Background Report U.S. Continues to Focus on Syria As Main Stumbling Block to Peace
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Background Report U.S. Continues to Focus on Syria As Main Stumbling Block to Peace

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The Reagan Administration, now that it has Congressional approval for the U.S. marines to remain in Lebanon for at least another 18 months, is continuing to focus on Syria as the main stumbling block to the removal of all foreign forces from Lebanon and thus the re-establishment of the government of Lebanon’s sovereignty over its country.

But it still remains to be seen that the establishment of a cease-fire last week, assuming it holds, is a sign that Syria is ready to move away from its refusal to negotiate the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon.

A senior Administration official, briefing reporters at the State Department last week, rejected the contention of Prince Bandar Ibn Sultan of Saudi Arabia that he believes the Syrian army would leave Lebanon once Israel pulls out its forces and the process of Lebanese national reconciliation gets underway. Bandar, who has been named the desert kingdom’s new Ambassador to Washington, has been credited with helping bring about the cease-fire.

The U.S. official said Bandar’s statement could be “turned on its head” and the proposition made that if the Syrians agree to withdraw, all foreign forces would then leave Lebanon. He also indicated that the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Palestinian forces now in Lebanon would not be there without Syrian backing.


The official rejected any suggestion that the U.S. would abandon the May 17 Lebanon –Israeli agreement which he called an “important achievement.” There have been consistent reports from Beirut that in seeking to accommodate Syria the U.S. would simply allow the agreement to die.

But the Administration official stressed here strongly last week that in the agreement Israel pledges “to remove itself entirely from Lebanon” once Syria and the PLO agree to withdraw “and that is something to build upon and not to throw out.”

Unmentioned in the support of the agreement was that it came about with the personal intervention of Secretary of State George Shultz, who made his first trip as Secretary to the Mideast last May, and it stands so far as his only major success in the Middle East in the little more than a year he has been in office.


Meanwhile, the Syrians do not seem to be very conciliatory. At the United Nations General Assembly, Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam denounced the United States and the other members of the multinational force in Lebanon — Britain, France and Italy — as reminiscent of “colonialist expeditions.” He said the MNF poses “a grave threat to security and peace in the region” and said the U.S. and the West European forces must leave Lebanon.

Many Western observers believe that the Syrians are aiming for the overthrow of the government of President Amin Gemayel. The Syrians see the cease-fire as an opportunity through the negotiations, expected to start this week, to give it more influence in the Lebanese government. Syria has never made it a secret that it considers Lebanon part of Syria and has never had an Ambassador to Beirut.

But the focus on the new negotiations may once again take the pressure off the main issue, Syrian and PLO withdrawal from Lebanon. This has been a successful ploy used by Syria for the past two years and it is one of the reasons that its President, Hafez Assad, with Soviet backing, has made himself one of the major powers in the Mideast.


It is useful to recall that Philip Habib was called out of retirement in May, 1981, and named a special envoy by President Reagan because of the tense situation that had occurred with Syria’s placement of SAM-5 missiles in the Bekaa valley. The U.S. had assured Israel that it would move to get the missiles removed.

But then in July the PLO began a heavy bombardment of northern Israel with Israelis retaliating and Habib’s activities were aimed at a cease-fire. The cease-fire was established, but for the next year there was a major rearmament of the PLO in Lebanon to which Israel finally responded with the “Peace for Galilee” operation.

After this successfully resulted in the PLO being removed from Lebanon, negotiations concentrated on getting Israel and Syria to leave. But the major effort was made on the Israeli withdrawal, although Israeli officials, correctly as it now turns out, warned that simultaneous negotiations should have been conducted with Syria too.

But instead, U.S. officials relied on assurances that Syria would leave once Israel signed an agreement for withdrawal. That this didn’t happen is believed to be one of the reasons for the replacement as special envoy of Habib by Robert McFarlane and of Nicholas Veliotes as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs by Richard Murphy. Neither Murphy nor Veliotes, who was named Ambassador to Egypt, have been confirmed by the Senate as yet.

After Israel signed the withdrawal agreement with Lebanon, Israel-U.S. relations, which had deteriorated, improved vastly, and Syria was seen as the main intransigent force in the Mideast blocking not only Lebanon’s chance for national reunion but any hope that still remains for Reagan’s Mideast peace initiative.


But as in 1981 when the pressure went on Syria, a sideshow developed, this time between the Druze and other Syrian-backed Moslem forces in the Shouf mountains and the Lebanese army. This started before Israel’s redeployment but intensified as there was an obvious effort to inflict casualties on Americans and thus cause a U.S. withdrawal of the marines.

The Administration, however, has shown its determination to stay in Lebanon and help Lebanon regain its sovereignty, Gemayel is rightly being urged to reach out and bring more of the various groups in Lebanon into the government. At the same time, there is the usual effort in some quarters to shift the pressure from Syria to Israel. There have been suggestions that Syria’s real aim is the return of the Golan Heights and if the U.S. provides this, Syria would then leave Lebanon.

But the Administration officials, who briefed reporters last week, said that in the discussions McFarlane and his deputy, Richard Fairbanks, had with the Syrians, the Americans stated the U.S. position that the future of the Golan should be negotiated. This was the only time the Golan was brought up and the Syrians never raised it as an issue, the official maintained.

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