Spotlight on terrorism shifts to Syria. But US shows it's not ready to do unto Syria what it did unto Libya
This was the week when the danger spotlight shifted from Libya to Syria, and President Reagan found himself facing a troubling dilemma arising out of his bombing attack on Libya. The way things stand at this writing Syria, not Libya, is accused of having planned both the bomb which blew up the discoth`eque in West Berlin on April 5 and the bomb which nearly went aboard an El Al airliner at London's Heathrow airport on April 17.
During the previous week, Israel's defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, came to Washington. He conferred for three days with Vice-President George Bush, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and other high US officials. On the third day, May 8, he gave a press conference at which he accused Syria of committing state-sponsored terrorism and responsibility in particular for the Heathrow bomb.
On that same third day, CBS Evening News quoted unnamed US and Western European ``intelligence sources'' as saying that Israel was preparing a major military strike against Syria.
The next day, May 9, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres denied that Israel was planning such military action against Syria.
On May 10, the British expelled three Syrian attach'es, thereby tending to confirm Israel's charges against Syria. Syria retaliated by expelling three British diplomats on May 11.
On May 12, Israeli ``military sources'' in Jerusalem were quoted as saying that Syria has been advancing its artillery and tank defense lines in southern Lebanon and moving some of its troops from Lebanon back into Syria in positions from which they could be used for an offensive against Israeli forces.
In other words, Israel opened this new round in the terrorism and antiterrorism story by coming to Washington and publicly accusing Syria of being the guilty party in two recent bombing incidents, including the one in West Berlin which killed a US soldier.
Mr. Rabin's visit to Washington, plus his labeling of Syria, was in itself an invitation to President Reagan to apply to Syria the logic of the attack on Libya.
President Reagan bombed Libya in reprisal for acts of ``state-supported terrorism.'' Syria is widely believed to be as guilty of ``state-supported'' terrorism as Libya. Most experts in the matter think that probably more terrorism has been planned and launched from Iran, Syria, and Lebanon than from Libya.
We have now reached the point where Reagan is being asked, ``What are you going to do about it?''
Did Israel's Defense Minister Rabin make the trip to Washington to discuss with the US the possibility of a joint attack on Syria? Why underline Syria's suspected responsibility in the two bomb incidents unless to provide justification in advance for taking punitive action?
And what reaction did Rabin get in Washington? By midweek we had an answer. On May 14, White House spokesman Larry Speakes stated that the US does not have ``any independent or conclusive proof'' of Syrian complicity. He added that the Syrians ``have in the past and continue to be helpful in trying to arrange the release of the hostages.'' He was referring to five US citizens who have been kidnapped in Lebanon over the past 18 months.
President Reagan faces a dilemma. He must either take punitive action against Syria or concede that his campaign against ``state-sponsored'' terrorism is to be aimed only at Libya, which buys arms from the Soviets and is unprotected by Moscow, but not at Syria which has a ``friendship'' treaty with Moscow and is being rearmed by the Soviets.
In summary, the chronology of the question of Syrian complicity in terrorism indicates clearly that Israel sought to test Reagan's antiterrorism policy to find out whether it would be extended to Syria. They found out. The question had been put during Rabin's visit of May 5 to 7. The answer on May 14 was clear. It meant at least ``not yet.''
This does not rule out a future US change about Syria. But if Syria is officially regarded in Washington as being ``helpful'' about trying to rescue American hostages, then it must be that the White House is not ready to take hard action against Syria.
A further implication is that if Israel wishes to strike at Syria now it will have to do so alone and without US approval.
A logical deduction from what is known so far is that the Israeli military command raised the question of whether it would be prudent to strike at Syria now before Syria's arms program goes much farther, that Mr. Rabin posed the project in Washington, and was told no. Another way of putting it is that Washington has protected Syria from a possible Israeli attack.