Soviets trying to improve tattered Mideast image
Moscow — The Soviet Union seems to be seizing on perceived miscues by the young Reagan administration to help repair Moscow's frayed influence in the Middle East. The campaign, or at least its reflection in the official news media here, is gathering new strength as US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. confers with Arab and Israeli leaders on his maiden foreign policy mission.
But the Soviets' task will be far from easy, diplomats here say.
It is complicated by perennial feuding within the Arab world; homegrown Arab nationalism; the Soviet's own conflicting interests with particular Mideast states; and Washington's potential sway with Israel, something that makes it hard for Arab states to ignore the Americans altogether.
The Soviets, long angered at their exclusion from United States-dominated Mideast peace moves, are also clearly alarmed by apparent US moves for reinforced military capability in the region.
The Soviet counterstrategy seems focused on two fronts: the Arba-Israeli region, and among the Arab states of North Africa. Both prongs of the Soviet diplomatic campaign involve potential gains for Moscow, and potential problems.
* Public Soviet comments on the Arab Israeli conflict, reaching a crescendo during Mr. Haig's trip, have harped on the Reagan administration's tilt toward Israel -- a development even the pro-US Egyptians seem to find hard to swallow.
Moscow meanwhile ha renewed its off-and-on invitation for Jordan's King Hussein, traditionally pro-Western but not at all happy with the way Washington is handling the Mideast, to come for summit talks. Diplomats here say the visit is tentatively set for next month.
They say Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat is also expected for talks here, but that it is not yet clear precisely when.
So far so good, especially since King Hussein has been calling for expansion of the Arab-Israel negotiating process to include the Soviet Union.
But the Soviets' closest current ally in the main Arab-Israeli arena is Jordan's neighbor and rival, Syria, with which the Kremlin penned a formal friendship pact last year.
The Syrians are said to have been a key factor in the postponement of a planned visit to Moscow by King Hussein at that time. They could conceivably cause problems again.
King Hussein may also find it hard to implement his call for Soviet inclusion in Arab-Israeli diplomacy. This will depend in large part on the Reagan administration, which is not exactly on good terms with the Kremlin and sure to be even less so should tension in Poland heighten further.
Significantly, senior Western diplomats here say they understand the Jordanian monarch is seriously weighing the idea of traveling to Washington before his Moscow visit.
* On the North African front, the Soviets have announced that mercurial Libyan strong man Col. Muammar Qaddafi will be visiting Moscow for summit talks, his first such meeting here since 1976. No date for the talks has been announced.
A soviet delegation, meanwhile, has just visited Algeria -- an oil state said by diplomats to be stewing over what it sees as shoddy US treatment since it helped to spring the Tehran hostages early this year.
Shortly thereafter, the Reagan administration approved the sale of tanks to Algeria's next-door rival, Morocco, and broke off talks on a large deal for algerian liquefied natural gas.
Yet here, too, the Soviets may have a tread carefully. Moscow has important trade interests with Morocco.
Both the Moroccans and Algerians, moreover, distrust the Libyans -- presumably all the more so since Libya's Soviet-equipped military marched into neighboring Chad recently to turn a civil war there in its favor.
Algeria's current leader, Chadli Benjedid, is said by diplomats to favor a more moderate foreign policy -- and to be more leery of the Soviets -- than his predecessor, Hoauri Boumedienne.
Finally, it remains unclear just how close even Libya is prepared to draw to the Soviets.
In recent years Colonel Qaddafi has bought hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of Soviet arms. Moscow gets hard currency. Libya gets weapons. The deal pleases both sides.
But even anti-Qaddafi diplomats here --a less-than-exclusive club -- suggest it is too early to tell whether the militantly nationalistic, vocally Islamic, and eminently unpredictable Colonel Qaddafi is ready for an outright working alliance with Moscow, or whether Moscow is looking for one.
The planned Qaddafi visit seems likely to send shivers up a number of official spines in Washington, which has been depicting Libya as a protagonist in a Soviet-abetted system of "international terrorism."
But diplomats are still looking for indications of the ultimate purpose of the Qaddafi visit, beyond nose-thumbling at Mr. Reagan.
They say one litmus test of developing Soviet-Libyan relations will be whether Colonel Qaddafi allows the Soviets to use air and naval bases in his country, something he has rejected in the past.