SYRIA is determined that the momentum of international effort directed at resolving the Gulf crisis should not slacken until all disputes in the Middle East are resolved. The most complex of these is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Syrian leaders say they are not trying to link the ending of the crisis with the resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute as Iraq wants to do. Rather, they insist, the one should lead to the other.
``We believe that an Iraqi unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait would certainly pave the way for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories,'' Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa told reporters last Friday. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, also occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The issue was discussed during four and a half hours of talks in Damascus Friday between President Hafez al-Assad and United States Secretary of State James Baker III. Syria is looking for assurances from the US that Washington will intensify its efforts to settle the Arab-Israeli dispute as soon as the Gulf crisis is resolved.
``There is so much international attention focused on the region,'' says a senior Syrian government official. ``This is an opportunity which must not be missed.''
The Syrians say it is essential that as many minor differences as possible be sorted out before the major problem of the Middle East conflict is tackled. Damascus counts the crisis in Lebanon and the holding of Western hostages there in the first category.
Senior officials in Damascus say Syria is cooperating closely with Iran to secure the release of hostages. They add that Tehran is in touch with groups in Lebanon over which it has influence, pointing out to them that because of the upheavals of the Gulf crisis Western hostages have lost their value as bargaining chips. Iran now views these hostages as counterproductive to its efforts to improve relations with the international community.
Some Lebanese Shiite leaders have ruled out freeing American hostages while US forces are deployed in the Middle East. But Syria is not daunted by such pronouncements. ``The Iranians do have influence in Lebanon, despite what some of the Shiite leaders there are saying in public,'' a Syrian official says.
The Syrians regard ending the Iran-Iraq war as the first step toward resolving regional conflicts. Last month Iraqi President Saddam Hussein unexpectedly accepted all Iran's conditions for settling the conflict. The Gulf war had seen Iraq, Syria's bitter rival, bogged down and effectively removed from the regional scene for nearly a decade. Some observers predicted that Syria would be alarmed by Iraq's freedom once again to pursue regional ambitions. But the Syrians say they are pleased the conflict is over.
``No one should fall under the belief that we, in Syria, are motivated by our hostility to Iraq,'' Mr. Assad says.
Syria's opposition to the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait prompted it to join Arab countries sending troops to Saudi Arabia. Damascus opposes in principle the deployment of the US-led Western forces in the Gulf, but recognizes that the Saudis had no option but to call on the US when Arab countries failed to provide a coordinated regional response to the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. ``The problem arose before the foreign troops came to the area,'' Assad said last week. ``And it was that problem which brought foreign troops to us.''
What made the Syrians anxious, diplomats say, was the proposal put forward by the US for a ``security structure'' to ensure stability once the crisis had ended. That sounded ominously like a plan to station US forces in the Gulf for many years.
So the Syrians were pleased to hear Mr. Baker tell reporters last Friday that the US had ``no intention or desire to keep a permanent ground presence in the Gulf.'' He made it clear that any security structure would be comprised of countries in the region.
Syria's decision to send troops to Saudi Arabia was based on a desire to see a regional force established to fill the vacuum once multinational units are withdrawn. It should be precisely at this point when the crisis is over, officials in Damascus insist, that the world community led by the US turns its attention to the main source of instability in the Middle East: the Arab-Israeli dispute.
Baker made it clear, though, that while the US is exploring ways of advancing the peace process, it was not prepared to commit itself to pursuing peace in any way that links those efforts with the Gulf crisis.
Syria denies that any link is involved. The message of Damascus to the West, according to a Western diplomat here, is: ``We are happy today to help you get Iraq out of Kuwait. But tomorrow we want your help on the Golan Heights, in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip to end Israel's illegal occupation of Arab land.''