Syria, Jordan rift casts ominous shadows in Mideast

The latest rift between Syria and Jordan is so deep, Western analysts say, that it is not likely to be bridged by Arab mediators. While there is no immediate fear of war between the two neighboring Arab states, the current dispute involves accusations of terrorism, conspiracy, disinformation -- and at least a threat of force.

Syria and Jordan broke relations last week over the Feb. 6 kidnapping of Jordan's charge d'affairs in Lebanon, Hisham Moheisen. Jordan bluntly charges that Syrian President Hafez Assad's brother and security chief, Rifaat, is behind the abduction.

Syria denies responsibility and has gone as far as accusing Jordan itself of staging the kidnapping in order to engineer a break with Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Western diplomats say this charge is unfounded, given the size of the kidnapping operation in Beirut and the fact that Syrian troops of the Arab Deterrent Force had been pulled back from their checkpoints near Mr. Moheisen's residence prior to the attack. Jordan's King Hussein, moreover, has repeatedly denied he is trying to usurp the PLO role. These sources say the Syrians "almost certainly were behind it" and that the kidnapping probably began as a reprisal for the capture in Jordan one week earlier of a Syrian commando squad-thought to be en route to assassinate jordan's prime minister.

But since the operation took place, events, as one analyst puts it, "have been ratcheting upwards, which shows how much distance there really is between the two regimes." The incident now is being used by Syria to attempt to intimidate Jordan for supporting Syria's Baathist Party rival, Iraq, and also to assert further Syrian domination of Lebanon and the PLO.

Lebanese and PLO authorities in Beirut have maintained as discrete silence about the kidnapping and subsequent war of words, wary of angering the Syrians who have 22,000 troops in Lebanon and a predilection lately for violence against opponents of the Assad regime.

But former Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, who blames the Syrian troop presence for the social disintegration of Lebanon, says President Assad "has become a clever master in making falsehoods sound like truths."

Jordanian officials say they believe Mr. Moheisen is being kept at an air base in Syria. But Western analysts consider this unlikely and fear that as time passes the diplomat's fate will become less certain.

If armies are not yet mobilizing, the political estrangement at any rate is becoming increasingly severe. The Syrian newspaper Tishrin says Syria is "ready to use military forces" on Jordan to prevent it splitting with the PLO and pursuing peace with Israel.Jordan has reacted to events more coolly, although King Hussein has been consulting with Army commanders. The Jordanians are preparing to bring up the matter at next month's Arab League meeting in Tunisia.

At the heart of the rift between Jordan and Syria, Jordanian officials believe, is a power struggle for control of the Arab socialist Baath Party between Syria's Mr. Assad and Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. Both are disciples of Egypt's late Gamal Abdel Nasser and both seized power through the Army. As recently as a year ago the two were attempting to unite their nations.

Mr. Assad now represents the pro-Soviet wing of Baathism. Iraq's Mr. Hussein , once close to the Soviets, now is more comfortable with the West and especially with Western- oriented Arab leaders such as Jordan's King Hussein.

"Animosity between Syria and Iraq . . . is reflecting on Jordan, because Jordan has adopted a clear pan-Arab line on the Iran- Iraq war," Jordanian Prime Minister Mudar Badran recently told his country's National Consultative Council.

Jordanian officials believe three recent developments have been Syria's way of striking at Jordan in order to get at Iraq: the Feb. 6 kidnapping, the massing of troops on Syria's southern border less than 90 days ago, and Syrian commando infiltration into Jordan.

"It is not at all about our view of the Palestinians," a Jordanian official told the Monitor. "We continue to have good working relations with the PLO, even though the Syrians have been putting great pressure on them to break ties with us. The real reason is the war [between Iraq and Iran]."

Much has been made of a possible split between the PLO and Jordan due to the socalled "Jordanian option," a concept favored by Israel's Labor Party but firmly and repeatedly renounced by Jordan.

Another Jordanian official emphasizes: "No, no, no. We have said this so many times that I still can't understand why anybody persists in believing we care for such a thing. We support only what the PLO wants, nothing else."

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