Washington (May. 6)
Former Undersecretary of State Philip Habib left today for Lebanon as President Reagan’s special representative on a mission aimed at defusing the current crisis in that war-torn country. Before departing, Habib, who was called out of retirement by Reagan for the mission, met with Secretary of State Alexander Haig who returned at about midnight last night from a NATO meeting in Rome. Haig called the Lebanese crisis a “delicate, dangerous situation.”
State Department spokesman Dean Fischer said today that Habib’s mission “underscores the importance and urgency that the Administration attaches to defusing the tension in the region.” Habib, who is of Lebanese descent, frequently dealt with the Middle East before his retirement from the State department in 1978.
He left for Europe by commercial plane and will switch there to a U.S. military plane. He is scheduled to arrive in Lebanon tomorrow, although there was some doubt that he would be able to land at Beirut airport which has been closed for some time.
MISSION REQUIRES ‘MAXIMUM FLEXIBILITY’
Habib is tentatively scheduled to go to Syria and Israel in that order after Lebanon. But Fischer cautioned that the purpose of the mission will require “maximum flexibility” and that there is no set schedule. The U.S. military plane will be available to carry Habib around the area, Fischer said.
The State Department spokesman continued to refuse to state any specific aims of the mission except to reiterate that “the U.S. is seeking to defuse the situation.” He explained that he could not be more specific because of the “delicacy” of the situation.
Fischer said that Habib will be in the three countries to listen to the views of their leaders and will not, at this time, be offering any ideas of his own or of the Reagan Administration. The spokesman declined to say whether it is the U.S. goal to have Syria remove the SAM-6 anti-air-craft missiles it has deployed in central Lebanon. Fischer said he knew of no deadline by Israel for the missiles to be removed before the Israelis take military action against them.
The Israeli Ambassador in Washington, Ephraim Evron, delivered a letter to Reagan from Premier Menachem Begin yesterday agreeing to the Habib mission. The letter reportedly warned, however, that Israel could not wait forever for the missiles to be removed.
NO DETAILS ON SOVIET ROLE
Fischer also refused to give any details of the Soviet role in the situation. The U.S. reportedly has been pressing Moscow to use its influence in Damascus to get the Syrians to remove the missiles. The Soviet Ambassador in Washington, Antatoly Dobrynin, met with Undersecretary of State Walter Stoessel at the State Department yesterday. It was their third meeting in a week.
Fischer had no comment when he was asked if the arrival in Damascus today of Georgi Korniyenko, a First Deputy Soviet Foreign Minister, was “in tandem” with Habib’s mission. He said he did not know if Habib would try to meet Korniyenko in Damascus. President Hafez Assad of Syria is scheduled to meet with Habib. It will be his first meeting with a senior American representative in more than two years.
DENIES ‘FIX WAS IN’
Fischer rejected suggestions that a “fix was in” on the crisis in Lebanon and that the Habib mission was only a “cover” to enable all parties to announce an agreement already made. Fischer said the U.S. has hopes of success because Habib is a “seasoned diplomat” and because Washington believes that diplomacy is far more preferable to military action in solving the crisis in Lebanon.
Israel has made it clear that it wants the situation in Lebanon to return to that which existed before the Syrian attack on the Christian city of Zahle. The crisis escalated after Israeli warplanes shot down two Syrian helicopters employed in the attacks on the Christian stronghold. Syria moved its SAM-6 missiles into Lebanon in retaliation. Israeli claims this was a violation of a tacit agreement with Syria five years ago that there would be no Syrian air activity over Lebanon.