Although the reconciliation meeting between Syria's President Hafez Assad and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat is being seen as a breakthrough, both Syria and the PLO are apparently proceeding with caution. Five years of bitter alienation have clearly left a strong legacy of mutual suspicion that cannot be dispelled overnight. Those years created numerous sensitive issues between the two sides.
But Mr. Arafat's four-hour meeting with President Assad late Monday appeared to signal that the two leaders had agreed to cooperate on two broad strategic issues: supporting the Palestinian intifadah (uprising) in the Israeli-occupied territories, and opposing the current United States formula for Arab-Israeli peace talks.
Observers believe that their agreement on these points increases the likelihood of a tougher Arab position on the US peace proposals when Arab leaders gather at a proposed summit in Algiers soon.
If the rapprochement eventually allows the PLO to relocate some of its operative offices to Damascus, it would bring them much closer to the scene of the action than their current locations in distant Tunis, Baghdad, and elsewhere.
After Arafat had left Damascus Tuesday, the PLO Political Department head, Farouk Kaddoumi - who stayed on for further talks with senior Syrian officials - said: ``Syria and the PLO have agreed to work together in a joint struggle against Israel and American schemes.''
``The uprising is our first concern,'' he added. ``We agreed that all our efforts should be directed towards bolstering it and rallying support for it.''
Another PLO official involved in the talks, Abbas Zaki, described the Arafat-Assad encounter as ``the most successful meeting in the history of PLO-Syrian relations.''
PLO officials also predicted that their organization would soon reopen its offices in Damascus (closed since 1983); that a session of the Palestine National Council (the Palestinian parliament-in-exile) would be held in the Syrian capital within the next two months; and that Arafat would be a ``frequent visitor'' to Damascus.
The PLO leader's visit to Damascus was preceded by four days of talks between his senior aides and top Syrian officials, following the burial in the Syrian capital of Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) on 20 April. Mr. Wazir, the PLO's top military official, was killed in a commando raid in Tunis mounted by Israel.
It was Arafat's first trip to Damascus since his humiliating expulsion in June 1983, after Syria began sponsoring an ``uprising'' against him by dissidents within his own al-Fatah movement, which dominates the PLO.
In recent years, Assad let it be known that he regarded his breach with Arafat as irrevocable. Their reconciliation meeting on Monday was thus unquestionably a major turning-point.
The two sides appear now to see eye to eye on the broad questions of the uprising and approaches to peace talks - both favor a fully empowered international conference attended by a joint Arab delegation including the PLO.
But the PLO-Syrian rapprochement has clearly not yet eliminated all the complex differences between the two sides. The PLO's official media gave only the sparsest details of the Damascus talks, while Syria's state-controlled information was even less forthcoming.
Syrian officials indicated on Wednesday that the points of contention between the two sides were still under discussion, and would need time to be resolved.
They are believed to include such sensitive issues as the PLO's relationship with Egypt, which has been shunned by Syria since Egypt signed the Camp David accords in 1979; and the situation in Lebanon, where hundreds of Palestinians died in attacks on their camps launched by Syria's closest Lebanese allies, the Shiite Amal movement.
PLO officials say that hundreds of Palestinians, mainly followers of Arafat, are still in Syrian jails. Some put the figure as high as 4,000. They regard a release of those prisoners as a necessary first step in the rapprochement process.
Palestinian sources say the news of the Arafat-Assad meeting was greeted with relief and jubilation by PLO supporters in Lebanon, who hoped the pressures on them might ease.
Reports from Cairo said that Arafat sent a message to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reassuring him that reconciliation with Syria would not be at the expense of the PLO's good relations with Egypt.