The Assad-Qaddafi duet

The dream of Arab "unity" never seems to fade. But few would give the proposed union between Libya and Syria and more chance of success than the many other experimental mergers tried in the Middle East in the past two decades. For all Libyan leaders Qaddafi's fiery rhetoric and aspirations to succeed Nasser as the great Arab unifier, political union between two countries 600 miles apart, with no common border or defensible air and sea lanes, simply makes no sense.

If the idea has a sandcastle aura about it, however, it nonetheless bears watching in its larger geopolitical significance. What seems to be taking place is the emergence of a new alignment in the Middle East as the Arab states contend over who will lead the front line against Israel in the aftermath of the Camp David accords. Heightened skepticism everywhere that the agreements will ever produce a final peace settlement now sharpens the political jockeying. Roughly ranged on one side are Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which have been drawing together, and on the other side non-Arab Iran, Syria, and to a limited extent Libya.

President Assad of Syria appears to be acting out of desperation. He genuinely feels himself threatened by Israel, whose military forays into Lebanon raise fears of Lebanese partition and formation of a separate pro-Israeli Maronite Chritian state. He has become increasingly isolated as Syria's relations with Jordan have soured and as efforts to improve ties with Iraq have fallen through.He is bogged down in Lebanon and, if all this were not enough, he is under political challenge at home from a rebellion led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

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In these circumstances Libya must look to be an attractive source of money and arms. It possesses not only vast oil wealth but huge quantities of Soviet military equipment, including 2,000 tanks, which Qaddafi has placed at the disposal of any country willing to fight Israel. It cannot be seriously thought Assad would agree to launch an attack on Israel, which holds a preponderance of military power in the region, but the Libyan-Syrian union is a strategic defensive move which could force the Israelis to revise their calculations and contingency plans.

Colonel Qaddafi, for his part, has been casting about for many years trying to set up partnerships with his neighbors. He has been stymied virtually everywhere. He now again seizes an opportunity to make his weight felt in the Arab struggle against what he calls "imperialism, Zionism and reaction." But whether President Assad, a shrewd politician and leader of no mean ambition himself, will gamble away is position to the Libyan leader is dubious.

Union or no, the maneuverings within the Arab camp are as intricate as those between the Arabs and their Israeli foe. They may sometimes draw a bemused "here we go again" reaction -- but they cannot be ignored.

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