Arab unity -- an elusive goal

Another attempt at political union between Arab states is back on the horizon -- this time between Libya and Syria. But the proposed merger is likely to prove as much as mirage as earlier efforts to build unions between Arab states.

And the very proposal reflects the deep frustrations of both Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who made the first overture Sept. 1, and Syrian President Assad , who responded warmly.

Syrian frustrations date back to the original estbalishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The event was felt more deeply in Syria as a wounding and humiliating affront to Arabdom than in any other Arab land. Since 1967, the humiliation has been all the greater with Israeli forces on the Golan Heights.

Today, Syrian President Assad faces greater difficulties than at any time since he seized power in 1970. Recently, he reportedly has been considering drawing closer to the Soviets, perhaps with a treaty of friendship and cooperation, to try to save face -- and himself.

Mr. Assad's troops are trapped in Lebanon, where they have been on policing duty since 1976. He is daggers-drawn with his Arab neighbor to the east, Iraq. He feels doublecrossed by Egyptian President Sadat's (admittedly stalled) peace effort with Israel. He has failed effectively to mobilize other Arab states against "the traitor Sadat."

In his isolation, he is virtually powerless to prevent Israeli encroachments into Lebanon -- where, ironically, much of his own Army is stationed. And at home, the orthodox Sunni Muslim majority (which includes assasination squads from the hard-line Muslim Brotherhood) has put him and his Alawite minority very much on the defensive.

Libyan leader Qaddafi apparently was addressing Mr. Assad's frustrations when he said Sept. 1: "I cannot tolerate the enemy registering every day in an insult against the Arab nation. . . . Either Libya turns into a unionist state and merges with Syria and bears the losses of the Arab nation, or I will go to upper Galilee [northern Israle] as a commando myself."

But in many ways Colonel Qaddafi is as frustrated a man as Mr. Assad. For 10 years since the passing of Gamal Abdel Nasser he has been trying unsuccessfully to establish himself as proven heir to the former Egyptian leader's mantle in the Arab world. He distributes his considerable oil wealth far and wide -- latterly even to the brother of the President of the Unites States. He reportedly has financed acts of terrorism equally far and wide.

Yet he has singularly failed to win friends and influence people, not least in his own Arab world. Even at home in Libya, there are signs that his appeal is on the wane.

John Yemma reports from Beirut:

The latest proposed Arab union, if successful, would bring together Israel's most implacable front-line foe, Syria, and the Arab worls's most moneyed and unpredictable regime, Libya.

The Syrian economy, which has had to support a large army to cover its southern border with Israel and also to stabilize strife-torn Lebanon, could almost certainly benefit from Libyan aid.

The proposed merger also emphasizes the newest and still emerging lineup of nations in this region of constantly shifting alliances. For the two hard-liners are clearly aiming to counterbalance what appears to be a moderating trend among a number of the other Arab states.

Today there is on the one hand, the relatively pro-Western alliance of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, and Iraq -- the latter being a former radical now moving toward the center -- with Egypt going it alone since Camp David.

On the othe hand is the hard-to-get- along-with team of Syria, Libya, and Iran -- plus Algeria and South Yemen.

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