Assad Due in Egypt to Discuss Specter of War With Israel, Arab Media Reports

Syrian President Bashar Assad was due last night to land in Egypt "within hours," his first visit in four years, several Arab media outlets reported. The urgency of the surprise trip stems from a fear of war between Israel and Syria.

A Syrian commentator noted that Assad, who last week denied that Syria had delivered Scud missiles to Hezbollah, would seek to make clear that this information was false. He believes that the accusations are "an Israeli excuse for warmongering," according to the media reports.

In their meeting, Assad and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would also discuss the Palestinian reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas.

Assad's visit to Egypt would be his first since the Second Lebanon War, when he called Arab leaders who did not back Hezbollah "half men." Saudi Arabia and Egypt responded by refusing to meet with Assad and by launching a media attack on Hezbollah. This included Egyptian accusations that the Lebanese group was targeting sites in Egypt.

Saudi Arabia had already cooled relations with Syria before the war, following suspicions that it might have been involved in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

But the Saudis thawed relations last year, largely due to Lebanon's parliamentary elections and Syria's desire to support Hariri's son Saad, who became prime minister. In October, the Saudi king arrived for a historic visit to Damascus, but Syrian efforts to persuade Mubarak to do the same failed; the Egyptian president refused to talk to Assad.

Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt seek to minimize Iranian influence among Arab countries in the Middle East and see embracing Syria as a step that might make it easier for Assad to pick a side.

However, Egypt has been waiting for a gesture of apology and reconciliation from the Syrian president. Assad's request to visit his Egyptian counterpart after Mubarak had undergone an operation could represent a good start for a better relationship between the two men.

In the meantime, Egypt is pushing for a special conference to discuss the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with all Middle Eastern countries attending, including Israel. The conference would aim to persuade Israel to sign the treaty.

Egyptian sources say the permanent members of the Security Council support a Middle East nuclear conference, but it is still unclear whether the conference would be empowered to negotiate with Israel.