Panama City — The apparent surrender of some 300 leftist Salvadoran guerrillas, acting on a government promise of amnesty, marks a major turn in the El Salvador civil war. It gives the government a strong psychological boost, while putting a fresh dent into the guerrilla cause.
The surrender comes on the heels of the collapse of the guerrillas' "final offensive." That collapse was tacitly accepted by Communist Party secretary general Schafik Jorge Handal, who had admitted a "temporary tactical retreat." Defections the size of the one announced last week will make it all the harder for guerrillas to regroup.
Guerrilla surrender came as the US announced it was sending a new ambassador to El Salvador to replace Robert E. White, who, despite the high marks Salvadoran officials gave him, was fired by Secretary of State Alexander Haig last week.
His replacement, veteran Latin American diplomat Frederic Chapin, most recently US ambassador to Ethiopia, has his work cut out for him. Mr. White will be a hard act to follow.
Mr. Chapin must first win over the highly politicized Salvador government -- no easy task. Salvadorans are miffed over Mr. White's departure. They have found in him a diplomat with whom they could easily work and whom they could trust explicitly.
Mr. Chapin, however, benefits from that trust in that there is considerable goodwill for the US among top Salvadorean officials, including President Jose Napoleon Duarte.
Moreover, Mr. Chapin replaces Mr. White at a time the El Salvador's government's fortunes are obviously on the increase.
Much depends on the instructions Mr. Chapin sends back to Washington. On this point, there is no certainty.
The State Department, in announcing Mr. White's ouster, indicated that this did not necessarily imply any change in US policy. In recent months the US has aimed at supporting the centrist military-civilian junta, which came to power in October 1979 after 50 years of military rule.
The State Department indicates that a policy review on El Salvador is under way, however.
That review will undoubtedly take into account the mushrooming supply of Cuban and Soviet arms being funneled to the guerrillas. Those reports were given fresh impetus in a detailed New York Times dispatch Feb. 6, which says secret documents reportedly captured from insurgents by the Salvadoran Army indicate that the Soviet Union and Cuba agreed last year to deliver tons of weapons to the guerrillas.
Many of the weapons reportedly came from US stockpiles captured in both Vietnam and Ethiopia. The documents also indicate Schafik Handal made a trip to the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Eastern Europe early last year, where the arms agreements were worked out. The equipment supplied, according to the Times story, is enough to arm more than 10,000 guerrillas. Estimates of Salvador guerrilla strength are put at 5,000 men and women under arms.
This number, of course, may decline if there are more defections from guerrilla ranks. Salvadoran reports says many of the guerrilla weapons captured during the past two months, including those brought by the 300 who surrendered last week have been US-made small arms -- the sort used by US and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam war and also the sort used by Somalia during its war with Ethiopia. This would seem to confirm the Times story.
It is ironic that Ambassador Chapin was ambassador to Ethiopia until last July, when ordered out of the country by its Marxist leadership.