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Moscow searches for a role in Mideast peace process

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As world attention focused on events surrounding the hijacked TWA airliner in Beirut, one of the most powerful figures in the whole Lebanese drama, Syria's President Hafez Assad, flew into Moscow. His talks last week with Mikhail Gorbachev revealed that there was no new position in Moscow, and that the Kremlin had failed to shift Syria away from its opposition to Yasser Arafat, the resilient Palestine Liberation Organization leader.

Mr. Arafat is still seen by Moscow as the only man with any chance of imposing a semblance of unity on the Palestinian cause.

President Assad's talks, his first full-scale consultations with the new Kremlin leadership, ended with a general call for Arab unity but significantly the version published in the Soviet press made no mention of Assad's remarks on the future role of the PLO.

The Trans World Airlines hijack has been a clear reminder to Moscow that, while it does not want to be left out of any process that could lead to a successful settlement in the Middle East, it is often wiser to sit on the sidelines while others take the punches.

The Soviet news media, following Foreign Ministry instructions, have been content to watch the series of embarrassing imbroglios which have bedeviled Washington.

From the sidelines they have taken potshots at ``Nazi-like atrocities'' every time there are available television pictures of a United States-made Israeli fighter strafing a Palestinian refugee camp.

Western European diplomats in Moscow say Soviet officials are aware of the increase in sympathy in their countries for the Palestinian cause and are playing on it.

This is especially the case, they say, as the United States seems inseparably linked with Israeli policies over which the US often appears to have little control.

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