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Syria's effort to become leader of Arab world suffers setbacks

Syria's well-orchestrated effort to become the preeminent political force in the Arab world has suffered setbacks that worry the regime in Damascus. The Syrians had been enjoying a string of political victories when Jordan pulled them up short by announcing Sept. 25 the restoration of diplomatic ties with Egypt.

The Jordanian move was met with a storm of condemnation from the Syrians that has not abated.

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When Syrian President Hafez Assad left Monday for Moscow - his first formal visit in two years - several concerns were likely to be discussed:

* The Jordanian-Egyptian reconciliation.

* The stagnation of Syrian efforts to restore order in Lebanon.

* Syria's failure to depose Yasser Arafat as chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

* The lingering effects of a succession struggle last spring for the Syrian presidency.

The first item is reportedly high on President Assad's agenda for discussion in Moscow. Syria feels threatened by Jordan's move and subsequent Jordanian-Egyptian talks, because they raise again the possibility that a Mideast peace settlement could be negotiated without them.

Assad had thought he had succeeded through months of maneuvering in Lebanon and with the Palestinians to demonstrate both to the United States and Israel that Syria must be reckoned with in any negotiations. But the Jordanian-Egyptian reconciliation offers an alternative that could leave the Syrians out in the cold.

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Ironically, Syria may be the victim of its own success. Jordan's King Hussein had reportedly grown more concerned about the ascendancy of Syria, a hard-line state whose policies have often clashed with those of Jordan.

''One of the oldest nightmares of Assad is to be left in the open,'' said a Western diplomat who has spent five years in Damascus. ''He forgot, however, that one of Hussein's fears also is that he will be left out while the Americans deal with the Syrians.''

In Lebanon, the warlords continue to shuttle between Beirut and Damascus, but so far they have failed to heed Syrian warnings that they are taking too long to extend the central government's control beyond Beirut.

The Syrians also have not managed to impose their will on the PLO. Assad has refused to allow the Palestinians to hold their oft-postponed Palestine National Council meeting - the Palestinian parliament-in-exile. Despite months of negotiations, the Syrians still insist that the Palestinians must depose Mr. Arafat before the Syrians will agree to a PNC meeting.

The Syrian stance against Arafat has put them at odds with other Arab states and the majority of Palestinians, who insist that Arafat remains an important international symbol.

''We do not believe in symbols,'' said a well-placed Syrian official who declined to be identified.

''Arafat cannot be controlled. He is dangerous to the Palestinian people. The Palestinians speak of their need to maintain their independence in choosing their leaders. But the decisions they as Palestinians make affect us. The Palestinian problem is a Syrian problem and the Syrian problem is a Palestinian problem.''

Assad also has been plagued with health problems that last spring led to a leadership crisis. When it appeared Assad might not recover from a heart attack, his flamboyant brother, Rifaat Assad, commander of the Defense Companies, made a bid to succeed the President. His power play was bitterly opposed by two other Army generals, and each of the commanders deployed forces in and around Damascus.

By June, the President had recovered and put down the brewing revolt, sending his brother into exile and breaking up his military units. The President now appears to be back in full control. But the crisis took its toll.

Despite the other problems, no setback has been perceived by Syria to be as serious as the Jordanian-Egyptian rapprochement. The announcement was made just as Syria was savoring the recognition by both Israel and the US that Syria was the dominant force in Lebanon.

Assad had humiliated the Americans by forcing the Lebanese to abrogate the American-sponsored May 17 troop withdrawal agreement between Israel and Lebanon last year. Next, the Syrians were able to claim credit for Israel's decision to pull out of south Lebanon. The new Israeli government has agreed to drop its condition that Syrian forces in Lebanon withdraw simultaneously.

Against this backdrop, Hussein's announcement seemed to the Syrians to be directly aimed at defeating their policy goals in the Middle East. They viewed the rapprochement as an effort by Jordan and Egypt to position themselves for renewed US-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel.

Such a possibility raised the specter for Syria of Jordan and Egypt negotiating the return of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Arab hands. Syria would then be left with no lever to induce the Israelis to return the Golan Heights. All three territories were occupied by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

''King Hussein timed his announcement against Syria,'' said the Syrian official. ''Hussein does not want Syria to be strong among the Arab states.''

So far, the Syrian actions against Jordan have been limited to rhetoric. Through their harsh response to the announcement, Syria has warned other Arab states not to follow Jordan's example.

''But the dike is breached,'' a Western political analyst in Damascus observed. ''Eventually the others will have to recognize Egypt, and this could then be the first step over a number of years to the decline of Syria's position.''

For now, however, the Syrians remain the party to deal with in Lebanon. The Israelis continue to insist they will pull out of Lebanon if they are given adequate security assurances from Syria. By all accounts, the Syrians want to see an Israeli pullout, but are in no hurry to expedite it. In fact, the US maintains that Israel and Syria are still so far apart on significant points for a pullout that they refuse, for now, to act as intermediaries.

One analyst said the Americans have decided to play the time-honored Syrian game of waiting out the opposition. The theory is that the longer the Israeli occupation continues, the more pressure will mount on both the Israelis and the Syrians to arrange a pullout.

Syria now has a stake as the self-proclaimed peacekeepers in Lebanon in restoring order there, according to this analysis. The longer Israel remains, the more the situation in the south may deteriorate as the predominantly Shiite Muslim population grows more radicalized.

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