Arabs see Israel, Gulf crises as tied

The Arabs, like the US, have come to see that the Arab-Israel conflict and instability in the Gulf have to be considered as part of a single broad Middle East crisis area.

This is indicated by the price the Gulf Arab states are demanding of Syrian President Hafez Assad for their promised support in responding to Israel's effective annexation of the Golan Heights. Israel seized the Heights from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Syria is being asked to try to end the Iran-Iraq war. The Arab Gulf states, which back Iraq, find this war -- and Ayatollah Khomeini's brand of revolutionary Shia Islam -- a threat to themselves.

Since Iraq launched the war 16 months ago, Iranian bombs have fallen on Kuwait. Earlier this month, an allegedly Iranian-backed plot to overthrow the traditional monarchy of Bahrain -- which has a considerable Shia community -- was discovered. And Saudi Arabia has always been concerned about possible Iranian subversion among the Shia population in its own eastern province.

In return for Mr. Assad's effort to end the war, Saudi Arabia has reportedly agreed to try to mend fences between Syria on the one hand and Iraq and Jordan on the other.

Such reconciliation would mean a remarkable restoration of Arab unity -- at least superficially -- sooner than most people thought possible after the debacle of the Arab summit at Fez in Morocco last month. The catalyst, of course , has been the Israeli action on the Golan Heights.

Mr. Assad is losing no time. Within hours of his return Dec. 28 from a visit to the Gulf states, Damascus radio announced that a delegation from Iran would be shortly coming to Syria.

Syria has had an ''in'' with Iran ever since the Khomeini revolution swept the Shah from power.

The Khomeini revolution has always been anti-Iraq -- or more precisely, anti the present Sunni Muslim leadership in Iraq of Saddam Hussein, who in turn is on bad terms with Mr. Assad.

Also Mr. Assad and his inner circle are from a Shia (not Sunni) offshot, the minority Muslim Alawite sect. Whether Mr. Assad will have greater success in ending the Gulf War than earlier would-be peacemakers remains to be seen. Hitherto Iraq has said the prerequisite for negotiation is Iranian recognition of Iraqi sovereignty over the whole Shatt al Arab estuary, which lies between the two countries at the head of the Gulf.

This is something which Iran refuses to concede -- at least in advance. The Iranians have a precondition for negotiating with Irag: Iraqi withdrawal from the Iranian territory seized in the early months of the war.

Since a resumption of fighting in recent weeks, after many months of stalemate, has apparently favored Iran, Teheran is unlikely to modify its demand for Iraqi withdrawal from Iranian territory.

The question for Mr. Assad is whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein feels threatened enough at home by his failure to secure a quicker victory in the war to be willing now to find a way to extricate himself. The antipathy between the two men will make Mr. Assad's task all the harder.

In any case, Mr. Assad needs to show his willingness to play his part in restoring Arab unity as soon as possible.

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.