Jordan's King Hussein is convinced that Syria must be brought back into the Arab mainstream if there is to be any progress toward a regional peace settlement, Jordanian and foreign diplomatic sources here say. That is why the King has risked his personal prestige on a high-profile effort to reconcile Syria and Iraq. King Hussein is undeterred, Jordanian sources say, by Syria's last-minute cancellation of a Jordanian-arranged meeting scheduled for last Friday between the Syrian and Iraqi foreign ministers.
``The King has invested his morale and his status, so he cannot abandon this effort,'' one Jordanian analyst says.
The King believes he must have Syrian backing for any moves he might make toward negotiating peace with Israel, Jordanian sources say. He sees some basis for agreement between Syria and Jordan in their mutual call for an international peace conference and their mutual hostility toward Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat.
The King's approaches toward Syria are viewed with deep skepticism by the United States, Israel, and the PLO.
Neither the Americans nor the Israelis believe that Syrian President Hafez Assad is truly interested, at this stage, in negotiations with Israel. The Arafat-headed branch of the PLO fears that a Jordanian-Syrian-Iraqi alliance may lead to further pressures on the organization to oust Arafat, because both Hussein and Assad have declared him impossible to deal with.
Israeli, US, and PLO officials all have said that they believe any reconciliation Jordan may effect between Syria and Iraq will prove to be purely temporary and tactical -- aimed chiefly at pleasing Saudi Arabia, the chief provider of foreign aid to all three nations.
Jordan began last year to restore its own badly strained relations with Syria, and that effort produced the King's only recent diplomatic success, analysts say.
``Whatever else you can say about the disappointments of this government, there is now a working relationship with Syria,'' one analyst says. ``But the King's goal is not simply the improving of relations with Syria. This [aims] also to bring other movement -- like an international conference and so on.''
During his meetings with Reagan administration officials earlier this month, the King argued forcefully that Washington must pay more attention to Syria and urged that Vice-President George Bush visit Syria if he comes to the region in July, as is now tentatively planned.
Western diplomats said the possibility of a Bush trip to Syria was being considered. But they added that it was unlikely because, in the words of one diplomat, ``Bush is running for something'' and a trip to a state on the Reagan administration's list of those sponsoring terrorism would be too controversial.
It is hard to see what diplomatic options are left to the King should his efforts to reconcile Syria and Iraq fail. The two powerful Arab states have been at odds for years -- divided first by an ideological split, with each claiming it is the true embodiment of Baath philosophy -- a pan-Arab, socialist ideology -- and more recently by the Iran-Iraq war. Since 1982, Syria has backed Iran in the war, while Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states back Iraq.
Syria's support of Iran has contributed to the Arab world's general disarray. Because the Syrians are at odds with the rest of the Arabs (except Libya) over the Persian Gulf war issue, the Saudi Arabians have refused to hold an Arab summit -- fearing that it would serve only to crystallize divisions.
But Jordan needs the summit -- and Syrian support during the meeting -- to win backing from the Arabs for its efforts to get to an international peace conference.
The summit is all the more important to Hussein since his effort to achieve a joint negotiating position with Arafat collapsed in January this year, and West Bank Palestinians subsequently made it clear they would not provide King Hussein with an alternative negotiating partner to the PLO.
That leaves only the option of winning Arab backing for proceeding to an international conference -- an option that even the most optimistic Jordanian officials regard as being slim, at best.
The Jordanians' problem, diplomats here say, is that they cannot afford to stop seeking a way out of the diplomatic stalemate.
Jordan is a tiny, poor nation with a majority Palestinian population and a sizable chunk of its land (the West Bank of the Jordan River) occupied by the Israeli Army and a growing number of Israeli settlers. The worst situation for the King is a prolonged period of diplomatic paralysis in the region, Jordanians say.
``We will continue, therefore, to seek through quiet diplomacy to get the Syrian-Iraqi reconciliation going -- because we must,'' one senior Jordanian official says.