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Both sides seek face-saving device in Syria-Jordan confrontation

This portion of the Middle East is tense, but not at war. Up to 30,000 Syrian soldiers and 20,000 Jordanians are fanned out eight kilometers apart along a bleak, dusty frontier split by the Amman-Damascus (Syria) highway. But political analysts here do not believe a full-scale clash, such as already has occured between Iraq and Iran in the Gulf area, is likely.

Instead, most observers think the two armies will become involved in a "sitzkrieg," meaning a long military waiting game. Their national leaders, President Hafez Assad of Syria and King Hussein of Jordan, meanwhile, face the problem of how to wok their way out of the situation without losing face.

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No one expects a quick solution, even with Saudi Arabian Prince Abdullah shuttling between Amman, Damascus, and Riyadh in his home country. But neither do most analysts believe the border tension will come to blows: Superpower and regional alliances are clearly known, and the rainy season is soon due to turn the potential battlefield into a quagmire.

There is great need now, diplomatic sources agree, for a face-saving device. Both Hussein and Assad must be able to tell their countrymen that they have carried the day (without having actually done so). Then the hope is that troop strengths can be reduced gradually on both sides.

This face-saver might be a general agreement not to interfere in each others' internal affairs and a high-level intra-Arab mediation council to hear grievances, diplomats say.

Syrian media report that President Assad is demanding two main concessions of King Hussein:

1. End Jordanian support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed organization in Syria that has opposed and troubled the Assad regime.

2. Resist any temptation to usurp the prerogative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in future negotiations on the fate of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

But Jordanians and Western analysts do not believe King Hussein is likely to accept Mr. Assad's demands, and certainly not at the end of a gun barrel.

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"It is like the old question, 'Have you stopped beating your wife?'" says one Western observer. "If King Hussein agrees to these demands, he admits that he was guilty of those charges. There is no reason for the King to back down.He is no mood to be bullied."

Other pundits say that the King would not be inclined to squelch the Muslim Brotherhood in his nation or send fleeing Muslim "brothers" back across the border to Syria, since the movement is legal in Jordan.

Moreover, it appears increasingly likely that the Jordan monarch soon will take a leading role in West Bank negotiations. Some high-level analysts assert that a Hussein initiative is inevitable.

The current flare-up between Syria and Jordan has roots that go back through 10 years of alternating fraternity and fratricide. In 1970 the two countries fought. In 1976 they united their military commands and held joint exerices. Symbols of this unity remain: Syrian and Jordanian police man border posts together. But for the most part of the relationship has gone downhill in the last four years.

Syria also had a fickle relationship with Iraq that grew into a unity move but ended with troops massed on Syria's eastern border. This military buildup trickled off after several months.

Syria, increasingly under Soviet influence, has spun away from the moderate Arab fold and finds itself in a radical clique along with Libya, Algeria, South Yemen, and, as it now appears, the PLO.

"In 1970 [after Jordanians fought Palestinians], Jordan was the pariah of the Arab world," says a diplomat. "Then in 1978 [with Camp David], Egypt became the pariah. Now Syria finds itself in this role."

When the Syrian troop buildup began nov. 20, the precipitating cause was President Assad's anger at Jordan and moderate states for holding an Arab summit conference at the time of intra-arab division. Syria led a boycott of the summit, but Western sources in Amman believe Mr. Assad clearly failed in the eyes of many Arabs.

"I believe the Syrians were miffed that other Arabs would actually go ahead with such a meeting without Damascus, "the heart of Arabdom,' present," one official says.

Damascus was the capital of the 7th-century Omayyad Arab empire that stretched from Spain to India. "Greater Syria," a modern manifest destiny concept, is adhered to by Mr. Assad as a Baathist partisan. This plan calls for Syria to control Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.

Some Jordanian and Western analysts accuse the Syrian President of belligerence and irrationality. But it should be remembered that Mr. Assad, as commander of the Syrian Air Force in 1970, refused to send plans to support a Syrian tank assault on Jordan. The assault failed, and Mr. Assad took power in a coup a short time later.

Most analysts believe neither Jordan nor Syria really wants to fight -- especially with the Iraqi-Iranian example proving that quick victories are not easy to achieve in this area.

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