SYRIA is determined that the momentum of international effort directed at resolving the Gulf crisis should not slacken until all disputes in the Middle East are resolved. The most complex of these is the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Syrian leaders say they are not trying to link the ending of the crisis with the resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute as Iraq wants to do. Rather, they insist, the one should lead to the other.
"We believe that an Iraqi unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait would certainly pave the way for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa told reporters last Friday. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, also occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The issue was discussed during four and a half hours of talks in Damascus Friday between President Hafez al-Assad and United States Secretary of State James Baker III. Syria is looking for assurances from the US that Washington will intensify its efforts to settle the Arab-Israeli dispute as soon as the Gulf crisis is resolved.
"There is so much international attention focused on the region," says a senior Syrian government official. "This is an opportunity which must not be missed."
The Syrians say it is essential that as many minor differences as possible be sorted out before the major problem of the Middle East conflict is tackled. Damascus counts the crisis in Lebanon and the holding of Western hostages there in the first category.
Senior officials in Damascus say Syria is cooperating closely with Iran to secure the release of hostages. They add that Tehran is in touch with groups in Lebanon over which it has influence, pointing out to them that because of the upheavals of the Gulf crisis Western hostages have lost their value as bargaining chips. Iran now views these hostages as counterproductive to its efforts to improve relations with the international community.
Some Lebanese Shiite leaders have ruled out freeing American hostages while US forces are deployed in the Middle East. But Syria is not daunted by such pronouncements. "The Iranians do have influence in Lebanon, despite what some of the Shiite leaders there are saying in public," a Syrian official says.
The Syrians regard ending the Iran-Iraq war as the first step toward resolving regional conflicts. Last month Iraqi President Saddam Hussein unexpectedly accepted all Iran's conditions for settling the conflict. …