For the second time in as many months, Jordan and Syria are squaring off -- this time in a new crisis aggravated by a decade of political disputes and strategic divergences.
The cause of the current tension was the violent kidnapping in Beirut on Feb. 6 of Jordanian charge d'affairs Hisham Moheisen. Jordan blames Syria, recriminations are flying, and there is the possibility, based on past behavior, of a military confrontation.
In December, after Syria and Jordan massed troops along their border, Saudi Arabian Prince Abdullah was able to persuade Jordan's King Hussein and Syria's President Hafez Assad to reduce belligerence.
President Assad's motivation for building up troops is still uncertain, but most likely he was trying to damage King Hussein's stature in the wake of the Arab summit conference in Amman, Jordan, and prevent him from asserting a leadership role in the Arab world. King Hussein and Jordanians in general reacted angrily to the Syrian action.
As in so many cases in the Middle East, Prince Abdullah's quieting down of the immediate dispute did not bring a lasting healing of differences. In the past two months, propaganda has continued, and Jordan reportedly has laid land mines on its side of the joint border.
A group calling itself the "Eagles of Lebanon" claimed responsibility for the Moheisen abduction, at least according to a right-wing Lebanese newspaper. The group is tied to the pro-Syrian faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Eagles allegedly demanded that Jordan return to Syria two Syrian Air Force pilots who defected last month. The kidnappers also were said to have promised to strike at other Jordanian embassies if their demands were not met.
But in Syria, a spokesman for the group disclaimed responsibility. Syrian authorities charged the act was carried out by a party trying to drive a wedge between Syria and Jordan, hinting that the Israelis were behind it.
Nevertheless, state-controlled Radio Amman laid the blame for the abduction directly on the Assad regime (this despite the frequent free-lance terrorism that occurs in Beirut), saying: "The crime committed by the Syrian regime against the Jordanian Embassy to Lebanon showed beyond all doubt that the sectarian Syrian regime in Damascus has chosen to develop terrorism inside and outside Syria." Jordanian newspapers repeated charges of Syrian culpability.
The renewed tension occurs only six days after Jordanian Prime Minister Mudar Badran made a lengthy speech to the nation warning that Jordan soon could be facing terrorist attacks from unspecified parties. A Western source in Jordan says while there have been no signs of internal unrest, the mood in the capital is edgy.
"There is widespread unease," he told the Monitor Feb. 7. "Of course, the Jordanian security services are very efficient, and there is not a large core [ of Jordanians] disloyal to the government. But in the past few days we've seen many more jeeps with automatic rifles patroling the city."
This observer says he has not been able to detect a military buildup such as occurred in late November and early December. "The focus at this time seems to be on the Syrians generally, but not on the border as much as on what could happen internally," he pointed out.
The feud between the two front-line (against Israel) Arab neighbors grows out of 10 years of diverging approaches to a number of issues, but primarily to the long-term Arab-Israeli conflict. Jordan is a moderate and has a peaceful border with Israel. Syria, however, supports the more radical arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which mounts raids on Israel. Syria itself has engaged in jet dogfights with Israel periodically in the past year.
Three other significant differences cause problems between Syria and Jordan:
* Syria lines up behind Iran in the Gulf war, and Jordan is a staunch ally of Iraq. But for all its anti-Iraqi railings (including sponsorship of a multi-group front that aims to overthrow the Iraqi leadership), Syria still receives a subsidy from Iraq and other conservative Arab states for directly opposing Israel. Syria also allows Iraqi oil to be pumped through a pipeline that crosses Syria so that Iraq can earn revenue to carry on its fight against Syria's ally, Iran.
* President Assad's Alawite Muslim background is considered heretical by Sunni Muslims, who predominate in Syria, Jordan, and the rest of the Arab world. The politically weak Assad regime has been under pressure from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which is legal in Jordan but outlawed in Syria.
* Syria has close ties with the Soviet Union, Jordan to Britain and the United States. In the dispute two months ago, there were analysts who predicted King Hussein would be willing to engage the Syrians in a limited military clash as a test of world and Arab reaction to a possible future negotiating role for him. The clash, these analysts conjectured, also would be a way for Hussein to find out how committed the Reagan administration is to backing Jordan.(The Jordan monarch is due to meet with President Reagan this spring, possibly as early as March.)
The two countries have fought before. In 1970, the PLO, which had been using Jordan as a base for operations against Israel, clashed with King Hussein because of Jordan's part in United Nations-sponsored peace talks among Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. Hussein then moved against the PLO, and a Syrian tank force rolled into northern Jordan to aid the Palestinians.
It took behind-the-scenes pressure from the United States, plus the threat of Israeli intervention, to assure Hussein his throne. The Syrians were driven back by Jordan. By mid-1971, Hussein had shut down Palestinian guerrilla operations in his country. The PLO moved its base to Syria and Lebanon, the latter of which has been in a state of turmoil since then.
Since then, too, Syria, which has 22,000 peace-keeping troops of the Arab Defense Force in Lebanon, has been the staunchest day-to-day patron of the PLO. Both President Assad and the PLO are wary of any possible move by King Hussein to follow up Camp David with a peace initiative of his own.