What has happened to the vaunted unity plans between Libya and Syria? When Libya's mercurial leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, publicly announced the project last September, that reportedly was the first the Syrians had ever heard of it.
Now, after two summit meetings between Colonel Qaddafi and Syrian President Hafez Assad, the Syrians are hoping that those may not prove to have been the last.
Of course, Libya, which exports roughly one barrel of oil a day for each of its 2.5 million people, has been busy elsewhere since September. After Libyan troops helped end a simmering uprising against the President of its southern neighbor, Chad, Colonel Qaddafi announced immediate plans to unify with the Chadians.
But the Syrians, according to latest reports from their capital, Damascus, are still eager to salvage what they can of a special relationship with Libya.
The background for this desire is Syria's continuing difficulty in its relations with other key Arab powers and the obstacles Syrian leaders perceive in the way of any effective Arab opposition to the Camp David axis in the Mideast:
* A promising reconciliation with neighboring Iraq, which burgeoned in October 1978, was abruptly halted by the Iraqis the following summer. With Iraq accusing Syria of aiding Iran in the current Gulf war, relations since then have hit an even lower level.
* Studied steps toward administrative unification with Jordan came to an end in mid-1980 after it became clear that Jordan was opting for vastly richer Iraq in the regional find-your-partners game. The Syrians also accuse Jordan of wanting to jump on the Camp David bandwagon, and of fomenting internal unrest in Syria.
* Even inside the hard-line "steadfastness and confrontation front" set up by Syria and its allies as a response to Egyptian President Sadat's peace initiative, there are continuing differences.
The Syrians fear that Algeria has turned increasingly away from inter-Arab politics. They add that none of Algeria's decreed payments either within the steadfastness front framework or the wider Arab summit frame has ever actually reached Syria.
There are also lingering strains between the Syrians and some of the groups making up the Palestine Liberations Organization.
Within the steadfastness front ranks, that leaves only tiny Marxist South Yemen, beset by its own multiple problems -- and unpredictable, but oil-rich, Libya. So if Libya is to balance out its cordial relations with the ultraconservative Saudis with something more to the Syrians' own likings, there is no other alternative in view.
Syria's Baath Party leaders are tyring to save what they can from the unity project.
At a summit meeting last December, President Assad presented detailed plans for unification. Syrian sources say these called for a strong, highly centralized state under the presidency of Mr. Assad. The Libyans reportedly agreed, but placed one condition on their approval -- the state should allow no party organizations. For the Syrians, whose own system of control relies heavily on the tightly organized party system, this was unpalatable.
The two sides agreed to form committees to discuss all aspects of the unification but none of thes e committees has yet convened.