Syrian President Hafez Assad arrived here today for his first visit to Jordan in nine years and began talks with King Hussein on critical regional and bilateral issues.
Assad, accompanied by Prime Minister Abdul Rauf Kasm and Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, was given a warm welcome by Hussein upon arrival at Amman military airport.
The talks, held in closed session, were the two leaders' first since Hussein called off his joint Middle East peace effort with mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in February.
A Jordanian statement said the talks dealt with "recurrent situations in the Arab world and bilateral relations," but gave no details.
Although the Saudi-mediated rapprochement between Syria and Jordan, which began last September, has defused the severe strain that had marked their relations for six years, the two remain in opposite camps on major issues facing the Arab world. They took opposite sides at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers last week in Fez, Morocco, with Syria taking Libya's side in insisting that an emergency Arab summit conference be convened in Libya to discuss only the U.S. bombing.
Jordan, which broke diplomatic relations with Libya when the Jordanian Embassy in Tripoli was sacked in 1984, insisted that any Arab summit would have to deal chronologically with all the problems facing the Arab world, thus putting the Middle East issue and the Iranian-Iraqi war at the top of the agenda and the U.S. raid on Libya at the bottom.
Jordan and Syria disagree on the six-year-old Persian Gulf war. Jordan backs Iraq and Syria continues to support Iran despite signs of a recent strain in their relations resulting from friction between Syria and the Iranian-backed Shiite Moslem Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
However, both Hussein and Assad stand to gain politically from their talks, according to western diplomatic sources here.
Assad's visit is interpreted by some western diplomats as a bid to reduce the isolation that has come to Syria as a result of its failure to bring peace to Lebanon and from Israeli threats to strike Syria militarily for allegedly being involved in international terrorism.
"It will help burnish Syria's credentials at the international level if it is seen to be talking to a moderate country like Jordan," one western diplomat said.
Assad's visit, which had been awaited since Hussein visited Damascus in December, is seen by many here as reducing the loss of face that some Jordanians felt over what they saw as unreciprocated concessions made to Syria by Hussein to bring about rapprochement.
Assad's visit is also taking place "at a moment of political weakness for Jordan," according to another western diplomat.
Hussein's failure to persuade West Bank Palestinians to pressure Arafat's mainstream PLO into meeting U.S. conditions for PLO participation in the peace process has left Jordan without a credible Palestinian negotiating partner.
As a result, Hussein is expected to raise the subject of a possible reconciliation between Arafat's mainstream PLO on the one hand and Syria and the Marxist-oriented PLO faction Damascus supports, the western diplomat said.
Nonetheless, Jordan and Syria have gone a long way toward improving relations, which almost reached a state of war in 1980.
The two countries have begun to coordinate at the security level -- as evidenced by a recent meeting of their interior ministers. The Jordanian daily Sawt Al-Shaab, well-connected with the government, said Syria released 12 Jordanian political prisoners and Jordan released three Syrian political prisoners in honor of Assad's visit.