Syria and the PLO Join Forces

Damascus and Palestinian group seek to coordinate positions in Middle East peace process

THE weakening of the Arab negotiating position vis-a-vis Israel has brought to an end a bitter nine-year feud between Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization. For the first time since 1983, Syria has recognized the "legitimacy" of the current PLO leadership - apparently abandoning a relentless drive to topple PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Also for the first time, Syria and the PLO agreed to coordinate an Arab negotiating position on the United States-led process to end the Arab-Israeli conflict peacefully, PLO officials say.

The Syrian-PLO agreement amounts to an effort to counter what are seen as US attempts to marginalize the United Nations role in a peace conference and to exclude the PLO from any future Israeli-Arab negotiations.

After meeting with President Hafez al-Assad on Tuesday, Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO foreign minister who headed the Palestinian delegation, said, "We both want a full participation of the United Nations and the European Community, and we both want an independent Palestinian representation at the proposed conference."

The US and Syria differ on the UN's role in the proposed talks. Washington has repeatedly indicated it is not ready to press for PLO participation, in part because Israel refuses to talk to the PLO. US Secretary of State James Baker III, who has made three diplomatic shuttle trips to the region, has expressed a US preference for a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

Arab analysts say Syria and the PLO were compelled to reconcile in hopes of easing their isolation following the Gulf war. The two were on different sides in the war, but Syria's role as advocate of pan-Arab nationalism was damaged when it joined the US-led coalition against Iraq, and the PLO was discredited in the West and among the Gulf states (its major financial backers) when it sided with Iraq, they say.

Syria hopes that by securing Palestinian backing it will regain some of its lost pan-Arab credentials and be able to pose as the major Arab player in the peace process. The PLO hopes that, with Syrian support, the US will find it hard to exclude the organization from the talks.

PLO officials, however, say neither Syria nor the PLO are trying to block the US-led process; rather, they want to ensure that a peace conference will be an effective negotiating forum and will lead to implementation of UN Security Council resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in 1967.

"We are not trying to undermine the American efforts. But we are seeking a real negotiating forum in which the United Nations can play a key role in guaranteeing the implementation of the Security Council resolutions," says Yasser Abed Rabo, a PLO executive who took part in the Damascus talks.

Although PLO officials say they are ready to explore all options, including a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, they insist the PLO should participate on an equal footing with all of the parties in the conflict.

"We agreed with the Syrians that the form of Palestinian participation should be left to the PLO," says Mr. Abed Rabo.

Palestinian officials express hope the Syrian-PLO coordination will be a basis for a broader agreement among the Arab front-line states - including Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon.

But the officials admit the Syrian-PLO rapprochement has a long way to go toward complete normalization. Damascus complied with a key PLO demand earlier this year by releasing thousands of Palestinian political detainees.

Political differences between Syria and the PLO peaked in 1976, when Syrian military intervention in Lebanon weakened the rising political influence of the PLO and its leftist allies in Lebanese politics, and again in 1983, when Damascus backed a Palestinian mutiny against Mr. Arafat in northern Lebanon.

Almost nine years ago, Syria expelled Arafat from Damascus, and then backed a military confrontation that drove his forces out of northern Lebanon.

Arafat has visited Damascus once since then, in April 1988, following the funeral of Abu Jihad, the PLO military commander assassinated in Tunis. Assad met with Arafat, but only as the leader of Fatah, Arafat's mainstream commando group in the organization.

The gap between the two further widened as Syria supported dissident groups that tried to oust Arafat. But Syria's efforts to control the organization were hurt when major Damascus groups reunited with Arafat in 1987 and later publicly supported Iraq during the Gulf war.

The remaining smaller groups met with Mr. Kadoumi this week and reached a preliminary agreement to reunite all of the Palestinian factions and provide representation in the Palestine National Council, the Palestinian parliament in exile, to all groups, say officials from both sides.

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