Palestine Liberation Organization factions allied to Syria formed a new coalition in Damascus yesterday and signaled an all-out drive against efforts by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein to revive Middle East peace negotiations.
Creation of the National Palestinian Salvation Front, a grouping of six guerrilla factions, not only hardened division within the PLO but also served to underscore the determination of Syria to defeat any Middle East initiative that does not include the Damascus government in negotiations.
According to news agencies, the new front announced at a press conference that it will work to "obtain the abrogation" of the Feb. 11 accord Arafat signed with Hussein for a Jordanian-PLO delegation to peace talks. The coalition called instead for a stronger "strategic alliance" between the PLO and Syria.
In addition to PLO splinter groups long under Syrian influence, the front also includes George Habash of the PLO's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Habash is a Marxist leader whose fighters introducted hijacking to the Middle East in the late 1960s.
Habash, who is popular among some Palestinian intellectuals and refugees in camps, was formerly a close friend and ally of Arafat. As opposition to Arafat mounted after the Israeli eviction of the PLO from Beirut in the summer of 1982, Habash refused to oppose the PLO chairman publicly and attempted to arrange reconciliation between Arafat and the five other dissident factions.
Besides Habash, the new anti-Arafat PLO group includes the PFLP-General Command of Ahmed Jibril, Saiqa, the Popular Struggle Front, the Palestinian National Front and defectors from Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction led by Col. Said Musa, known by his code name Abu Musa, who fought against Arafat in Lebanon in 1983.
Supporters of Arafat took consolation in the fact that the Palestine Communist Party and another pro-Soviet PLO faction, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, did not join the coalition. But the decision of Habash to join the group appeared to give the opposition to Arafat within the PLO more weight and cohesion.
It also seemed to foreshadow another battle over whether Arafat can claim to speak on behalf of Palestinians at a time when he and other Arab leaders are pressing the Reagan administration to meet with him. Hussein has said he will not join peace talks without the assent of the PLO. President Reagan has ruled out direct participation of the PLO in peace efforts unless the organization recognizes Israel.
Syria thwarted a U.S.-brokered peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel through the manipulation of its Lebanese militia allies and frequently has charged that the strategy of the United States in such efforts is to dilute the strength of the Arabs by pushing them into a string of separate peace treaties with Israel. Syria has called instead for comprehensive negotiations on Middle East peace that would include its ally, the Soviet Union.
U.S. officials consistently have opposed any approach that would include the Soviets, and they did not change that position after private talks on the Middle East in Vienna in February between American and Soviet diplomats.
"Our reading is that the Soviets are not in a positive frame of mind and are unwilling to invest political capital to get the peace process moving," one administration official said.
One such example of that, the official said, was the apparent Soviet reluctance to resume formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
U.S. diplomats are keeping Syria informed about developments in the latest round of efforts at peace talks involving Reagan's plan envisioning creation of a Palestinian entity on the West Bank that would be linked in confederation to Jordan, the official said. But there is no effort at this point to bring them into any negotiations.
"We're looking at what appears to be the most manageable part of an issue," the official said.