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Syria Watches Iraqi Events Closely

Assad welcomes plight of archrival, but prolonged instability could threaten Damascus

FEW countries are eyeing developments in Iraq more closely than neighboring Syria. While President Hafez al-Assad is hopeful a pro-Syrian regime will be installed in place of his archenemy, President Saddam Hussein, Syrians remain sympathetic toward the Iraqi people. Neither want Iraq to emerge devastated.

"Syria obviously would prefer a stable Iraq. It has no interests in having a neighboring country in a state of chaos, because what happens in Iraq can have repercussions here," says one Western diplomat in Damascus, noting Iraq's alleged support of Muslim fundamentalists in Syria who plotted to overthrow President Assad in the 1980s.

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For years Saddam and Assad, members of rival factions of the Baath Party, have been foes. Early in the Gulf crisis, Assad sent 20,000 troops to join the US-led forces pitted against Iraq.

Sources here estimate that between 80 and 90 percent of the population in this tightly controlled country opposed Assad's support of the anti-Iraq coalition.

"Of course, I am with Iraq, without hesitation with Iraq," says a Syrian lawyer. "But the issue is [support of] the Iraqi people, regardless of Saddam Hussein."

The Iraqi president lost credibility by getting involved in a conflict he was bound to lose, diplomatic and Syrian sources say. But those quietly backing Saddam did so because he was seen as standing up to the United States and Israel.

Even Damascus, however, is concerned about the prospects of a fragmented Iraq that could threaten stability in Syria. The rebel drive against Baghdad "might encourage the Kurds in Syria or other minorities. The radical [Muslim] Shia in Iraq may encourage a radical Sunni group in Syria, [another Islamic faction].

"It presents the danger of overspill for Assad," says Walid Kazziha, a Syrian who now teaches political science at American University in Cairo.

Another reason the Syrian government wants a stable Iraq is to help offset what is considered to be the Israeli threat.

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"Assad wanted to avoid war in Iraq and also to prevent any violation of its territorial integrity, because Iraq has been the backup position vis- 136>-vis Israel," says a Western diplomat.

The people, too, would like to see a strong Iraq to counter Israel. "The [Gulf] war meant the destruction of the only hope which remained in the area," adds one Syrian intellectual. "The only party to support any Arab cause against the interests of Israel was Iraq."

Damascus hoped to see a pro-Syrian regime replace Saddam. "A Baathist regime, but with weak leadership that would have to depend on Syria, would be ideal for Assad," says Dr. Kazziha.

Because of the antipathy between the two countries, however, Damascus lacks a connection inside Iraq to influence the next leadership should Saddam fall, Syrian sources say.

It has, however, given the Damascus-based Iraqi opposition freer reign in promoting their cause through access to the Syrian and international press.

"There are good relations between our opposition and the government of Syria," says one leftist opposition member.

"The government is supporting us in many ways, politically and with the media. If the situation changes in Iraq, we think the Syrian government is the nearest [regime] in this region to help us."

Despite its sheltering of the different Iraqi opposition groups, including Islamic fundamentalists, Kurds, Communists and Arab nationalists, it is, however, difficult to predict how relations will develop should any one of these groups assume power.

Syria fears the Kurds and the amount of influence they might be able to wield.

As one Syrian source says: The Kurds gaining power would be like "letting a genie out of a bottle. You don't know what it will do when it is free."

On Tuesday, Damascus-based Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani returned from exile to northern Iraq, where rebels have been subjected to air attacks by Iraq's military, Reuters reports.

Syria's Assad has historically had trouble with Islamic fundamentalists in his own country.

Syrian troops crushed a revolt of Muslim extremists in February 1982, killing as many as 20,000 people in Hama, 120 miles north of Damascus.

Many Communists are also in Syrian jails for their anti-government stands. For the time being, however, Assad has successfuly divided the communist party, sources here say.

Even a democratic regime, which many in the Iraqi opposition say they will uphold if Saddam falls, could also prompt domestic unrest in Syria.

"If there were free elections in Iraq, Syrians will think, 'We are the last country run by a dicta-tor,' " says one Western diplomat.

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