Shifting Mideast alliances could hold surprises for US. Jordan also may find its turn to Syria will not prove a panacea
In world affairs this week, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev continued to maneuver around a possible time and place for a summit; Washington, London, and Bonn edged slightly toward serious sanctions against South Africa; and Mr. Reagan pushed the United States Congress hard, once more, for guns for the ``contra'' rebels -- all of which was routine. Slightly noticed, if at all, was another subject which deserves attention. It was hinted at by a report in Jane's Defense Weekly, probably unfounded, that Syria is getting ready for a sudden military attack on Israel.
It is probably unfounded because President Hafez Assad of Syria is far too experienced and intelligent to risk himself and his improving position in the Middle East in a military adventure that would almost certainly turn into a disaster for him.
Somebody, for some reason, must have floated this rumor. But it has enough plausibility to get printed, simply because there has been a change in the balance of power in the Middle East which is affecting all the relations of all the various factions in that complex and troubled part of the world.
Syria is by no means yet the military equal of Israel. But it has been re-armed massively by the Soviet Union to the point where Israel could no longer count on knocking Syria out militarily by a single, quick blow. A war between Israel and Syria would take time, and Israel would take losses at least as great and probably greater than Israel took in the invasion of Lebanon.
The mere fact that Israel can no longer knock Syria out of action by a sudden, quick blow makes a big difference in the attitude of the other Arab countries to Syria. The most obvious change is in the posture of King Hussein of Jordan. Beginning last November, the King, who is famous for his survival ability (already 34 years on his throne) and technique, began cutting his ties to the West and improving them with Syria.
On Nov. 10 of last year, he opened the game by a public admission that some of the attacks against the Assad regime had been done by members of a Muslim Brotherhood clique based in Jordan. He apologized and promised to put a stop to such behavior.
On Nov. 12, the Jordanian prime minister went to Damascus. On Dec. 10, the Syrian prime minister arrived in Amman. On Dec. 30, King Hussein went to Damascus. And ever since, the King has been maneuvering increasingly in the Syrian orbit rather than in the American.
This new orientation in Jordan's diplomacy reached its climax on Feb. 19 when King Hussein abruptly broke off his year-long peace initiative structured on the idea of bringing Chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Oganization into indirect negotiations with Israel. That whole effort had been done under US supervision. In effect, the goal was a three-cornered arrangement between Israel, Jordan, and the PLO which would, if successful, have given Israel the same security along its eastern frontier that it gained on its southern frontier by the Camp David agreement with Egypt.
That whole operation pleased Washington but ignored Syria. The Jordanian rapprochement with Syria required the break with Chairman Arafat. It also meant Jordan no longer took its policy line from Washington and, in effect, no longer based its security on Washington.
King Hussein has paid a price for his switch from Washington to Damascus. He has internal unrest at home. There are more Palestinians than Jordanians in Jordan today. Many, perhaps most, are loyal to Mr. Arafat and resent the break with the PLO.
The Monitor's correspondent in the Middle East, Mary Curtius, described in Monday's issue the new tension that has developed between Jordanian authorities and the press, both local and foreign. There is political ferment in Jordan.
An important element in King Hussein's turn to Syria was an attempt on his part to bring Syria and Iraq back into friendly terms. President Assad of Syria visited Amman May 5. At that time he apparently agreed to meet with the President of Iraq. There was to have been a preliminary meeting in Amman on June 13 between Syrian and Iraqi deputies. It was canceled.
The new Jordanian policy has not worked smoothly in all respects. But the essential fact remains that Jordan has turned, at least for the time being, to Syria and hence has canceled out the US project for a separate peace between Jordan and Israel with PLO consent.
Another effect is that Syria now holds a veto over any Arab negotiations with Israel. Syria may further improve its position in the future by a reconciliation with Iraq.
A side factor in bringing about this new situation has been the abandonment of plans for selling US arms to Jordan. Congressional opposition caused the White House to abandon the project Jan. 31. Jordan has to get its arms either from Western Europe or the Soviet Union.
It is not certain that the congressional resistance to selling guns to Jordan was the main cause of Jordan's turn to Syria, but it certainly was a contributing factor. King Hussein is operating on the assumption that the Reagan administration is so deeply committed to Israel that he has no choice but to turn elsewhere for his support.
Within this context it is not surprising that this week there was a rumor that Syria was about to attack Israel. The Middle East is in such a state of flux that anything could happen.