Israelis Say Syria Bogged Down in Lebanon, Losing Prestige

Israeli security circles are watching with interest the difficulties being encountered by the Syrian army in its operations against Palestinian terrorists in Lebanon. A Syrian force trying to reach the Lebanese port of Sidon has been almost completely cut off by the terrorists and Lebanese leftists. Syrian attempts to break through with supplies and re-enforcements have failed so far.

According to Israeli sources, the Syrian army does not possess the combat quality it had before the Yom Kippur War although it has been fully rehabilitated quantitatively. The Syrians, moreover, are seen to be facing a crucial decision: whether to increase the size of their forces in Lebanon–which means thinning out their army along the Israeli and Iraqi borders–or ending their involvement in Lebanon by some sort of agreement with the other Arab countries. A move in the latter direction would harm the image of President Hafez Assad who put Syria’s prestige on the line in Lebanon. Assad, in fact, appears to be losing popularity in Syria as a result of his Lebanese adventure, the sources said.

‘RED LINE’ QUESTIONED

Meanwhile, Israeli circles could not confirm reports that Syrian army units had entered the so-called “Fatahland,” the one-time terrorist stronghold in southeastern Lebanon adjacent to the Israeli border. The circles said today that the Syrians may have skirted the northern perimeter of “Fatahland” in an effort to relieve their forces deployed around Sidon. But claims that they entered the region were dismissed here as “psychological warfare” by the PLO in Beirut, possibly aimed at drawing Israeli intervention in the Lebanese conflict.

Israel’s policy of watchful non-intervention has not changed. There has been talk of a “Red-Line” which, if breached by the Syrians, would cause Israel to consider an appropriate response. Sources here believe the “Red Line” may refer less to a geographical position than to a certain set of political conditions which may or may not materialize.

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