How to forestall the dangers manifest in the lineup of troops on both sides of the border between Syria and Jordan? It is the kind of situation in which a mistaken signal or isolated incident could lead to tragic conflict and broadening war. The best tht outsiders can do is to keep hands off while the adversaries, in the words of UN Secretary-General Waldheim, "exercise restrain and take urgent measures to resolve differences peacefully."
What has to be overcome is an Arab/Islamic tangle of which the Syrian-Jordanian tension is only a symptom. Such tangles have come and gone before. This time there is a new and difficult core: Iraq's invasion of Iran. Whatever the rights or wrongs of Iraq's stated territorial claims, practically nobody relishes the thought of its going on to take control of Iran's oil and become dominant in the Middle East. This feeling extends not only to the two Arab states (Syria and Libya) supporting non-Arab Iran but to the many Arab states backing Iraq to various degrees in the present combat.
One factor in a possible Iraq ascendancy is the elimination of Egypt from its fromer Arab leadership role. Egypt remains ostracized for making a peace with Israel that has not brought justice to the Palestinians in Israeli-occupied Arab territories.
Iraq's war supporters, prominently including Jordan, appeal to Arabism and sticking withe Iraqis as Arabs. Syria appeals to Islam and sticking with the Iranians as Muslims. Thus, even though there have been no basic differences between Syria and Jordan in recent years, they can indulge in mutual accusations. Jordan suggests Syria is anti-Arab. Syria suggests Jordan is anti-Islam. and this kind of wrangle figures in the situation splitting the recent Arab League summit meeting in Amman, which was boycotted by several states led by Syria.
As for Syria's display of troops on the Jordanian border, this becomes part of the wider context as an effort to cause concern in Iraq and divert it from its iranian adventure. Iraqis argue that they have already taken account of such a Syrian threat by keeping most of their troopst at home, thus at the same time trying to explain sending too few troops to Iran to speedily achieve their aims.
A further twist to the tangle comes with Syria and the Soviet Union drawing attention to their 20-year friendship treaty by holding ratification ceremonies in Damascus. The announced agreement includes a provision for each country to consult with the other -- though without necessarily committing military aid -- if the peace or security of either one is threatened. Moscow does not want to see Iraq swallowing Iran's oil any more than Syria does. But it also doesn't mind keeping the waters somewhat roiled.
The other superpower, the United States, is immediately called on by Jordan, which takes the Syrian threat as an excuse to ask for speeded delivery of ammunition and spare parts, though it is thought to be quite well stocked anyway. A State Department spokesman says additional shipments will be considered for the standard diplomatic reason of preventing war.
The latter goal will be better served by neither Moscow nor Washington upping their roles in a quintessentially Arab imbroglio. It is to be hoped the US official was right who said there are no plans "to open the Pentagon's floodgates" for Jordan.