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Gulf Crisis Leads To US-Syrian Rapprochement

During visit to Damascus, Baker is likely to prod Assad on his sponsorship of terrorism

By George D. Moffett IIIStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1990


THE visit to Syria by United States Secretary of State James Baker III is the most visible symbol of a budding rapprochement that is already proving profitable to both Washington and Damascus. For Syria's President Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Baker's arrival Sept. 13 signals the beginning of the end of a long period of isolation that has left Syria alienated from the West and odd man out in the Arab world. The fruits of cooperation with the US and Egypt in containing Iraqi aggression could eventually include a larger voice for Syria in Arab affairs, as well as Western and Arab assistance to revive its languishing economy.

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For the US, Syria's unexpected role in mobilizing Arab support has been crucial to legitimizing the presence of the huge international military force now assembling in the Gulf.

Buoyed by Syria's stand, US officials now talk hopefully of a ``Cairo-Damascus-Riyadh axis'' that could become an important force for moderation in the region after the Gulf crisis ends.

``The development of this axis is potentially very promising for regional conflict resolution and especially for the Arab-Israeli peace process,'' says US Ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian.

Baker's visit is the most recent of a spate of contacts that have energized the US-Syrian relationship since the start of the crisis. President Bush has phoned twice to consult with Mr. Assad, while Mr. Djerejian has had several meetings with Assad, which is a sharp departure from the past.

One item on Baker's agenda is expected to be the deployment of additional Syrian troops in the Gulf. Some 3,000 Syrian soldiers are now said to be in Saudi Arabia, along with a token force of several hundred in the United Arab Emirates. According to Western sources, Syrian officials have asked several countries, including the Soviet Union, for help in sealifting at least 15,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia.

Baker is also likely to prod Assad on the main issue that has impeded Syria's relations with the US and several other Western nations: sponsorship of terrorism.

Tensions between Damascus and Washington peaked following the downing of Pam Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. Suspicion has centered on Ahmed Jabril's Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command. Although there has been no proof of Syrian complicity in the attack, there is a clear case of guilt by association.

US officials say Assad took a step in the right direction when, in January 1989, he promised to punish any group conclusively linked to the bombing. The US and other Western governments now look for Assad to go further by guaranteeing he will cease all support for terrorist groups.

Given his reputation as a radical Arab nationalist who has often undermined US positions in the Middle East, Assad has surprised many observers here by the determination with which he has placed Syria in step with the US in dealing with the Iraq.

For explanations, they look to the long history of bitter relations between Assad and Saddam Hussein and to the end of the cold war, which has made the US more important for Syria's strategic goals in the region.