Soviets countering US in Mideast

Soviet-Kuwaiti talks here, seen as opening a Kremlin campaign to counter United States policy in the Mideast and Southwest Asia, have highlighted differences between the two sides.

Arab diplomats report an apparent divergence of views on such issues as the Gulf situation, Afghanistan, and the renewed fighting in Lebanon -- as well as a Kuwaiti reluctance to become a lever in heightened superpower tension in the region.

The visit of Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, which ended April 25, was but the first item in a crowded Soviet diplomatic datebook.

Libyan strong man Col. Muammar Qaddafi was due here April 27.

The chief of staff of the Soviet military is slated to visit India sometime in the next week.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein are also expected for talks, and diplomats here report signs that Algeria's President may be added to the list.

The planned flurry of Soviet diplomatic activity follows a Mideast tour by US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and a Reagan administration offer of fresh military and economic aid to Pakistan, which borders both India and Afghanistan.

Some Western diplomats are concerned Moscow may supplement recent political initiatives in the Mideast and South Asia by exploring ways of replying in kind to a heightened US military profile in the region.

Arab diplomats here are not so sure. But they say a clearer indication of Soviet intentions -- and prospects for implementing them -- could emerge from the Qaddafi visit and the Soviet military chief's trip to India.

Colonel Qaddafi has bought hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of Soviet military equipment in recent years, paying hard currency that the Soviets cherish, but he has not offered them air or naval facilities in his country.

Meanwhile, the Soviets' main gain from the Kuwaiti minister's visit seems to have come in the sphere of public relations -- the chance to play up talks with a moderate Arab state against the background of Washington's stated desire to trim Soviet influence in the Mideast.

A joint communique issued after the Kuwaiti envoy's departure, delicately worded and stressing areas of accord, said both sides had rejected "the creation of foreign military bases" in the Gulf region.

But Arab diplomats said the Kuwaiti minister had also made it clear he felt the policy of Soviet-backed South Yemen might help push some conservative Gulf states toward closer military ties with Washington.

Arab diplomats said the two sides also differed over Afghanistan, an issue not mentioned in the communique.

The wording of the final statement also made it clear the two states were far from outright allies -- this, diplomats said, presumably at Kuwaiti insistence.

The statement condemned former President Carter's Camp David approach to the Arab-Israeli crisis, but in a relatively restrained fashion, saying the Camp David accords "make it difficult to achieve a just peace."

Both sides called for peace in Lebanon. But there was no mention of a recent Kuwaiti offer to host peace talks, an idea to which the Kuwaiti minister is said to have received no clear Soviet reply.

A "proximity" of views -- rather than the "identity" professed after talks with warmer Soviet negotiating partners -- was reported on the overall situation in the Gulf region.

The statement reported accord on the idea of calling an international Mideast peace parley -- "We have no objections," the Kuwaiti minister is said to have told the Soviets. But no explicit mention was made in the communique of a Soviet proposal for such a conference, made in February by President Leonid Brezhnev.

Most diplomats here argue that Soviet hopes for such a conference hinge on US willingness to go along, and one US diplomat commented privately, "We are most definitely not listening."

Getting the Americans' attention is seen as depending less on countries such as Kuwait -- peripheral to the main Arab-Israeli conflict -- than on other scheduled visitors to Moscow, such as Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Arafat.

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