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Jordan-Syria ties improve after diplomat freed, but distrust remains

By Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 1981



Nicosia, Cyprus

The recent release of Hisham Moheisen, Jordan's charge d'affaires in Lebanon, has poured oil on the waters of Jordanian-Syrian relations. But below the surface there is still deep distrust.

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The kidnapping of Mr. Moheisan from his west Beirut residence Feb. 6 caused an out-cry from Jordan, which blamed the incident on Syria.

Jordanian officials said they believed the kidnapping was masterminded by Rifaat Assad, brother and security chief of Syrian PResident Hafez Assad, and that it was intended to intimidate Jordanian diplomats who were in active contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as Moheisen was.

Syria, according to Western diplomats, has been seeking to separate Jordan and the PLO because (1) Jordan is a moderate, pro-Western nation that does not allow guerrilla operations to be based in its territory; and (2) with Jordan acting as the channel for Arab summit conference money directed to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Jordan is a rival for influence over the Palestinians and the PLO.

Some analysts speculate that Moheisen may have been released in a secret prisoner exchange between Syria and Jordan. Jordan has been holding seven Syrian pilots who have defected plus a team of Syrian assassins who confessed on Jordanian television to having been on a mission to kill Prime Minister Mudhar Badran.

Another factor may have been a desire on President Assad's part to keep animosity between the two countries from getting out of hand. Moheisen was discovered near the Lebanese town of Shtora on the eve of the Palestine National Congress, which took place in Damascus, Syria. Moheisen's brother was in the Jordanian delegation to the congress.

Though he was found in Lebanon, the fact that Syrian journalists were the first to contact Moheisen seems to indicate that his location was known in Damascus.

The diplomat was pronounced in good health when he arrived in Jordan, and in an appearance on Jordanian television he refrained from placing blame. But as an official in Amman, Jordan, points out, 'We're pretty far from actual fence-mending [between Jordan and Syria]. . . . But both sides apparently believe the way things have been going has not been productive."

The official Jordanian reaction was mute, partly because King Hussein was out of the country but also because, as one analyst says, "Hussein and Assad had burned their bridges" recently when they attacked each other personally. (Assad did so first on March 8 and Hussein responded March 21.)

Despite increased Syrian propaganda broadcasts into Jordan, Western analysts say that have detected no real pro-Syrian sentiment in Jordan. Plans are going ahead in Jordan for a new $2.7 million television transmitter to coun ter broadcasts beamed from Syria.