PRESIDENT Clinton's telephone call to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad on Wednesday, asking him to rein in Damascus-based Palestinian opposition groups, demonstrates Washington's concern over the intentions of these groups to disrupt the Gaza-Jericho agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
It is also a test of Mr. Assad's commitment to this historic development in the peace process.
Last week the Syrian president did not give PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat the support the United States and Arafat had wanted. Instead Mr. Assad gave his support to ``the Palestinian people and their institutions,'' which include the opposition groups based here.
Leaders of the most influential of the opposition groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) say they have strengthened their unity in opposition to Arafat and have called for his ouster as leader of the PLO as well as the election of a new leadership.
``Arafat will not succeed,'' predicted PFLP-GC Leader Ahmed Jabril after a demonstration on Sept. 13, while sitting with about 20 representatives of the opposition groups who watched the protest together in a display of unity. ``Now we are fighting Arafat and Israel together, because they are in the same trench,'' he said.
The groups here are mainly opposed to the agreement because it does not mention a guarantee for a Palestinian state, the ultimate goal of all these groups, and because it does not specify what should become of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
The majority of the 350,000 Palestinians living in Syria are refugees of that war.
The opposition leaders also are quick to argue that the decision was a minority one among the 18 members of the PLO's Executive Committee and that Arafat has assumed dictatorial powers in order to push the agreement through.
``Of the 15 organizations in the PLO, 12 are against this agreement,'' says DFLP spokesman Daoud Telhame. He also believes the majority of Palestinians are with him, or will be in the near future.
Mr. Jabril says his organization will escalate military actions against Israel and that Arafat cannot stop them.
Abu Ahmed Fouad, the head of military operations for PFLP, long considered second only to Arafat's Fatah faction in influence in the PLO, said that his group will continue political opposition to the accord as well as military actions against Israel and anybody else that stands in the way.
``We will continue our struggle against the Israelis,'' says Mr. Fouad, who is also a member of the central committee of the PLO. ``But if any foreign peacekeepers get in our way there, we will not hesitate to fight them as well.'' He emphasized that his organization will only carry out the fight within Israel and the occupied territories and that the struggle will be a political one elsewhere.
These groups, while officially under the umbrella of the PLO, have long opposed Arafat in varying degrees. Jabril called for his death at the outset of the Madrid peace conference two years ago and reiterated it this week. The PFLP nominally stood with Arafat during the peace negotiations, but has now suspended its membership on the PLO's Executive Committee in reaction to the Gaza-Jericho agreement.
The opposition groups are working together and with dissenting members of Arafat's Fatah, to create a united front against the accords. In addition, they have been talking with other countries in the region in an effort to gain some international support.
PFLP leader George Habash and the DFLP's leader, Nayef Hawatmeh, were in Libya this week, and Jabril is rumored to be headed to Iran. Fatah's most prominent dissenter, Farouk Khaddoumi, visited Iraq this week.
For the time being, DFLP spokesman Telhame says, his people will continue the intifadah (the six-year-old Palestinian uprising) in the occupied territories and create a unified voice against the accord.
He says his organization ``has some ideas'' for actions in the short term, but would not elaborate on what that might mean.
Presently, Assad is remaining coy. According to the Lebanese newspaper Al Sharq, Assad reminded Clinton during their talk of the Syrian commitment to bringing just and comprehensive peace to the Middle East, and to the implementation of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for the return of territories Israel has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Syrian leader reportedly did not give any indication, though, that he will rein in the opposition groups. It is widely acknowledged that Assad can control the actions of the groups within Syria if he chooses.
In the meantime, demonstrations by Palestinians in the refugee camps here have numbered up to 10,000 protesters. The continuation or cessation of these demonstrations will be one strong indicator of the actions Assad plans to take. But the fact remains that in Syria there is a large, vocal, and active Palestinian opposition to the Gaza-Jericho peace agreement.