For more than a decade, Syria's President Hafez Assad has insisted that the road to peace in the Middle East must pass through Damascus. At least two such detours through the Syrian capital have just taken place. On Dec. 28, the warlords of Lebanon's feuding militias assembled in Damascus to sign a Syrian-brokered agreement designed to end almost eleven years of civil war. Last week Assad's image was burnished further when Jordan's King Hussein traveled to Syria for the first time in six years.
During the 28-hour visit, the two Arab leaders met four times, twice alone. What was said during their seven hours of private discussions remains undisclosed. No joint communiqué was issued. Jordan's Prime Minister Zaid al Rifa'i revealed only that the talks had covered regional developments, Arab cooperation and bilateral relations. There were unconfirmed reports that Assad and Hussein had agreed to exchange ambassadors. But there were no hints that either man had yielded on two main points of contention: how to resolve the Palestinian question and how to end the gulf war, in which Jordan supports Iraq while Syria favors Iran.
Even so, last week's meeting between Assad and Hussein was a diplomatic breakthrough. Relations between Syria and Jordan have been stormy since 1980, when the two countries broke over Jordan's clandestine support of the anti-Assad Muslim Brotherhood. Hostilities continued until last August, when Hussein unexpectedly agreed to pursue a rapprochement. Subsequent talks between Jordanian and Syrian officials produced travel and trade accords, as well as agreements to reject bilateral negotiations with Israel and to back a U.N.-sponsored international peace conference.
Why Hussein suddenly opened his arms to Assad remains a matter of speculation. Some analysts suggest that Hussein, perceiving only shaky support from the U.S. and moderate Arab regimes for his peace initiative, felt vulnerable standing alone on the high ground of Middle East politics. "The King is buying himself a little insurance," explained one U.S. State Department official. Others believe that Hussein plans to use his improved relations with Assad to put pressure on Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose refusal to endorse U.N. resolutions stating Israel's right to exist has stalled the King's peace plan. Assad loathes Arafat and would prefer Hussein to support harder-line Syrian-backed P.L.O. rebels. According to another theory, a Jordanian-Syrian reconciliation might scuttle the U.S.-backed peace process altogether if Hussein were to embrace Assad's uncompromising position toward Israel.
In Lebanon the prospects for peace were not much more promising. Given the failure of previous agreements, the newest treaty seems unlikely to produce a lasting cease-fire. While the agreement seeks to redress the balance of power between Muslims and Maronite Christians, the traditionally dominant Maronites are reluctant to give up their privileges. Indeed, just days after the truce went into effect gunmen opened fire on the car of Assad Shaftari, a key Maronite participant in the Syrian-sponsored peace talks. Shaftari narrowly escaped. His supporters have accused Christians who back President Amin Gemayel of staging the attack. Gemayel, who has yet to endorse the treaty, flew to Damascus at week's end to discuss the pact with Assad. --By Jill Smolowe.