Habib pushing Syrian missile crisis onto wider stage
The long-running drama of US special envoy Philip C. Habib's efforts to defuse the Israeli-Syrian crisis over Syrian missiles in Lebanon has moved onto a wider stage.
Mr. Habib's efforts to get the missiles removed are now focused on the inter-Arab arena. He is attempting to persuade the Arab states to resolve the problem among themselves so Israeli demands can be removed from center stage and Syria can save face.
And Israel -- whose prime minister, Menachem Begin, alleged on Sunday that Soviet advisers have accompanied Syrian tank crews into Lebanon (denied Monday by Moscow) -- is emphasizing the superpower dimensions of the conflict. He is billing it as the first test of strength between the Reagan administration and the Soviet Union in the Middle East.
According to political sources in Jerusalem, Mr. Habib's proposals call for the government of Lebanon to make the request for removal of the missiles, with Israel playing no part in the agreement. Israel would agree to stop "operational" -- not reconnaissance -- flights over eastern Lebanon. Israel's Lebanese Christian allies and Syrian forces, whose clashes started the crisis, would be separated by regular Lebanese Army units.
Saudi Arabia, which reportedly approved such a plan when Mr. Habib visited Riyadh earlier this month, is said to be playing a mediating role, providing a financial incentive to Damascus for this deal, and attempting to persuade the Syrians to remove or at least limit their forces in Lebanon. Mr. Habib has been waiting in Jerusalem for word from Saudi Arabia on a meeting between Saudi King Khalid and Rifaat Assad, brother of the Syrian President, who flew to Saudi Arabia this weekend.
A Syrian spokesman said on Rifaat Assad's return that Saudi Arabia "reaffirmed its support for Syria in the current crisis."
So far there has been no concrete sign of Syrian agreement to Mr. Habib's plan: The Syrians claim that he has transmitted only "Israeli proposals" and they continue to insist publicly that they will not remove their "defensive missiles." But by sending his brother to Saudi Arabia, President Assad appears to have shown that he takes the desert kingdom's mediation seriously.
On Israel's part, Prime Minister Begin has said his country has not set any time limit on Mr. Habib's diplomacy. But leaks here indicate less optimism than one week ago, just after Mr. Habib returned from Riyadh and Damascus, when Israeli sources hinted that the crisis might be solved in two weeks' time.
Israeli officials have expressed sharp concern over changes in the military situation in Lebanon since negotiations began. They are worried by the shooting down Monday of a third unmanned reconnaissance plane over Lebanon by Syrian missiles and by the arrival from Syria of several hundred Libyan soldiers armed with cannons, rockets, and artillery, who they say have been deployed around Palestine Liberation Organization bases over the past few weeks.
Although Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Tunis over the weekend agreed to give "total" military assistance to Syria should Israel attack, sources here believe that key Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, would prefer to see the crisis settled peacefully.
The Iraqis, bitter enemies of Syria, are enmeshed in war with Iran. The Jordanians, whose economy is booming, have no desire to rush to support President Assad, who massed troops on their border late last year. Egypt's President Anwar Sadat has said publicly he would not help Syria.
The Saudis, who are keeping oil prices down despite pressures from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, have no desire for a Middle East war which could threaten Western economies in which their petrodollars are invested. They also fear that hostility in the area would increase the influence of the Soviet Union, which has a friendship treaty with Syria.
Despite the Saudi -- and widespread Arab -- desire to avoid hostility, it is not clear whether they can convince Syrian President Assad. The Saudis have apparently already agreed to renew previously suspended payments to Syria for maintenance of their 27,000-man "peacekeeping force" in Lebanon, which was sanctioned by the Arab league in 1976. And they have reportedly offered Syria an additional $1 billion to accept the Habib proposals. Although Mr. Habib is not negotiating an overall settlement for Lebanon, the Saudis would reportedly like the Syrians to withdraw some or all of their "peacekeeping force" --whose activities have displeased Riyadh -- at the end of 1981, after one additional six-month extension.
Some Israeli sources, noting Mr. Assad's hard line to date, believe that continuing Syrian domestic political unrest and a desire to burnish his pan-Arab prominence may spur the Syrian leader to risk a clash with Israel, in expectation that it would not widen into war. Other sources here hope that with his previous inter-Arab isolation now ended and his prestige enhanced, the Syrian President may yet opt for a peaceful settlement.
The wishes of Syria's Soviet ally are viewed here as the key to his decision. Israeli news media and officials have repeated in recent days that the issue at stake is no longer the missiles, but rather a test of superpower strength.
One Israeli columnist wrote in the independent daily Ma'ariv, "All US allies in the Middle East . . . will closely follow the United States' efforts to prevent a Syrian takeover of Lebanon, which would extend the Soviet sphere of influence. . . ."
Israel has been stressing -- in what some commentators have called "signals" and "warnings" to Moscow --its closeness to the Reagan administration.
Mr. Begin's aside about Soviet advisers in Lebanon came in a speech extolling warm Israel-US relations. As one example he pointed to the presence of American as well as Soviet naval vessels in the area.