The modest scale of Moscow's airlift of military supplies to Syria suggests the Kremlin remains leery of helping to provoke a widened Mideast war.
A Soviet official, in a conversation with the Monitor June 16, said he thought a full-scale confrontation between Israel and the Soviet-allied Syrians could be avoided:''We are against widening the conflict. The Americans are against widening the conflict. The Syrians are against widening the conflict. The Israelis are against widening the conflict.''
Yet he added that, with Israeli and Syrian troops face to face, some threat of escalation necessarily remained.
The official said he was convinced Israel's troops would stay in Lebanon for the foreseeable future, linking eventual withdrawal with a pullback of Syrian forces and ''the eradication of the Palestinians' (military) infrastructure.'' When asked whether the Soviet Union would tolerate this, he countered with an acknowledgment of the practical limits of superpowerdom: ''What can we do?''
He said the Soviets were pursuing a ''realistic policy'' on the conflict, without ''overestimating the practical alternatives.'' He added it would be safe to assume this was one explanation for Moscow's relatively restrained tone in two public policy statements since Israel's June 6 invasion of Lebanon.
Neither mentioned Syria, linked to the Soviets by treaty, or the Palestine Liberation Organization. And neither included an explicit pledge of military backing for the Syrians or Palestinians against the Israeli invasion force.
A similar tone marked a private meeting June 9 between a Soviet deputy foreign minister and five senior Arab diplomats here. The Soviet official is understood to have said Moscow would continue to help Arab parties ''economically and in other ways, as much as we are able.''
Diplomats here have little doubt that a renewal of major fighting, particularly one involving Syrian forces in Lebanon and threatening to spill onto Syrian soil, could prompt a speedy reassessment of Soviet policy and some form of widened Soviet involvement in the crisis. A perceived tumble in Soviet credibility in the Arab world could also prompt the Kremlin toward an escalation of diplomatic, though probably not military, activity, in the view of these analysts.
But the watchword so far seems to be ''caution.'' Diplomats, both Western and Arab, assume that one reason for this is Kremlin concern that the Soviet-armed Syrians, already bruised by the Israelis, would risk even greater losses in a further showdown with the invasion force in Lebanon.The Soviets may also suspect that superpower saber-rattling over the Mideast could undermine resumed arms talks with Washington in their infancy.
One top Arab diplomat, speaking privately late June 16, said he ''perceived some difficulty on the part of the Soviets in fitting the Mideast crisis into general foreign policy priorities, like issues of detente'' with the West.
The scale of the Soviet airlift to Damascus, as reported by diplomats here, suggests Moscow is moving partially to make up for Syrian losses. According to Israeli claims, these include large numbers of Soviet-manufactured MIG aircraft as well as a surface-to-air missile network.
A deputy chief of the Soviets' air defense force has recently held talks with the Syrians. Very little detail on the airlift was available from Moscow-based diplomats, but one said he understood that about a half-dozen Soviet transport planes had landed in Damascus by midday June 15. An Israeli radio report said three to four transports were landing daily.