private, middle-class Damascenes express doubt about the government's denials of involvement in the April bombing attempt, and frustration with other policies.
It is no accident, observers in Damascus say, that the most popular movie in town right now is a satire, made by a well-known Syrian comedian, lampooning the bureaucracy for its corruption and inefficiency. The hero, a hapless man who tries to do his work honestly and point out the system's faults, is killed in the end. Matinee and evening shows of the film are always packed, and the audiences howl with the laughter of recognition.
``Yes, I've seen the movie,'' the young businessman says. ``But it is too painful to watch it and to know that it is very accurate and that the only thing we do is watch ourselves and laugh. It is too painful to know we can do nothing else.''
Other signs that something has gone terribly wrong are daily shortages of food and other commodities. Electricity is cut several hours each day and water is shut off all night. Shoppers sometimes resort to buying sugar and oil at high prices in the black market rather than stand in long lines for limited supplies of subsidized staples.
Western analysts estimate that inflation is running at an annual rate of at least 100 percent. Unemployment is an estimated 20 percent; foreign-currency reserves are virtually nonexistent; and businessmen are being strangled by wide-ranging import restrictions.
Compounding the frustration Syrians feel about the nation's economic problems is their growing sense of isolation, both in the region and internationally.
Because it has aligned itself with Persian Iran in the gulf war, Syria's relations with most Arab states are strained. Its only allies are Libya, Algeria, and South Yemen - fellow hard-line states. Kuwait no longer gives the aid it once did for Syria's ``steadfastness'' against Israel. Saudi Arabia is estimated to be paying only about one-third of a commitment, agreed upon at the Arab League summit in 1978.
Until recently, the Iranian alliance was attractive to Syria for two reasons: It damaged Iraq, which is run by a rival branch of the Baath Party, and it provided Syria with an estimated 6 million tons annually of high-quality Iranian crude oil at bargain prices.
The Iranian connection, however, now appears to be threatening another Syrian foreign policy interest - its involvement in Lebanon. Pro-Iranian fundamentalists, aligned with anti-Syrian Palestinians, are increasing their strength in Lebanon, at Syria's expense and embarrassment.
[Syria apparently played little or no role in the release Sunday of American David Jacobsen in Lebanon by the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad group. But, Reuters reports, Syria's premier said yesterday that Syria was ready for ``state-to-state'' coordination to help free Western hostages in Lebanon. Recent reports from France have said the two countries were cooperating closely to obtain the release of seven French nationals.]
Syria's problems in Lebanon, with Iran, and with the West have combined to make 1986 the worst year for its foreign policy, diplomats in Damascus say, since the low point of 1982, when Israel destroyed Syria's air defense system.
Mary Curtius, the Monitor's Mideast correspondent, returned to Amman yesterday after four days in Damascus.