Israeli official sizes up Syrian threat. Possible Syria-Iraq thaw poses no immediate danger, defense chief says

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin sees no immediate danger to Israel in Jordan's attempts at reconciling Syria and Iraq. But in an interview with the Monitor this week, Mr. Rabin said he also does not believe that King Hussein could change Syria's and Iraq's hard-line positions on Israel.

``Therefore, a rapprochement can't be good for Israel,'' Rabin concluded. ``The assumption that King Hussein can change their minds to be more positive toward Israel is a total illusion.''

Rabin predicted that Syria will not break relations with Iran in favor of full reconciliation with Iraq, but rather will seek to improve its standing among the moderate Arab states by ``loosening'' its ties to Iran.

The possibility for an improvement in ties between Syria and Iraq remains, he said -- despite Syria's abrupt cancellation last week of a Jordanian-arranged meeting between the Syrian and Iraqi foreign ministers.

Since 1982, Syria has backed Iran in its now nearly six-year-old war with Iraq -- to the consternation of the moderate Arab states.

Chances for luring the Syrians away from the Iranians seemed to improve in the past year, when Iran stopped supplying Syria with low-priced oil and started pressing the Syrians for repayment of an estimated $2 billion in oil credits Syria had accumulated. In addition, Syria and Iran are increasingly at odds in Lebanon, where Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim fundamentalists have clashed with Syrian-backed Lebanese factions.

President Hafez Assad's problems with Iran -- coupled with a domestic economic crisis -- have persuaded the Syrian leader to explore the possibilities of reconciliation with Iraq, Rabin said.

``If Assad will get a lot of money for the improvement of relations with Iraq and by that be able to meet Syria's most immediate economic burden -- why not?'' Rabin asked rhetorically.

Assad's chief dilemma, according to Rabin, is how to bolster his faltering economy without ``cutting the defense budget of Syria.''

``At the present, the only winner is President Assad,'' Rabin said.

``This effort by King Hussein, which is supported by Saudi Arabia and Iraq, will put Assad in a very good bargaining position vis-`a-vis Iran on the one hand and vis-`a-vis Saudia Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq on the other hand.''

There already is evidence that Assad has reaped some benefits from talk of reconciliation. According to reports from diplomats in the region, the Iranians have restarted oil supplies to Syria and are negotiating a generous rescheduling of Syria's debts.

``The major effort of Jordan now is to bring about a realignment in the triangle of Syria-Iraq-Iran -- not to bring a break between Syria and Iran, but to loosen their relations and to improve relations between Syria and Iraq,'' Rabin said.

``It is not a process that, you know, you can switch 100 percent immediately.''

Israel is carefully watching Assad's maneuvering, Rabin indicated, because the Syrians remain Israel's most serious military threat in the region. The specter of a united eastern front of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon has long haunted Israeli military strategists. But Rabin indicated that he is skeptical that any true rapprochement will occur between Syria and Iraq.

Even if reconciliation did occur, Rabin said, as long as the Gulf War continues, ``the Iraqis are completely preoccupied with their eastern front vis-`a-vis Iran, and therefore there is a relative relaxation on our eastern front.''

Rabin said he believes that Syria is being distracted from its confrontation with Israel -- both by its economic problems and by its inability to impose order in neighboring Lebanon.

``The Syrians learned the hard way, as everybody who tried to be involved in Lebanon, that whoever sets his foot in the Lebanese mud sinks,'' Rabin said.

The defense minister predicted that Syria will continue to seek a solution to Lebanon's 11-year-old civil war through political maneuvering and through various factional militia proxies, rather than through direct military intervention.

``They have refrained, and I tend to believe they'll continue to refrain from using their military forces to crush the opposition,'' Rabin said.

``They know what it means to be involved in the Lebanese mud with their forces. The meaning is to bring back two armored divisions and -- for how long -- to be stuck there.''

Once they are committed militarily in Lebanon, Rabin said, the Syrians would pose no threat to Israel.

Instead of Israel being bogged down in Lebanon, ``[the Syrians] will be pinned down -- allowing Israel freedom of action.''

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