Renewed Egypt-Syria Ties Hold Promise For Peace Process

EGYPTIAN officials - euphoric about the recent restoration of ties with Syria - expect tangible results from the rapprochement. They hope, they say, to eventually reconcile the regime of President Hafez Assad with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and to bring the Syrians into the Middle East peace process.

Syria's endorsement of the current drive to launch a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians would be a major turning point in Middle East politics.

Assad has been the last holdout among Arab rejectionists, insisting on an international conference that would impose an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Ties between Damascus and Cairo, ruptured 13 years ago when President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem, were resumed last month following a flurry of high-level exchanges between officials of both countries. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is expected to visit Damascus this month. Officials are vague about how close Egypt could actually draw to Syria, a hard-line authoritarian state.

Foreign policy observers and officials here say that during a Cairo meeting last month, Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam assured President Mubarak that Syria will not undermine the peace process, currently focused on opening a dialogue in Cairo between Israel and the Palestinians. The process has bogged down over which Palestinians will take part in the initial meeting.

A senior Egyptian diplomat says there is a ``50-50'' chance of the process getting off the ground.

``Khaddam said about the peace process, `Go ahead, we won't stop you,''' says Tahsin Bashir, a former Egyptian ambassador and foreign policy adviser. ``The Syrians are giving us rope.''

The senior official would not confirm that Syria has given assurances, but says it is a ``logical'' assumption. ``If the process fails, it won't be because of the Syrians. It will be [because of] the Israelis.'' An Egyptian-brokered reconciliation between Syria and the PLO, he says, ``is to come.''

The Assad regime, through the Palestinian hard-liners it harbors in Damascus, has the ability to torpedo a peace process it dislikes.

The Syrian leader has consistently maintained that Israel will give up the occupied territories only when the Arabs attain military parity with the Jewish state. Damascus has been seeking such parity.

In 1983, Assad, apparently enraged by Syria's exclusion from negotiations to bring about Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, sabotaged a peace agreement between Israel and the government of Amin Gemayel and forced the Lebanese to revoke it.

In late 1983, Damascus sponsored rebel Palestinian groups opposed to PLO chairman Arafat's moderate faction. In November of that year, these Syrian-backed rebels almost wiped out Arafat and thousands of Palestinian fighters loyal to him in a heavy bombardment of the Lebanese city of Tripoli.

But the rebel groups have not gained broad support among Palestinians, and, analysts say, Syrian rejection of the mainstream PLO has been partly responsible for waning Syrian influence in the region.

``Syria was unable to influence the course of Palestinian and PLO politics,'' says Mr. Bashir of Assad's estrangement from Arafat. ``The Syrians cannot afford to be out.''

He says the underlying cause of Syria's recent moderation - including the resumption of ties with Egypt and the acceptance of United States' peace moves - is the influence of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Soviet Union, Syria's patron, no longer supports strategic parity with Israel, and has been supportive of recent US peace moves. It was instrumental in persuading Arafat one year ago to accept UN Resolutions 242 and 338 and to recognize Israel.

Egyptian officials are not bothered by the clear element of self-interest that has inspired Assad to renew ties. Foreign policy analysts here recognize that Syria is primarily interested in detaching Cairo from Iraq, Assad's foe in Lebanon. The Iraqis support Lebanese Christian commander Michel Aoun's fight to oust Syrian troops.

The Egyptians say that Assad is determined to prevent the Arab Cooperation Council - a new alliance between Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and North Yemen - from becoming an anti-Syrian bloc.

Relations between Cairo and Damascus warmed last April when Syria decided not to oppose Egypt's return to the Arab League. Assad met with Mubarak at the Arab summit in Casablanca.

Egypt, in return, declined to endorse an Iraqi move to condemn Syria's presence in Lebanon, and backed the final noncondemnatory resolution. In October, Egypt endorsed the Taif resolution that accepted Syria's current role in Lebanon.

Egypt has also taken upon itself the task of mediating a reconciliation between Syria and Iraq, implacable enemies (Egypt-Iraq ties, Page 4).

``Our hope,'' says Bashir, ``is to resume the Egyptian role of a big brother, mediating conflicts between other Arabs.''

While insisting their ties with Iraq will not be jeopardized, the Egyptians say they want the new Syrian relationship to move beyond the state of ``nonanimosity'' to real cooperation.

But the Foreign Ministry official stresses that a return to the Egypt-Syria union of 1958 to 1961 is not a goal, even in the long run. ``This is not the era of Arab unity,'' he says. ``But there should be more cooperation.''

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