Syria: key Arab factor in Mideast equation

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Israel debates a response to terrorist attacks against its airline in Europe, it takes account of Syria. When Lebanese factions sign a peace pact, they hail its broker -- Syria. When Jordan floats a peace plan, it seeks Syria's view. All highlight Syrian President Assad's key regional role. The first summit in 10 years between Jordan's King Hussein and Syrian President Hafez Assad could have a dramatic impact on the chances for an Arab-Israeli peace conference taking place next year.

The shaky Mideast peace process could collapse if King Hussein either cannot persuade President Assad to join in a conference or cannot secure his acquiescence to such a conference taking place, diplomatic sources here say. The prospects look bleak for Hussein winning Assad over to his point of view in pursuing a settlement, Jordanian sources acknowledge.

Hussein is scheduled to arrive in Damascus today, at a time when:

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Assad has just reinforced his image as the chief powerbroker in Lebanon, presiding over a pact designed to end the Lebanese civil war.

Syria is the focal point of increasing tension with Israel over Syrian deployment of antiaircraft missiles within and along the Lebanese border.

Assad continues to oppose efforts by King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat to jointly negotiate peace with Israel.

In addition, last Friday's Palestinian terrorist attacks on airports in Rome and Vienna, in which 18 people were killed and 121 people were injured, could provoke conflict if Israel retaliates by attacking Palestinian strongholds in Lebanon.

The Syrians have recently redeployed mobile missile batteries in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. The Israelis say the missiles threaten their ability to fly reconnaissance flights over Lebanon. The weapons, clearly, are a Syrian challenge to that claimed right.

Syria first deployed the missiles in the Bekaa after Israel shot down two Soviet-supplied Syrian jets over Syrian territory Nov. 19. Largely through United States diplomatic efforts, the missiles were removed. But Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres announced last week that the Syrians had again deployed the missiles.

The situation has been made more volatile by the terrorist attacks Friday on Israeli airline counters in airports in Vienna and Rome. The Israelis have vowed revenge for the attacks. The attackers were identified as Palestinians, and one likely target for Israeli retaliation could be the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley, where several Palestinian guerrilla groups have bases. Should Israel attack the Bekaa, the Syrians could decide to use their missiles, in turn provoking further Israeli retaliation. Lebanese accord enhances Syria's prestige

Syria has demonstrated its influence in Lebanon by engineering a pact which was signed in Damascus Saturday by the leaders of Lebanon's three most powerful militias. Details of the agreement were not released, but a new government is to be formed, and it is believed that the power of the traditionally dominant Christian minority will be reduced, and more power will go to the Muslim community. If the accord -- which is backed by the presence of an estimated 25,000 Syrian troops -- succeeds, it will greatly enhance Syria's prestige.

It is doubtful that Assad will want to invest his newly-earned political capital on convening a peace conference this year, Western observers say. The US, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the PLO have all been manuevering toward such a conference since last February, when Hussein and PLO chief Arafat signed an accord to jointly pursue negotiations based on trading land for peace.

Syria has remained adamantly opposed both to the accord and to Mr. Arafat. In fact, Hussein and Assad only a few months ago were seemingly implacable foes. In addition, Hussein backs Iraq in the Persian Gulf war, while Syria supports Iran, and has sought to depose Arafat as leader of the PLO. The Jordanians have said they are willing to negotiate directly with Israel in the context of an international conference, but the Syrians say ``no'' to direct negotiations.

Jordanian officials insist it is too early to tell if the differences between Syria and Jordan will prove too fundamental to reconcile. That will be determined, sources say, by the meeting between Hussein and Assad.

Hussein has grown more interested in drawing close to Syria in the face of a series of disappointments, Jordanian sources say. Hussein reportedly feels let down by the Americans, who have failed to provide him with arms and have refused to meet with the PLO. The King also feels betrayed by the PLO, which has equivocated on publicly accepting United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 which enshrine the concept of an Israeli withdrawal from Arab territory occupied in 1967 -- in return for the right to live in peace. These resolutions have been accepted by Israel, Jordan, and the US as the basis for negotiations.

Privately, the Jordanians say they will continue to explore the possibility of convening an international conference until March. That is when the US Congress is scheduled to consider the arms package to Jordan. It is also the red line, many analysts believe, for Israel's Mr. Peres to extricate himself from the coalition government that keeps him bound to the hardline Likud bloc. The Likud opposes negotiations with Jordan that would return any Israeli-occupied territory.

The Americans fear that Assad may exert such pressure that Hussein may not be willing to wait even until March before he pulls out of the process altogether.

Although the question of who should represent the Palestinians in an international conference remains unresolved, US, Israeli, and Jordanian officials all say that progress has been made recently on agreeing to a framework for an international conference.

Assad's view of an international conference differs fundamentally from Hussein's conception, and would never be accepted by the Israelis or the Americans, Western sources say.

The Syrian President believes the conference should be chaired by the Soviet Union and the US who would sit ``sort of as judges in an international tribunal,'' one diplomatic source explained.

If the King were to agree to that concept, there would be little chance that a conference could be convened, sources here say.

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