Syria wants Arab moderates to wave hard-line banner at a new summit

Suddenly, Syria wants a summit. This is a drastic about-face from November, when Syrian President Hafez Assad refused to attend the meeting of Arab heads of state in Fez, Morocco. His absence prompted Moroccan King Hassan II to call off the summit.

At that time, Syria (along with Libya, Algeria, and South Yemen) was very reluctant to attend a summit where Saudi Crown Prince Fahd's eight-point Middle East plan was the centerpiece. This was because the Fahd plan contained a point that implied recognition of Israel by the Arab world.

But now, Israel has moved to annex the Golan Heights, producing an outcry from Syria, which lost the territory to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Earlier this month, President Assad embarked on a 10-day tour of the Arab world seeking to drum up support. He visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and both North and South Yemen, and asked his counterparts to reconvene the Fez summit next spring - but with a much more hard-line centerpiece than the Fahd plan.

Mr. Assad, according to Syrian radio Dec. 29, has the backing of at least six Arab nations in his bid to reopen the Fez summit. He is expected to tour North Africa next.

What he wants of his colleagues is a summit agenda which will deal with Israel's virtual annexation of the Golan Heights, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Palestinian-Israeli standoff over southern Lebanon.

Hard-liners of the Arab Steadfastness and Confrontation Front see these issues as tied together. The front (Syria, Libya, Algeria, South Yemen, and the Palestine Liberation Organization) is pressuring moderates to see things this way:

1. Israel's Golan action proves Israel wants territory, not peace. In the view of diplomats in the Middle East, the Israeli actions make it difficult for Saudi Prince Fahd to argue otherwise.

2. To meet this territorial challenge from Israel, there should be Arab unity. That means, as a start, an end to the Iran-Iraq war, which has split the Arabs and diverted the military power of Iraq away from Israel.

Libya is a prime mover in the attempt to end the war. Libya has excellent relations with Tehran and has labored the past six months to warm up ties with Baghdad.

3. Southern Lebanon is, according to the hard-liners, especially the PLO, where Israel is most likely to challenge them. PLO chairman Yasser Arafat told the 70-member Palestine Central Council (a sort of parliament in exile for the PLO) Dec. 28 that Israel is massing troops on its northern border. He said current differences between the United States and Israel over the Golan annexation were only covering up imminent Zionist aggression on southern Lebanon.

Mr. Arafat contends Israel has massed three divisions on its northern border. The PLO was reported Dec. 29 to have canceled all leaves for its guerrilla fighters. The PLO chief's fears of an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon are often mentioned by the PLO news agency, WAFA, but diplomats in Israel and the Arab world are not inordinately worried that Israel will attack any time soon.

Arab foreign ministers are beginning to talk of meeting in Tunis next month to prepare resumption of the Fez summit. But any summit would have to await two important milestones.

These are the United Nations Security Council meeting, set for Jan. 5, where the subject of international sanctions against Israel is due to come up, and the final Israeli pullout from the Sinai, scheduled for April 25.

If the United States maintains its distance from Israel, and if Egypt begins to move back toward the Arab fold, then the Syrian hard line may be undermined. Otherwise, Mr. Assad's campaign for a confrontationist summit may steadily gain backing by moderates.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.