Back Ground Report U.S. Perception of Syria

The Reagan Administration believes that the Syrians want to negotiate a withdrawal of their troops from Lebanon, but on their terms.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has learned that this is the feeling of the Administration despite the lack of progress made during special Mideast representative Donald Rumsfeld’s three-and-a-half hour talk in Damascus last Friday with Syrian President Hafez Assad. Rumsfeld reportedly told the Israelis later that chances for an agreement had “decreased.”

Assad has made it clear that he wants Lebanon to abrogate its May 17 agreement with Israel and for Israeli troops to pull out of Lebanon before he will consider the withdrawal of Syrian troops from that country. At his meeting with Rumsfeld, he reportedly added the condition that the United States withdraw its troops too.

The Administration believes that a major concern of Syria with the May 17 agreement is that it will make Israel the protector of Lebanon. Syria sees itself as the protector of Lebanon.

SYRIA DOES NOT WANT TO ABSORB LEBANON

The U.S. does not believe that Syria wants to absorb Lebanon, something that is believed in Israel. Instead, the Administration noted that when Lebanon and Syria were removed from the control of the French in 1946 the Syrians agreed that they were two countries, but one people. At the same time, the Syrians maintained that they will not let Lebanon be used as a base or corridor for an attack on Syria.

The U.S. has accepted that Syria has long played an influential role in Lebanon. It is believed here that Syria wants stability in Lebanon and that is one of the reasons its army first went into the country in 1976 at the request of the then Lebanese government.

But the Administration is arguing that the security arrangements that are now being negotiated between the various factions in Lebanon will provide the beginning of national reconciliation in Lebanon and thus stability. Syria is believed behind the groups opposing that agreement.

However, Syria also opposes the May 17 agreement as part of what it sees its role as the leader of the Arab world. They want to derail Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and the Camp David process. They believe that the Arabs can get more from Israel united then negotiating separately and do not want to see Lebanon go the way of Egypt.

ATTITUDE TOWARD MAY 17 AGREEMENT

The Administration has both publicly and privately supported the agreement, which after all, came about through the personal mediation of Secretary of State George Shultz. But it has been stressing that it is not a peace treaty and that Lebanon rejected many Israeli demands. Instead, the agreement is a “delicately balanced package of compromises,” is the way it is put.

The Administration has also stressed that it is the only agreement exisitng so far for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon. However, there are hints that the Administration would not oppose changes if that is what Israel and Lebanon want.

In expressing understanding for the Syrian view, the Administration Mideast experts stress that negotiations. with Assad are long, detailed and tough. After all, it is noted, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with the Syrian leader for more than 30 times to reach the 1974 Israel-Syrian disengagement agreement.

At the same time it is being stressed that when the Syrians made an agreement, whether formally as they did with the Israelis in 1974 on the Golan Heights or informally in Lebanon when Syria implicity agreed not to move against the Israeli army, it can be trusted to keep it. The problem is that no one in Washington seems to know how to get Syria to come to an agreement.

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