Retrenchment dims hope of peace for Middle East

May 19, 1991|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- More than two months after the Persian Gulf war ended, a process of retrenchment is under way throughout the Middle East, undermining U.S. hopes of a new power arrangement that would spur progress on regional security, Arab-Israeli peace, arms control and economic cooperation.

In that brief period:

* The power grouping of the six gulf states plus Egypt and Syria, viewed hopefully by the United States as the new center of gravity in the Arab world, has come apart, a victim of distrust among the Arabs themselves.

* The Persian Gulf states' conservative ruling families have turned inward, pulling back from an active role in regional politics in favor of ensuring domestic stability.

* Syria appears to have stalled in its shift toward the West while building up its weaponry and possibly looking to assume its former role as a leader of pan-Arab radicalism.

* Israel has continued expanding settlements in its occupied territories, creating added impediments to any future trade of territory for peace.

* Newly liberated Kuwait, struggling to rebuild amid internal turmoil, has yielded little to forces seeking democracy.

These pessimistic signs are partly balanced by Jordan's eagerness to restore its ties to the West and to moderate Arab states and a new flexibility toward talks with Israel shown by Palestinian Arabs.

But the hopes for a transformation in regional relationships that accompanied the end of the Persian Gulf war appear so far to have been unfounded.

This return to the status quo already has slowed the Bush administration's drive to launch a new Middle East peace process. As of this weekend, Secretary of State James A. Baker III's effort to arrange a peace conference remained stymied -- despite four trips to the region -- over procedural issues widely viewed as masking Israel's and Syria's unwillingness to commit themselves.

But a renewed peace process was only one of the challenges faced by the United States in the postwar period. It also sought a new security arrangement for the region, control of both conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction, and a transformation of the economic outlook throughout the region by expanding free markets and promoting growth-oriented economic policies.

U.S. officials hoped the Arab coalition that fought Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's aggression would form the centerpiece of new security arrangements.

Nicknamed "six plus two," the coalition linked the six oil-rich but sparsely populated gulf states with Egypt and Syria, which were to maintain ground forces to help protect the Persian Gulf.

This arrangement offered the advantage of uniting the conservative but moderate gulf states with Egypt, Western-looking but in dire economic straits and grappling with a population explosion. Together, these countries were seen as having a restraining influence on Syria.

Now it appears that Syrian troops won't be welcome, and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, angered that he wasn't asked to keep his forces in the region, is withdrawing them.

U.S. interests in securing the gulf are being served with an expanded U.S. military presence and prepositioned equipment. But while Kuwait wants U.S. forces present, Saudi Arabia would prefer to keep them at a discreet distance.

The weakening of Syria's ties to the gulf has left Damascus with little incentive to continue trying to improve its relations with the Western allies of the gulf states and Egypt, particularly the United States.

Syrian President Hafez el Assad was reportedly annoyed by Washington's decision to keep Syria on its list of nations that sponsor terrorism -- with the economic penalties that entails -- and by U.S. protests of Syria's bid to purchase tanks from Czechoslovakia.

If anything, Syria has stiffened its procedural conditions for joining in a regional peace conference and could try to block the peace process from moving forward without it.

Arms control and economic reconstruction efforts seem inextricably tied both to progress in the peace process and to a new relationship among Arab countries. The United States sees arms control as being part of the set of spinoff talks growing out of a regional conference.

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