WASHINGTON (May. 10)
The Reagan Administration expressed concern today about Syria’s beefing up of troops and equipment in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley as well as the “reintroduction” of Palestine Liberation Organization forces in Syrian-controlled territory. But it stressed that it did not believe Syria was preparing to attack Israeli forces in Lebanon.
At the same time, the Administration charged the Soviet Union with behaving “irresponsibly” in the area by playing “to historical fears and animosities.” But State Department deputy spokesman Alan Romberg, in castigating the Soviets, who have charged the U.S. and Israel with preparing for “another war” in the Middle East, said the U.S. could not explain the Soviet’s motives.
Observers in Washington and in Israel have claimed that the Soviet Union is trying to increase tension in the area as a means of frightening the Lebanese and preventing them from signing the agreement with Israel for the withdrawal of Israeli troops worked out by Secretary of State George Shultz last week. Some have used this argument to explain the sudden departure of the wives and children of Soviet Embassy personnel from Beirut yesterday.
But Romberg said the U.S. did not know why the Soviet families left Beirut. It is the usual practice for the families to return to Moscow in the summer. But the departure yesterday was much earlier than normal.
The Administration is clearly worried about the Syrian buildup since today’s statement was the first it has publicly made about it, although Israeli officials have been saying for weeks that the Syrians are preparing for war. “There have been some movement of Syrian forces and material into Lebanon, ” Romberg said today. But he could not given any figures.
The Syrians were believed to have 40,000 troops in Lebanon before the buildup started. The Israelis, who reportedly have 30,000 troops in Lebanon, are believed to also have moved some troops and material into Lebanon in response to the Syrian buildup.
Romberg said there has “clearly” been a “reintroduction ” of PLO forces into areas of Lebanon under Syrian control. Here, too, he could give no figure. The PLO is now believed to have anywhere from 8,000 to 14,000 terrorists in Lebanon.
This is clearly a violation of the agreement last September for the evacuation of the PLO which for- bids them to return to Lebanon, a State Department official pointed out. When it was suggested that the PLO terrorists might not be carrying arms, an official replied, “They’re not carrying cans of daffodils.”
Romberg said that “we have noted repeatedly that with Israeli and Syrian forces juxtaposed in a tense situation such as exists and has existed since last summer in the Bekaa, there is a persistent threat of a renewal of hostilities. To that end, we have been working with the parties involved to bring about a complete foreign troop withdrawal and lessening of tension in Lebanon. That remains our paramount objective and is the publicly stated objective of Syria. We continue to urge restraint on all the parties involved in Lebanon so that negotiations for withdrawal can proceed.”
Romberg could give no immediate example of the Syrians’ publicly stating they would withdraw from Lebanon. Shultz and other U.S. officials have said in the past that they were assured by the Syrians and other Arabs that Syria and the PLO would leave Lebanon once there is an agreement for Israel to do so.
But Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam said in Saudi Arabia yesterday that Syria rejects the Israeli-Lebanese agreement because it would end the state of war between Israel and Lebanon and “to do that is a responsibility of all Arab states and not just Lebanon.”
U.S. RESPONSE TO TASS STATEMENT
The Administration’s criticism of the Soviet Union was in the form of a written statement read by Romberg which was a response to a statement by Tass yesterday attacking the Israeli-Lebanese agreement. Tass charged that the agreement is “justly viewed by the Arab countries, particularly the neighboring ones, as a direct threat to their security and to peace in the Middle East.” The official Soviet news agency charged that “another war is being prepared while lip-service is being paid to peace.”
The U.S. response today declared: “It ill behooves the Soviet Union, which has 100,000 occupation forces in Afghanistan and is supporting 180,000 Vietnamese troops in Kampuchea, to criticize an agreement between two sovereign states — Lebanon and Israel — providing for the withdrawal of forces, the establishment of mutually agreed security arrangements and improved relations.
“In an area plagued by tension and fighting, when dedicated efforts are underway to create conditions to prevent the recurrence of war, the people of the area had a right to expect a constructive Soviet role. Instead, while others search for peace, for which the peoples of the region yearn and which they so richly deserve, Moscow has irresponsibly chosen to play to historical fears and animosities.”