Soviets try to get back on stage in Middle East

The Kremlin believes the time may be right for new efforts to enhance its own influence in the Middle East and diminish the United States and Egypt in Arab and world eyes.

Close observers here see the Soviets anxious to reassert their claim to a major role in the search for a Mideast settlement. Difficulties are large, but Moscow has stepped up its public criticisms, to try to capitalize on three developments:

1. Continuing trouble in the Camp David talks among Israel, Egypt, and the United States.

2. The desire of Arab states for a wider forum to include the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

3. Stirring in Western Europe in favor of a larger PLO role than the Camp David initiative provides for.

The basic Soviet desire, as laid out by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the Kremlin May 27, is for "collective efforts of all sides concerned," including the PLO.

"Right now," says one Western diplomatic source, "the Soviets see a chance to persuade West Europe in particular that waiting for Camp David to produce real results is fruitless. New Soviet pressure now also serves another basic Soviet aim: to divide Washington and its European allies."

The Soviet are not coming out into the open and proposing the precise form "collective efforts" might take. Theirs is a strategy of gauging what their Arab allies want and will accept.

They have increased their attacks on Camp David and nudge the Arabs behind the scenes. But they don't try to lead them openly -- since today, for all its efforts, Moscow remains on the outer edge of the Mideast diplomatic process.

Neither Egypt nor Israel accepts the Soviets as a mediator. Nor, for that matter, does Syria or the PLO fully accept them. Syria and the PLO are Soviet allies, but both keep some distance between themselves and the Soviets.

Syria's President Assad is hard pressed by domestic opposition, and traditionally has wanted to seem independent of big-power pressure. The PLO is trying to keep various options open.

The Soviets incurred displeasure in the Arab and Muslim worlds by sending troops to Muslim Afghanistan last December. Arab and Muslim states were among the 104 nations that condemned the Soviet troop presence at the UN General Assembly earlier this year.

Moscow is also concerned at the US naval buildup in the Gulf since the Shah was deposed in Iran, and at US effort to gain access to naval bases in Gulf states and to station jet fighters in Egypt.

The Soviet strategy has several levels.

The Kremlin has worked hard to stay close to Syria and to the PLO and to cultivate other Arab states including Saudi Arabia (although its Afghan invasion pushed the Saudis back toward the US).

It condemns the Camp David talks at every opportunity. In an authoritative commentary June 15 Pravda insisted that Camp David was at an impasse, and the Mideast was further from peace than ever.

Moscow attacks the US military buildup and says the US may be out to create a "third center" of US military power there (in addition to Western Europe and the Far East).

Moscow blasts President Sadat, saying Washington has "assigned" Egypt "police powers" in the Mideast and supports him for that reason only. The Kremlin believes Egypt to be more and more isolated in the Arab world.

The Soviets make as much capital as possible out of the Israeli government's insistence on building settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan, and out of terrorist attacks against West Bank towns.

Diplomatically, the Kremlin would accept a return to the Geneva peace conference (where it is co-chairman with the US and thus has a clear role). But many Arab states don't like Geneva because the PLO lacks full status there. So the Soviets try to stay flexible.

Militarily, the Soviets have port and naval rights in strategic Aden in South Yemen at the mouth of the Red Sea. Yet they have not fully overcome the effects of losing the Berbera base in Somalia after backing Ethiopia against Somalia in the Ogaden Desert war. Moscow watches Iraq carefully and tries to mend its fences there with Saddam Hussein.

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