Nicosia, Cyprus — "What I have called for . . . is a presence in the Middle East. . . . You don't just plant a flag in the ground and walk away and leave it. . . . There would be Americans there . . . but I think we need a ground presence also. . . ." -- President Reagan in an interview Feb. 2, 1981.m
The US President's call for a "ground presence" in the Middle East has fed the rumor mill to such an extent that Arabs, Israelis, and now Cypriots are looking under each other's beds for American bases.
But the United States appears to be no closer today to achieving permanent military bases in the Middle East than at any time since it was forced out of Libya's Wheelus airfield in 1970 by Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
Recent reports have charged, however, that secret agreements have been reached with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Gulf states, and even Cyprus on the question of bases. There is no accounting for the accuracy of these reports. What is known, however, is that every Middle Eastern nation is extremely sensitive to charges of collusion with the US and that publicly, at least, the idea of housing a US base is being shunned.
The latest entrant in the base-in-a-closet contest is Cyprus, which is situated strategically just off the Asian and African coasts. Britain maintains three sovereign bases in Cyprus. They consume 99 square miles, cause wide resentment among Greek Cypriots, and spark rumors of dark military doings -- usually involving the US military.
Last year, for instance, Vassos Lyssarides, head of the radical socialist Edek Party, told the Cypriot parliament 15 US F-15 fighters, a number of transport planes, and "hundreds or thousands of American Marines" were stationed at Akritori, Dhekelia, and Episkopi.
This proved false, and US Ambassador Galen Stone recently condemned the Cypriot press for carrying undocumented reports of this sort.
In actual fact, while the base have been declining in importance for Britain during the past decade, they still are neither at the disposal of the US nor are they being discussed as part of a new US military presence in the area.
Before 1974, 8,000 British soldiers, two squadrons of Vulcan bombers, and 20 Lightning fighers were stationed at the bases --which are among the largest facilities the Royal Air Force has in the world. Now there are only 4,800 men, a single flight of Whirlwind helicopters, and a detachment of Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft similar to US AWACS electronic surveillance planes.
The bases were used most recently for ferrying British nationals out of Iran during the 1979 revolution and as a staging point for British cease-fire monitoringforces for Zimbabwe in 1980. An American U-2 reconnaissance plane is stationed at Akritori with its 50-person support staff. The U-2 is part of the Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement for patrolling the Sinai Peninsula and was approved by the governments of Cyprus, Britian, the US, Egypt, and Israel.
Restrictions in the 1960 agreement granting Britain the bases on Cyprus spell out their use only for "British defense purposes." Local speculation is that defense purposes could be construed as protecting NATO and wider Western interests. But British officials say there has been no indication that the British government is making this extension. The Foreign Office in London last month told Cypriot newsmen that the question has not even been raised.
Another popular theory in the Middle East today is that the US has concluded secret treaties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states that allow covert use of their territory for the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF). Western military analysts in the area say that these rumors are without foundation, and political analysts continue to tell the Monitor that these Arab regimes are too shaky to allow internal or external opposition ammunition by bringing the US flag onto their soil.
There also is speculation that the ultramodern Israeli facilities at Eytam and Etzion bases in the Sinai could be turned over to the US in a piggyback operation: The bases to house a multinational (but largely American) Sinai truce force of about 3,000 ment next year when Israel vacates the final third of Sinai; this could be a springboard, so the argument goes, for the RDF on the edge of the Arab world.
This thesis is getting the most play in Israel, where some officials are chagrined at having to give up the vital bases.
Western analysts again point out, however, that Egypt's President Anwar Sadat , while probably not adverse to the US using the bases in an emergency, would not want to be seen winning back Sinai from Israel (which, after all, is the way he has justified Camp David to the rejectionist Arab world) only to turn it over to the US.
They point out, moreover, that a large US contingent in the Sinai truce force is by no means certain yet, since Mr. Sadat is, first, seeking a United Nations' presence and, second, known to want to internationalize Camp David by involving a number of Western nations in the enforcement of it.
What remains, most Western analysts agree, is the original Rapid Deployment Force concept: basing the force in the US or Europe and flying it into the area in the US or Europe and flying it into the area in a crisis. Egypt and Sudan have already said that bases are available in a crisis but that meanwhile they must be maintained and staffed by the host nation. The Reagan administration appears to be going along with this stipulation.
The US is helping to fund a $100 million improvement of the Egyptian harbor and airfield facilities at Ras Banas on the Red Sea, just across from the soon-to-be-completed Saudi oil terminal of Yanbu. Air and port facilities are also being upgraded in Oman, Kenya, Somalia, and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, which is owned by Britain.
But so far, no US "ground presence."
"Look," says a military analyst stationed in the Middle East, "while it might be cheaper to have a permanent US base in the area, we have the capability to run a Rapid Deployment Force operation without one. We can refuel in the air and operate off of naval vessels and use prepositioned stocks.
"I think the rumors we are hearing are caused by very logical speculation that unfortunately is based on nothing but geography," he concluded.