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Behind the Headlines the Syrian Factor

All sides in the Lebanese conflict are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the talks in Washington tomorrow between President Reagan and the Foreign Ministers of Syria and Saudi Arabia. The hope is that a break through there will enable Philip Habib, Reagan’s special envoy who has been orchestrating the month-long diplomatic contacts in Beirut, to conclude an agreement for the peaceful withdrawal of the Palestine Liberation Organization forces from that city.

Habib told a top Israeli official Friday that Syria’s refusal to take in the beleaguered PLO men has become the primary obstacle blocking a peaceful settlement of the crisis. Hence — this was the burden of Habib’s message to David Kimche, Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry — there was little to do but wait for the outcome of the talks in Washington.

Reagan is expected to press Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddom of Syria to reverse Damascus’ decision that it is only prepared to take in the PLO leadership, not the rank and file fighters to be evacuated from besieged west Beirut. Syria’s decision was reaffirmed yesterday by Khaddam during a stopover in Amsterdam on his way to Washington. He reminded reporters that many PLO leaders originally stayed in Damascus before they went to Beirut, and Syria would allow them to return if they asked.

Reagan is apparently hoping for help from Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia and from his government to provide Syria with financial aid — if that is what the Syrians are after — to accept the PLO forces.

But well-placed analysts are by no means sure that that is what the Syrians are seeking. Some analysts believe that President Hafez Assad’s decision not to take in the PLO men is sincere — and not a bargaining position designed to squeeze money out of the Saudis or other advantages out of the Americans.

THREE POSSIBLE MOTIVATIONS CITED

Analysts — both Israeli and American — cite three possible motivations for Syria’s reluctance to take in the PLO men. The most straightforward interpretation is that Assad is simply chary of the security problem that would be posed by the entry into Syria or some 6,000 armed and frustrated terrorists. (Premier Menachem Begin has said Israel would allow the PLO evacuees to keep their personal weapons with them.) If the Syrian authorities made a move to disarm them — this could be the signal for a violent clash.

Syria’s government has its hands full, from a security standpoint, with the simmering disaffection of the Moslem Brotherhood in the north of the country — a problem that has given rise to massive violence in recent months. Assad and his strongman brother Rifaat, see no reason to increase their internal security difficulties.

If this is the Syrian motivation, no amount of American and/or Saudi blandishments will help to change Assad’s mind, analysts fear.

A second theory is that Assad would view with equanimity, not to say gratification, the physical removal by Israel of the present PLO leadership Assad, therefore, wants to do whatever he can to block a peaceful solution to the Beirut crisis — in the hope that eventually Israel’s patience will wear out and Begin will order the Israel Defense Force to attack.

According to this theory, Assad would eagerly welcome the opportunity to replace PLO leader Yasir Arafat and the present PLO leadership with an alternative leadership that Assad has been grooming and has on hand in Damascus, waiting to be installed. Assad’s relations with Arafat have always been complicated, never close.

In addition, Assad would hope that on Israeli assault on west Beirut would poison relations between Jerusalem and Cairo, and put an end to the “normalization,” or even to the peace treaty itself, between Israel and Egypt. Syria would then be able to claim that the hated Camp David process was at an end and that Syria had become the patron of the Palestinian cause.

A third theory is that Syria’s refusal to take in the PLO men is tactical, and amenable to change in return for advantages to be obtained from the U.S. and from Saudi Arabia.

WHAT ASSAD IS SEEKING

From the Saudis, Assad can want basically one thing: money. There are already reports that Riyadh, seeking a quick and peaceful end to the Beirut crisis, is offering Syria generous financial help to absorb the PLO evacuees should it eventually decide to do so. From the U.S., Assad is seeking — according to this theory — a tacit acquiescence in the continued deployment of Syrian forces in Eastern Lebanon (the Bekaa valley).

Washington’s official policy is that all foreign forces — meaning PLO, Syria and Israel — must leave Lebanon. The U.S. regards this as the essential condition for the establishment of a stable and authoritative government in Beirut.

Syria, however, feels that it has legitimate security interests in eastern Lebanon, since the area borders Syria and is within striking distance of the capital, Damascus, itself.

Ironically, there are key figures in the Israeli policymaking establishment who would welcome a tacit “deal” of this kind between Syria and the U.S. — assuming it would be “balanced” by similar American acquiescence in Israel’s retaining a military presence, directly or by proxy, in southern Lebanon.

It is not yet clear how the new U.S. Secretary of State, George Shultz, would view this approach. Some Israeli and American observers believe this difference of opinion over the need to rid all of Lebanon of all foreign forces could prove a source of tension and dispute between the U.S. and Israel in the future.

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