Arabs Assess Impact of Putsch

Iraq and PLO hope for stronger Soviet role, US allies fear shift will derail peace process

THE overthrow of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has sparked hope, among many Arabs, that Moscow will reassert its traditional influence in the region and offset the increasingly powerful American role. But it has also seriously alarmed the Arab allies of the United States, who fear that the abrupt change will hinder the US-sponsored peace process with Israel, according to Arab officials and analysts.If the new Soviet leadership succeeds in controlling the country, these observers say, the US role will be undercut in the region, enhancing the Arab negotiating position with Israel and alleviating some of the pressure on Iraq and the Palestinians. In the streets of Amman, people could be seen celebrating Gorbachev's fall and the rise of a hard-line regime. Some said they wished the change had come a several months earlier, when it would have affected the Gulf war. Similar reactions were reported in the occupied territories. "I think that the overthrow of Gorbachev has been mostly welcomed by most Arabs on the popular level, but the Arab governments are definitely divided over the issue," says Talaat Mussalam, an Egyptian writer reached by telephone. Iraq and Libya have welcomed the change, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said it hoped the new leadership would reassert a major Soviet role in the Middle East peace process, and restore balance to international relations. "This is a real blow to the US-led new world order," says PLO executive committee member Abdullah Hourani. "Now we hope for real Soviet co-sponsorship of the [proposed peace] conference and a more balanced Soviet approach, away from the US double standards in applying international law." Mr. Hourani was referring to what is often seen here as the disparity between the US's painstaking application of UN resolutions on Iraq and the long-standing, unenforced resolutions on Israel and the Palestinians. Other Arab states reacted only with official silence. Jordan's government has maintained a neutral public position. Two foreign ministry officials, however, privately predict a more favorable Soviet approach to Jordan and to the PLO. One, a former ambassador, expresses satisfaction that his country - unlike Syria - did not bet on "Gorbachev's horse." Arab diplomats and analysts differ in their evaluation of whether the fall of Gorbachev will lead to a shift in Syria's position - a longtime Soviet ally who joined the US alliance during the Gulf war. Syria has so far been silent on the coup, but one Arab diplomat who has recently conferred with a high-level Syrian official says that Damascus would like to regain its role as a power broker in the region. The Syrians are chafing under US supervision, this source says. Other analysts suggest, however, that while Syria will reconsider its position, it is not likely to change its stance. Up until the changes brought about by Gorbachev most Arab governments had relied on almost automatic Soviet support, especially at the UN Security Council, to counter Washington's backing for Israel. "If it was not for Soviet weakness and Gorbachev's subservience to the US, Washington would not have completely monoplized the peace process in favor of Israel, neither would it have led a war to destroy Iraq unchallenged," says Hisham Ghassib, a Jordanian scholar of Soviet affairs. One of the major rifts in the Arab world in recent years has been over how to deal with the political pullout of the Soviet Union from the region. Egypt and the Gulf states argued that the Arab world should accomodate the only superpower left. But Iraq - backed by the PLO and Jordan until the Iraqi defeat - hoped that a united Arab world could fill the vacuum. The Iraqi military defeat, however, favored the first position, and led Arab states like Syria and Jordan to accept the US preconditions for peace talks with Israel. And even though the peace conference, planned for October, is so far being cosponsored by Washington and Moscow, many Arabs regard the Soviet role as weak and ceremonial. So Gorbachev's ouster is provoking divided reactions as the US Arab allies - primarily Egypt - express concern that the coup will disrupt the process, while others, especially PLO and Jordanian officials, are hopeful that a new Soviet leadership may bring about a "genuine" cosponsorship. Another view comes from Ali Khalifa al-Kawari, a Qatari political scientist reached by telephone in Oxford, England, where he is organizing a conference on democratization in the Arab world. He argues that if the new leadership consolidates its grip over the Soviet Union, Moscow's foreign policy will likely be less pro-American though not necessarily as pro-Arab as before. "Moscow's policy will be less subservient to the US, but it will not be exactly the same as in the pre-Gorbachev days," agrees Mr. Mussalem, the Egyptian writer. But Mr. Kawari says any shift will restore some form of balance in the region, and might pave the way to a more even-handed application of UN resolutions concerning the Middle East. He says the change is likely to affect inter-Arab relations most. "The Gulf states' relations with the US have been solid [since] long before the end of the cold war. But the ouster of Gorbachev will strengthen the position of the Arab parties - Iraq and the PLO - who have been resisting American domination of the region," Kawari adds.

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