Syria feels US policy shift under Reagan essential for Mideast solution
Soviet ally Syria considers a change in United States Mideast policy essential if a peaceful settlement is to be reached in the region. This demand cannot be dismissed as mere propaganda, born of the recent ratification of a treaty with Moscow by this nation of 13 million people. For in recent weeks, Syria also has gained recognition of its importance from no less than the giant the region, Saudi Arabia.
Syrian information Minister Ahmad Iskandar told the Monitor his government had no firm expectations from the incoming US administration of Ronald Reagan. "But we hope that it tries to regain for America's Mideast policy its lost balance, its lost logic in the region," he said.
The minister accused President Carter's policy over recent years of being "essentially an Israeli policy." In this way, he warned, the Carter administration "has brought the region to a blocked path, and to the brink of explosion."
Mr. Iskandar, a member of the regional (Syrian) command of the ruling Baath Party here, said the return from this brink to the possibility of finding a peaceful solution depends on two factors:
"First is our ability as Arabs to correct the balance of forces which was upset by the Camp David accords, and [Egyptian President] Sadat's shifting to the Israeli side," he said.
"Second is the extent of the American administration's awareness of the political dangers put in train in the Mideast."
Leaving the US to deal with the second of these factors itself, the Syrian government is doing what it sees as valuable to deal with the first:
* In early September, Syrian President Hafez Assad leapt at a suggestion from Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi that their two countries unify.
Few Syrians appear able in private talks to take this proposal seriously, though they hope cynically for some financial benefit from the "unity" with Libya. But Mr. Assad is pressing ahead, with a second visit to Libya to discuss the matter in the near future.
* In late SEptember, Mr. Assad agreed to sign a 20-year treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union, which has been Syria's principal arms supplier for well over 15 years.
Information Minister Iskandar said the treaty's main benefit would be an increase in Syria's defense capability, "which means we can defend our people against the modern American arms now in Israel."
But one Syrian analyst warned that the treaty would also mean that "if, in the past, Soviet acceptance of any peace formula depended on Syria's acceptance, the reverse is now the case."
* In November, the Syrians argued for a postponement of the Arab summit meeting hosted by Jordan, saying that inter-Arab differences should be ironed out before any effective decisions could be taken. FAiling to persuade the Jordanians of this, Syria led a six-member boycott of the event.
The Syrians were pleased with the strength of the boycott. They were glad that they appeared to have prevented the Jordanian monarch, King Hussein, from receiving an Arab mandate for individual peace moves.
The whole issue of postponing, boycotting, or holding the summit was played very much as a personal battle of wills between the two rulers, whose relations have cooled over past months after more than two years of cooperation.
Syria accused Jordan not only of making moves toward a separate peace with Israel, but also of aiding antigovernment Islamic rebels within Syria.
The crisis between the two neighbors came to a head in the immediate aftermath of the Amman summit, and was cooled only by the intervention of Saudi Arabia's second deputy premier, Prince Abdullah.
Syrian officials pay tribute to the role the Saudis played in resolving the border crisis (on conditions that, Mr. Iskandar said, included the expulsion from Jordan of some Syrian rebels on the "wanted" list).
Asked about hard-line Syria's relations with the traditionally conservative Saudis, Mr. Iskandar would say only, "Our relations with the Saudis are good." But he noted that the Saudis have paid all their aid commitments to Syria for 1980, unlike the Iraqis, whom, he said, had paid only the first half- year's installment.
In fact, the Saudi mediation in the border crisis was seen as a key sign of tacit approval from the Saudis for Mr. Assad's regime and its present policies.
The Saudis, it seems, will not for the moment sanction any backing for the Islamic extremists who brought several Syrian cities to the brink of civil breakdown earlier this year.
But Mr. Assad's 10-year regime has successfully suppressed that problem, if only by brute force. It thus will be able more confidently to wage a foreign policy that still includes keeping doors open to the West.
In a little-reported move, Mr. Assad sent a telegram of congratulation to Mr. Reagan after his election. It expressed the hope the new President-elect's policy might help to bring about the "just and lasting peace" the Syrians want in the region.
The Syrians still feel bitter that, amid all talk of solutions for Sinai, the occupied West Bank, and Gaza Strip, few people in the West even mention a solution for the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
But they still appear interested in seeing what the new US administration can offer.