Syria's control of Lebanon could lead to improvements in both countries

July 14, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

DAMASCUS, Syria -- The road from Beirut to Damascus reflects the fortunes of two countries.

On the Lebanese side of the border, the rutted two-lane highway passes bombed-out and abandoned buildings, somber relics of the 16-year civil war that has petered out to a weary end.

The Syrian portion is four lanes of smooth macadam, a road filled with a lot of very old cars tooling along as merrily as if they had been built just a few years ago.

Cars so old they have jutting tail fins, wide whitewalls and prominent hood ornaments of winged women, animals and heads of Indian chiefs. Cars so old they carry spare tires mounted on running boards. Cars so old that they were manufactured by the Dodge Brothers.

It is not that Syrians are particularly fond of old cars. Most of them simply cannot afford to buy new ones.

These two contrary countries -- one a freewheeling and free-spending bastion of capitalism still reeling

from the scars of civil war, the other a Third World socialist dictatorship held together by the glue of fear and striving for Western respect and technology -- have now officially joined hands with a treaty that allows Damascus to make political and military decisions for the Lebanese.

Diplomats based in the two Levantine capitals say it is premature to assess the impact of the Fraternity and Cooperation Treaty signed last month.

But they suspect there may ultimately be as much of a "Lebanization" of Syria as vice versa.

For the moment, however, Syria legally controls Lebanon -- as it did militarily before the treaty was signed.

Critics, particularly Lebanese Christians and the Israelis, compare Syria's takeover of Lebanon to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. They say the West allowed it to happen in return for Syria's support during the Persian Gulf war, when it contributed about 21,000 troops to the allied effort.

But diplomats say that is only part of the story.

"If you're talking about the price for Syria's collaboration in the gulf war, it was a free hand in Lebanon," said a European diplomat based in Damascus.

"But one thing that is clear is you have a better situation in Lebanon now. Without the Syrians, you could not have achieved peace and reconciliation in Lebanon."

And so what is happening in Beirut is best explained from Damascus.

Syria is in dire economic straits, saddled with a system anchored by ill-paid bureaucrats who were trained in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet empire is crumbling, but the Syrians keep vestiges of grim totalitarianism alive.

It is the kind of place where guests at a luxury hotel take the service elevator during frequent electrical outages, affording them a peek into the kitchen, where a picture of President Hafez el Assad hangs on a post over the cutting table.

It is the kind of place where gift shops carry copies of the 1989 Syrian budget in French and English -- all 12 pages of it.

As it turns out, that is the last budget that has been declassified.

And it is the kind of place where an agronomist will say, in all seriousness, "I can't tell you how many apple trees I've planted. It's a state secret."

One figure that is available is the population growth rate. Officially, it is 3.4 percent annually, compared with an average 2.6 percent for the region. Diplomats say it is undoubtedly higher.

Still, no one is starving, and there is no begging on the streets. In a country where non-rationed eggs had to be bought under the counter just four years ago, French cheese is now on sale in grocery stores brimming with food.

That is considered quite an accomplishment in a nation where, when a group of Italian legislators recently complained about Syria's human rights record, the response was, "We define freedom differently. For us, it's the freedom to work, eat and have an education."

"Syrians are not concerned about the lack of freedom of speech and the press," said a Western diplomat whose embassy daily accepts hundreds of applications from Syrians seeking visas. "What they are concerned about is they have very low salaries and a lousy life."

Very low salaries indeed. Senior civil servants earn about $100 a month, junior employees less than half that. So while an elite merchant class drives new Mercedes-Benzes and lives in gracious European-style villas, most Syrians must work two and even three jobs to get by.

Like much of the rest of the world, the Syrians are recognizing that they have no choice but to join the world economy and embrace private enterprise.

So they are loosening up the economy, encouraging private industry with a new investment law that permits foreign investors to export their profits and be exempt from taxes for 10 years.

There are changes on the political front as well.

Syria has long been blacklisted by the White House -- and denied access to U.S. technology -- for harboring terrorists. Mr. Assad has been desperate to win redemption. Diplomats say Damascus played an important behind-the-scenes role in suppressing potential terrorism during the gulf war.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.