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Syrian troops pull back from border crisis with Jordan

By Helena CobbanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 1980



Sheikh Miskin, south Syria

Four armored command cars were heading north through the military checkpoint here Dec. 11, apparently the tail end of the first wave of the Syrian troop pullback from the nearby border with Jordan.

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Ahead of them on the road toward the Syrian capital city of Damascus were the odds and ends of an army on the move: communications vehicles sprouting antennae , military police trucks ferrying the MPs along with their Soviet-style motorbikes, one truck heaped with bread, another with muddy steel wires.

Travelers over the past two days have reported a stream of scores of tanks being pulled back northward along this road. So it seems the Syrian-Jordanian crisis that erupted at the end of November now has been brought under control.

The Syrian information minister confirmed to this reporter, speaking in Damascus, that the tension between the two states "had ended."

There also have been matching reports of a Jordan troop pullback from the Jordanian side of the border.

But as the immediate crisis dies down, some questions remain as to Syria's original intentions in massing a force of over 20,000 with 1,200 tanks along the border with its southern neighbor.

Most Western sources here now seem convinced that the aim was never more than a political posturing.

According to this thesis, the Syrians wanted to follow up the six-party boycott of the Arab summit meeting held Nov. 25 to 27 in the Jordanian capital, Amman -- a boycott which they led -- with a further demonstration that their views should be taken into account by their fellow Arabs.

Syrian Information Minister Ahmad Iskandar listed as Syria's original reasons for its border buildup Jordan's support for Muslim extremist rebels inside Syria and fears that Jordan sought to take over the Palestine Liberation Organization's role in peace talks.

He appeared satisfied that the military buildup had achieved its aims in these respects.

Other Syrian officials also express satisfaction that the border tension brought the Saudi Arabian second deputy premier, Prince Abdullah, rushing to the two capitals concerned to work out the eventual settlement.

This was taken here as a sign that the Saudis consider Syria at least as worthy of political support as Jordan. Some financial considerations also were rumored to be involved.

Mr. Iskandar would confirm only that Syrian relations with Saudi Arabia are good, and that the Saudis are completely up to date on the aid payments to Syria decreed by previous Arab summits.

But while many diplomats simply express relief that a possible crisis has been averted, there is some information that, at one stage at least, Syria's aims in the affair were more than political.

At least two well-informed Arab sources, whose veracity on this issue this reporter has no reason to doubt, have claimed that for a short time immediately after the conclusion of the Amman summit, Syria was planning actual military action against Jordan.

According to one of these sources, there was a plan to occupy areas near the north Jordanian city of Irbid, pinpointed by Syria as a center for training Syrian rebels.

This source said there was another plan, too, to shell the road linking northern Jordan to Iraq, now a strategic route for some Iraqi war-related goods. Syria has voiced mounting criticism of Iraq for its role in the Gulf war, and is accused by Iraq of aiding the Iranians.

The other source reported that the Syrians had plans for a series of lightning raids throughout Jordan, to be executed in a matter of hours before the Jordanians could mount an effective defense or call in international aid.

(This informant said the Soviets, who now have ratified their treaty of friendship with Syria, were not involved in these plans in any way.)

These reports, coming from totally unrelated sources, need not be contradictory, and could corroborate each other. Both sources agreed that the period when such military action was being considered by the Syrian leadership was very short, possibly not more than one day.