Syria, afraid of being left out of Mideast peace process, keeps PLO under thumb

Dozens of Palestinian schoolchildren began to chant as they poured out of their classrooms and onto the dirt streets of the Syrian refugee camp that is their home.

''With our blood and our souls we sacrifice for you, Abu Ammar, Abu Ammar,'' the young voices said in Arabic.

''Abu Ammar'' is the nom de guerre of Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat. The chanting of allegiance to him, which camp residents say is spontaneous and occurs almost daily, is hardly music to the ears of Syrian government officials.

For more than a year now, the Syrians have conducted a strident public campaign against Arafat as they maneuver to oust the chairman from his position and rid the PLO of what Syria sees as Arafat's moderate tendencies toward Israel.

Syria needs the PLO to bolster its prestige in the Arab world, and to strengthen its hand in demanding that any Mideast peace settlement must be a comprehensive one involving the return of all Arab land occupied by Israel since 1967.

The Palestinians, for their part, need bases in an Arab state that borders on Israel and is sympathetic to the Palestinians' battle for a homeland.

In recent years, however, the Syrians have grown disenchanted with Arafat's leadership. They have watched with increasing impatience as the chairman has played off moderate states such as Jordan and Egypt against hard-line states such as Syria and Libya.

Although the Mideast peace process has been on hold for two years, Syria suspects that the independent-minded Arafat would be all too ready to join in American-sponsored negotiations between Israel and Jordan. If such negotiations took place, the Syrians fear, they would involve a swap of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in return for peace.

Such a scenario takes on nightmarish qualities for the Syrians, who fear that they would be left out of such talks and would have no bargaining tool to get back the Golan Heights, Syrian territory the Israelis occupied as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The result of the Syria-Arafat feud has been the virtual paralysis of the PLO since Israel ousted it from Beirut in 1982. The danger for the PLO is that it will become irrelevant to any peace negotiations if it cannot restore some semblance of unity in its ranks.

Arafat and his group, Al-Fatah, the largest of the eight groups that make up the PLO, want desperately to hold the Palestine National Council and reassert the chairman's waning influence over the PLO.

The council, the Palestinian parliament-in-exile, is supposed to meet annually. Its last meeting was in Algiers in February 1983. The Syrians and the four Palestinian groups they support have demanded that Arafat be deposed before the next council meeting.

Fatah and its supporters have threatened to hold the council without Syrian approval if Syria will not be reconciled with Arafat at least until council members vote on his position as leader. Last week, Arafat announced that the PNC would be held in Jordan or Iraq next month. But dates for the council have repeatedly been set, only to be canceled in the face of Syrian opposition.

Several guerrillas and PLO supporters interviewed in Damascus seemed appalled at the disarray of the organization.

''We are optimistic now at least in the sense that we realize the Arab situation cannot get worse,'' said a glum spokesman for the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) at his office in Damascus two weeks ago. ''For the Palestinians, nothing worse can happen to us now after Beirut and after this situation.''

Both the DFLP and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have publicly criticized Arafat for his unauthorized visit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last December, and for his seeming willingness to work out some framework with Jordan's King Hussein that would include Palestinians in any peace negotiations between Jordan and Israel.

In fact, PFLP leader George Habash issued a statement two weeks ago saying he would work to depose Arafat. But his organization and the DFLP say they are determined that such action will be taken by the Palestinians through the mechanism of the national council.

''Arafat is only the decoy in this struggle,'' said Jamil Hilal, spokesman for the DFLP here. ''What is the question is whether to have an independent PLO. If we lose the support of the Palestinian people, then we will become something decorative but useless. Our democratic institutions within the PLO elect our leader. This is the major achievement of the PLO if you like. Our institutions have been built with many, many sacrifices.''

To give in to the Syrians, DFLP and PFLP members argue, is to sacrifice the PLO's ability to act independently of any single Arab state's policies.

''We have been under many pressures here from the Syrians and it is hard because, geopolitically, they are very important to us. We must be where there are Palestinians,'' said a PFLP official who asked not to be identified.

But the Palestinian cry that they must remain independent of the influence of any one Arab state rings false to the Syrians, who argue that the decisions of the Palestinians affect the fate of the Arab states and therefore cannot be taken independently.

''The Syrians don't want to break up the PLO,'' said a longtime Western diplomat in Damascus. ''They want the PLO to listen to Damascus.''

For now, the deadlock appears far from resolution. Arafat remains at the head of his tattered organization, and it appears that the Syrians have been unable to convince his constituency - the Palestinian refugees scattered among the Arab states, Israel, and the occupied territories - that the chairman should be fired.

Even within Syria, where the rebel PLO groups are based, refugees seem still to favor Arafat.

''I am for Abu Ammar,'' says Hagar, a middle-aged Palestinian woman who lives in the Yarmuk camp, along with some 65,000 other Palestinians. ''We don't want anyone from outside to say who is the leader of the Palestinians. The Palestinians must unite again under one leader.''

But as long as Syrian President Hafez Assad believes that Arafat represents a threat to Syrian policy in the region, it remains unlikely that the President and the chairman will be reconciled.

Assad is thought to feel personal animosity toward Arafat, which dates back to 1970 when, as commander of the Syrian Air Force, Assad refused an order to use the Air Force to help Arafat's troops, who were engaged in civil war in Jordan.

Assad later used his troops against the Palestinians in Lebanon. First in 1976, when Syrian forces intervened on behalf of beleaguered Christians and fought against both Palestinian and Lebanese Muslim militias, and again last year when Syria backed the Fatah rebels who attacked Arafat in Tripoli, the Lebanese port city.

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